In support of a broad-based pro-democracy movement

Published January 6, 2022

By Thomas Mills

Today is the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol. Despite those who would downplay the assault, it was an attempt to overturn our government, regardless of how amateurish. The people who breached the Capitol and the people who encouraged it wanted to stop the transfer of power. History tells us they will very likely try again. 

Among patriots, the attack is taken very seriously. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote a piece in the New York Times yesterday titled “I fear for our democracy.” He offers five points that range from identifying shared values to pursuing legislation to protect the integrity of elections to fighting disinformation. Carter is no alarmist and his fear is both real and well-founded. 

Times columnist David Leonhardt also believes the threat to our democracy is real.He believes we face an organized anti-democratic movement and cites political scientists who study authoritarianism. One of them, Steven Levitsky, told Leonhardt, “We are in a terrible situation in which one of two major parties is no longer committed to playing by democratic rules.” Another, Daniel Ziblatt, says, “No other established Western democracy faces such a threat today, not this acutely anyway.”

 Leonhardt offers a solution that involves a big tent effort that sets aside ideological differences and supports candidates united by a commitment to democracy. “If the fate of American democracy becomes a partisan contest between Democrats and Republicans, democracy could lose,” he writes. “Only a cross-ideological coalition is likely to prove strong enough to prevent this outcome.” Leonhardt encourages a coalition of Democrats and pro-democracy Republicans like the Cheney and Bush families, Mitt Romney, as well as religious and other conservative leaders.

I think Leonhardt is probably right in his solution, but I’m dubious that it will work. Too many powerful Republicans are either in denial or delusional. Despite the movement of GOP-controlled legislatures changing election laws and anti-democratic Republicans trying to control the administration of  elections at the state and local levels, Mitch McConnell downplays any threat, saying, “Why would any legislature in America want to overturn the counting of votes? … The notion that some state legislature would be crazy enough to say to their own voters—’We’re not gonna honor the outcome of an election’—is ridiculous.” 

 I ask, “Why wouldn’t they?” In states where gerrymandered districts protect Republican majorities against the consequences of election losses and where the GOP base is not willing to accept defeat, what keeps Republican elected officials from overturning the will of the people?

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson highlighted Republican denial of the threat in a piece he wrote a few weeks ago. Erickson believes that the GOP establishment is too entrenched to be overthrown by the populist wing of the party and that traditional Republicans will protect the institutions of our democracy. I think he’s naïve. I think the GOP establishment has already lost. 

Republicans are not the only obstacle to a broad coalition that could save our political system. If the populist right is the threat to our democracy, the socialist left is the threat to the solution to protect it. I doubt the left-flank of the Democratic Party would support a fusion ticket. They have historically over-estimated their strength and the popularity of their agenda. They’ve long believed that if Democrats would just promise a much stronger social safety net and more progressive stands on race and gender, they would garner broad support. The failure of Bernie Sanders in two consecutive primaries proves their folly, but they have yet to accept the reality that lives outside of their bubble.   

Regardless, I still have hopes for some sort of broad coalition to fight the anti-democratic hoard. I believe the most important people writing about the threat come from the center right. If a coalition is formed, it will emanate from the intellectual foundation of centrist thinkers at places like The Bulwark and The Dispatch. They are in a fight for the soul of the conservative movement and we need to all hope that they can defeat the anti-democratic forces that have replaced them in the GOP. 

As for me, I’m willing to set aside my desire for a broader safety net, a fairer tax code, stronger climate protections, and a generally more progressive legislative agenda in exchange for a coalition of pro-democracy patriots willing to defend our country against authoritarian reactionaries. I’ll push back against my friends and allies on the left who want to make issues the centerpiece of the next election because I believe we can only achieve those goals if we have a functioning democracy in place to win them. The existential threat to our country is real and a broad-based coalition focused on a liberal democracy is the best hope for saving it.