Democracy at Risk: An Open Letter to the American Public

We are scholars of democracy, autocracy, and the ways that countries transition from one to the other. Having studied and taught about how democracies die, we have followed recent developments in the U.S. with increasing alarm as we observe sign after sign that our own democracy is at risk. What we are seeing suggests not only that our democratic institutions are fragile, but that they may be threatened to the point of collapse. We urge American politicians, elected and unelected government officials, civil society organizations, and the American public to heed this warning and take the necessary steps to prevent this until-recently unthinkable outcome.

Many of us teach a course on democratic erosion at universities across the country. Democratic erosion (or “backsliding”) is the process by which a democracy undergoes a slow but steady slide into authoritarianism. Unlike a coup d’etat — a sudden seizure of power by political outsiders — democratic erosion is characterized by elected leaders gradually undermining democracy from within by exploiting existing laws and institutions to undemocratic ends. Would-be authoritarians in eroding democracies employ their control of government institutions to strategically manipulate elections in their favor. This can include hampering media access; exploiting government resources for the incumbent’s campaign; keeping opposition candidates off the ballot; packing electoral authorities with allies of the incumbent; changing electoral rules to disadvantage the opposition; and harassing opposition candidates and their supporters.

Because democratic erosion is piecemeal and involves the use of ostensibly legal tactics, it can be difficult to know when the line has been crossed from democracy to non-democracy. This is what makes democratic erosion so insidious. In our course, we harness lessons learned from decades of research on countries around the world to better understand the signs that a democracy is at risk.

In our own country, these signs are now impossible to ignore. Both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in tactics that harm our democratic norms and institutions. But it has become increasingly clear that there is no greater threat to American democracy today than Donald Trump and his enablers in the Republican party. We have observed the White House deny access to members of the media that criticize the president and dispatch unidentified federal security forces to suppress protests. We have seen the president use the White House — the symbol of executive power — as a campaign resource by hosting a political party convention there for the first time. We have witnessed the incumbent employ the power of his office to seek foreign help to discredit a rival candidate, while his allies in Congress use their own authority to launch dubious investigations to the same end. We have watched President Trump and his party engage in systematic efforts — such as eliminating voting locations and purging voter rolls — to suppress turnout among minorities and other groups considered likely to vote for opposition candidates. And we have seen him encourage rather than condemn violent extremist groups that want him to remain in power.

These actions heighten the risk that our elections will become increasingly meaningless over time. They will still be held, but it will be much harder for the opposition to win. Imagine a game of basketball in which one side has to score on a 5-foot basket while the other shoots on a 12-foot hoop. You still have two teams competing, but the task is much more difficult for one side than the other. This is what it means to hold elections in places where democratic backsliding has transformed a democracy into what political scientists call a competitive authoritarian or electoral authoritarian regime.

The foundation of even the most minimalist conception of democracy is the peaceful transition of power on the basis of free and fair elections. In that sense, President Trump’s recent refusal to commit to peacefully relinquishing power in the face of electoral defeat is his most fundamental and dangerous violation of democracy yet. Furthermore, his recent rhetoric about the legitimacy of the electoral process — preemptively challenging the validity of any result that does not favor him — is a common tactic of autocrats around the world, and for good reason: it means that, no matter the results of the election, he can claim either that he won, or that his victory was stolen from him. An abundance of research shows that the president’s purported concerns about fraud are unsubstantiated. But his stance dramatically increases the risk of a constitutional crisis that our already imperiled democracy may not be able to withstand.

We cannot overstate how dangerous this is. Democrats and Republicans can disagree on policy — indeed, they must for the sake of healthy democratic competition. But we cannot disagree on what constitutes an affront to democracy itself: repressing the media and peaceful protest, delegitimizing elections, refusing to transfer power peacefully. If every citizen, Democrat or Republican, does not stand up in the face of these transgressions, then our democratic norms and institutions cannot survive the threats they now face.

The threats are clear. So what can be done? There are actions that politicians, elected and unelected government officials, civil society organizations, and the American public can and must take to ensure that this crisis does not result in the death of our democracy.

Every candidate running for office at all levels must state unequivocally that they will accept the results of the election, win or lose, after all votes are counted, barring extraordinary (and extremely rare) circumstances where there is clear evidence of widespread irregularities that affect the outcome of the race. They must commit to accepting the results of their own elections, as well as the result of the presidential election, regardless of who wins.

