American Democracy Has Overcome Big Stress Tests Since the 2020 Election. More Challenges Are Ahead
Over the past three years, the world’s oldest democracy has been tested in ways not seen in decades.
A sitting president tried to overturn an election and his supporters stormed the Capitol to stop the winner from taking power. Supporters of that attack launched a campaign against local election offices, chasing out veteran administrators and pushing conservative states to pass new laws making it harder to vote.
At the same time, the past three years proved that American democracy was resilient.
Former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results failed, blocked by the constitutional system’s checks and balances, and he now faces both federal and state charges for those efforts. Then the voters stepped in. In every presidential battleground state, they rejected all candidates who supported Trump’s stolen election lies and were running for statewide offices that had some oversight of elections.
The election infrastructure in the country performed well, with only scattered disruptions during the 2022 midterms. New voting laws, many of which are technical and incremental, had little discernable impact on actual voting.
“Voters have stepped up to defend our democracy over the past few years,” said Joanna Lydgate, chief executive officer of States United, which tracks those who refuse to believe in the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. “State and local officials have done a tremendous job in protecting our free and fair elections.”
So why all the worry? As Lydgate and anyone else who works in the pro-democracy field quickly notes, the big test — what Lydgate calls “the Super Bowl” — awaits in 2024.
Trump is running for the White House again and has been dominating the Republican primary as the first votes approach. He has called for pardoning those prosecuted for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, continues to insist falsely that the 2020 election was “stolen” and says he will use the federal government to seek revenge on his political enemies.
Trump has used increasingly authoritarian rhetoric as he campaigns for the GOP nomination. If he wins, allies have been planning to seed the government with loyalists so the bureaucracy doesn’t hinder Trump’s more controversial plans the way it did during his first term.
It’s gotten to the point that Trump was recently asked by conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt whether he planned to be a dictator: “Not at all,” Trump responded. “No, I’m gonna rule as somebody that’s very popular with the people.”
The 2024 election could cause all sorts of conflict, including scenarios that have notably not materialized despite widespread concern since 2020: violence at the polls, overly aggressive partisan poll watchers or breakdowns in the ballot count.