Ted Cruz
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It’s not clear how much longer American democracy can survive in these conditions:

Nearly a quarter of Senate Republicans are officially preparing to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win on Jan. 6, a stunning development that demonstrates just how far some in the GOP will go to align themselves with President Donald Trump’s flailing claims that the election was stolen from him.

Eleven more Republican senators announced Saturday they will challenge Biden’s election victory next week when Congress gathers to certify the Electoral College vote. The movement is led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who circulated the idea among Senate Republicans of voting against certification of the election unless there’s an election audit.

It bears reminding here that Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election are baseless. Almost every single court, including those controlled by Trump’s own appointees, has thrown his lawsuits out on both merit and procedure. The lawyers making these grandiose accusations have been exposed as wildly incompetent crackpots. There is nothing at all to suggest that Biden’s electoral college win was illegitimate, beyond the fact that Republicans simply don’t like the result. And that doesn’t even get into the moral politics of trying to overturn the winner of a popular vote margin exceeding 7 million Americans.

The GOP senators carrying Trump’s water here are using as justification the fact that millions of Americans falsely believe there was election fraud. But the GOP base believes it precisely because the President and his allies in conservative infotainment media have been promoting the lies.

It’s a perfect self-referential paradox of propaganda. Lie to millions of Americans in order to justify destroying democracy, then use the fact that millions of Americans believed your lies as the reason to try to do so, regardless of the validity of the underlying claims.

Technically, the Senators supporting this effort are claiming they are not trying to overturn the election. They say they only want a “10-day audit” of the election results. The problem, of course, is that the results have been checked and double-checked repeatedly. An “audit” (which would not rise even to the level of a full recount) would accomplish nothing that has not already been done. The voting machines have been double- and triple-checked. Mail ballot envelope signatures have been checked and double-checked–and in any case, there is no longer any way to match envelopes to ballots. The Senators involved do know all of this. They just don’t care.

The immediate goal, of course, is to placate Trump and Trump’s base. Some of the Senators supporting this move are presidential hopefuls for 2024. The secondary goal is to blow enough smoke over the issue to justify new voter suppression schemes in future elections, in order to resolve the “doubts about our elections” that they themselves cynically promulgated.

But even more consequentially, it’s the unscrewing of another bolt from American democracy. By taking this step, they’ve set another precedent and crossed another line that had once seemed inviolable. There can be little doubt that the next time the GOP controls the Senate and the House in a presidential election year, they will have little reservation about simply refusing to accept electoral results they don’t like–thereby either handing the presidency to their preferred candidate directly, or doing so indirectly by pushing the decision to gerrymandered statehouses and congressional delegations.

There is no way to sustain a democracy in this sort environment. As the Republican Party increasingly relies on a shrinking base of older rural and exurban white evangelicals and that base increasingly maintains apartheid-style overrepresentation and undue power across all levels of government, the conservative incentives toward overthrow of democracy become stronger and stronger. Notably, there is no need to actually eliminate democracy a la the Caesars or Star Wars‘ Emperor Palpatine. All that is necessary would be to supplement the apartheid structural advantages they already enjoy in the Senate and the Electoral College, with presidential elections decided by increasingly gerrymandered statehouses and House delegations–and then increasingly stack the courts with Federalist Society judges who will torture legal interpretation to justify freezing apartheid rule in place.

It would hardly matter at that point whether the Democratic Party adjusted to become electorally competitive in that environment, since rural white evangelical voters would rule the roost regardless of their actual numbers. By 2040, 70% of the Senate will represent just 1/3 of Americans–mostly the most revanchist conservative Americans most resistant to needed policy change and infused with conspiracy theory belief systems. All of American politics would become an exercise in sucking up to them even more than it already is.

Trump’s exile to Mar-A-Lago will not fix this overnight, or at all. If Democrats and leftists don’t work together toward serious systemic reforms, it’s unlikely that American democracy will survive intact.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.