Current government officials — including elected officials, political appointees, bureaucrats, judges, and government security forces — must commit to upholding their duty to the country and its democratic processes rather than their party or the president, if it comes to a choice between the two. They must commit to accepting the results of the election; refrain from making unfounded claims that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results; refuse to follow illegal orders to use government power or resources to favor the incumbent, interfere with the electoral process, or target the opposition with violent or other forms of reprisals for peacefully expressing their dissent; and work toward ensuring that every eligible voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot and have it counted, whether in person or by mail. State officials must commit to assigning electors to reflect the popular vote in their state, and members of Congress must commit to accepting electors on the same criteria. Judges and justices must apply the law to ensure that all votes are counted, and must not succumb to political pressure to disqualify ballots or overturn election results absent evidence of gross irregularities that affect the outcome of the election.

Perhaps most important, citizens and civil society organizations who recognize the danger must be prepared to organize and engage in disciplined, nonviolent mass action in the streets should the president and his allies manipulate the electoral process or results, or refuse to accept defeat. We simply cannot rely on our increasingly fragile institutions to preserve our democracy. There may come a time when the only thing that can save it is the mobilization of millions of citizens, demonstrating their resolve to not let democracy die without a fight. We’re often told that we should make a plan to vote to increase the likelihood of fulfilling this civic duty; this is good advice, and we should surely organize and vote in order to defeat the authoritarian threat at the polls. But we also suggest making a plan to protest — ideally as part of an organized, nonviolent group — should the need arise to ensure that our votes actually mean something.

The actions we suggest are not comprehensive, but they are essential. As scholars of democracy and autocracy around the world, we have seen this story before. It is time for all of us to act to prevent the loss of our democracy before it’s too late.

Robert Blair
Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs
Brown University
Coordinator, Democratic Erosion Consortium

Steven Rosenzweig
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Boston University

Hannah Baron
Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science
Brown University
Co-Coordinator, Democratic Erosion Consortium

Graeme Blair
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science
University of California, Los Angeles

Evren Celik Wiltse
Associate Professor of Political Science
South Dakota State University

Donghyun Danny Choi
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of Pittsburgh

Emily Clough
Assistant Professor, Political Science and International Affairs
Northeastern University

Don Davison
Professor of Political Science
Rollins College

Laura Gamboa
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of Utah

Jessica Gottlieb
Associate Professor, Bush School of Government & Public Service
Texas A&M University

Guy Grossman
Professor, Department of Political Science
University of Pennsylvania

Anna Grzymala-Busse
Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies
Stanford University

Kiril Kolev
Director, The Hendrix Odyssey Program
Associate Professor, Department of Politics
Hendrix College

Eric Kramon
Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
George Washington University

Katherine Krimmel
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science
Barnard College, Columbia University

Christina M. Kulich-Vamvakas
Instructor, Political Science & Legal Studies
Suffolk University

Nancy Lapp
Professor, Department of Political Science
Sacramento State University

Jennifer McCoy
Professor of Political Science
Georgia State University

Jennifer R. Mercieca
Associate Professor, Department of Communication
Texas A&M University

Pippa Norris
Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Founding Director, Electoral Integrity Project

Feryaz Ocakli
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Skidmore College

J. Salvador Peralta
Professor, Department of Civic Engagement and Public Service
University of West Georgia

Barbara Robertson
Senior Lecturer of Political Science, Department of History and Political Science
Georgia State University’s Perimeter College

Amanda Lea Robinson
Associate Professor of Political Science
Ohio State University

Michael D. Rogers
Professor and MBA Director
Albany State University

Eric Royer
Visiting Professor of Political Science
Saint Louis University

John W. Schiemann
Professor of Government & Law
Farleigh Dickinson University

Cathy Lisa Schneider
Professor, School of International Service
American University

Elizabeth Sheridan Sperber
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of Denver

Jess Steinberg
Associate Professor, Department of International Studies
Indiana University

Susan Stokes
Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science &
Faculty Director, Center on Democracy
University of Chicago
Chair, Democracy and Autocracy Section
American Political Science Association

Jason Douglas Todd
Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy
Duke Kunshan University

Megan Turnbull
Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs
University of Georgia

Beth Iams Wellman
Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science
Williams College

Kristin N. Wylie
Associate Professor of Political Science
James Madison University

Lauren Young
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of California, Davis

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