American democracy faces ongoing challenges that citizens of good will must understand and be prepared to address. Despite persisting through an attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, and high-stakes 2022 elections, the future of honest elections and effective government responsive to the majority remains at grave risk. In key swing states and districts, authoritarian-minded candidates hostile to fair elections have been losing election bids—that is the good news. But in many places, extremists not only won office but garnered record vote totals. Enemies of democracy, win or lose, continue their efforts to restrict voter access, subvert honest election administration and tabulations, and use institutional levers to undo broadly supported policies. Historically, democratic forces have always faced obstacles, even prolonged periods of devastating setback as after the end of Reconstruction. When anti-democratic forces mobilize, nothing can be taken for granted. Threats must be diagnosed and countered through steady efforts by democracy supporters of many stripes, working together before cataclysm strikes.
One of the greatest dangers to American democracy today is deepening polarization, which pits “us” versus “them” around clashing visions of the nation’s past and future. Opportunistic politicians, media outlets, and big money players are all too often deliberately stoking racial and other sociocultural divisions. Their divisive efforts often resonate in a broader electorate where partisans are sorted into separate racial, ethnic, and class blocs grounded in geographically distanced social worlds. Many Americans understandably feel uneasy given ongoing economic shifts and frayed civil society ties further weakened during the recent global pandemic. The presidential candidate who lost convincingly in 2020 continues to deny his defeat and is now running for the White House again. Unabashedly propaganda-oriented media outlets spread blatant lies about public policies and election processes, and audiences get news—or outright disinformation—from opposing sources. Tens of millions of Americans fear other groups they have been told are threats and remain perpetually angry at what is constantly presented to them as electoral fraud and illegitimate governance.
Most worrisome of all, fractions of disappointed citizens and unscrupulous elites are willing to use violence or threats of violence against public officials and election workers. Many others, though they do not condone violence, nevertheless remain silent or even support barely legal measures to frustrate ballot access and nonpartisan vote counting. Such restrictions are accumulating in dozens of states that have outsized weight in the Senate and Electoral College. The Republican National Committee and GOP leaders in the House of Representatives seem willing to excuse even violent attacks on constitutional processes. Elites in many spheres are all too willing to stoke and cater to authoritarian sentiments if they think they can gain profits or power. U.S. political parties have little sway over who runs for crucial public offices. This allows some very extreme candidates, even those opposed to democracy itself, to gain office and pursue broadly unpopular policies.
For all these reasons, we believe Americans who yearn to sustain and enhance effective democratic government must be alert to three possible threat scenarios and ways to address them proactively, as well as if the situation deteriorates. The scenarios range from a continuation of current incremental erosions to outright authoritarian takeovers. The efforts we urge are about dealing with democratic erosion persistently, not waiting until crises strike. Citizens and groups need to think ahead and be prepared to advance hopeful trends while at the same time considering how to handle current and emerging challenges. No one can be sure how severe threats to U.S. democracy may prove to be in coming years, so we offer these alternative scenarios to encourage further discussion not just about what will happen, but about how to push civic democracy in positive directions.
The steps we suggest here are very much first thoughts—and our purpose is to invite much broader conversations about what is being done, or could be done, to cope with each threat scenario.
Before we go further, it is worth noting who we are and why we are writing. As a group of scholars who study and comment on trends in U.S. politics, the authors of this statement do not all see the same possibilities and have not tried to arrive at a settled consensus about which threats or remedies are primary. We do, however, share some key assumptions. Most Americans, we believe, want democratically responsive government to thrive by including all groups fairly and addressing pressing national and international challenges. This desire cuts across simple partisan lines and issue divides. Even so, majority sentiments are not certain to prevail. Complacency, withdrawal from citizen participation, or outright fear could prevent majorities from holding sway, especially since U.S. institutions give determined minorities many levers for imposing their will or blocking majority preferences.
Threats to democracy come from both ends of the ideological spectrum, but the most serious ones right now are from the authoritarian right. Americans who lean to the right are currently sharply divided on the worth of basic democratic norms and procedures. Although those who have abandoned democracy and the rule of law must be unswervingly opposed and electorally defeated, we believe that traditional conservatives who abhor authoritarianism can and should be part of the broad, determined democracy-defending movements we envisage.
At the same time, some of us believe that politics as it has been conducted since the 1960s by liberals and moderates is not likely to be sufficient to protect core values in the future. Current social divisions map in new ways onto districts and levels of government built into U.S. federalism—maximizing splits among racial and class groups, and between metropolitan and non-metropolitan populations, in a system that offers many levers to block actions majorities might want. Organized politically active groups have been fundamentally transformed over the past 75 years and now give disproportionate clout to big donors and professional advocates. For Americans who want to further government responsiveness to the needs and values of the majority, institutional blockages and opportunities have shifted from what they were in the middle of the twentieth century. Looking just to the President or the national government, hoping to affect outcomes via pressures from national advocacy organizations, and relying on lawyers and the federal courts to save and enhance American democracy—none of these traditional modes of liberal action will work under any of the scenarios outlined below. Democratically minded forces must build ties across social groups and geographical areas, revitalize broad-based citizen participation, and run for office and deploy responsive public power at every level, from school boards and local governments through state legislatures to Congress.
Some public-spirited academics and advocates believe that devising and pushing for system-wide structural reforms are the best ways to address current threats to U.S. democracy. They advocate debating and publicizing bold institutional redesigns such as abolition of the Electoral College, enlarging the Supreme Court, banning secretive political donations, restructuring the Senate, and enlarging the House of Representatives. We acknowledge the desirability of changing particularly destructive institutional practices (such as the most cumbersome Senate customs used to obstruct or delay majority action), and we agree that some major structural reforms are worth thinking through—especially if issues of feasibility and possible unintended consequences are part of the discussion. But we believe the most pressing need is to devise concrete, achievable strategies to forestall or reverse threats by maximizing citizen engagement and pushing step-by-step reforms of existing electoral, governing, and policymaking procedures. America’s democracy, characterized by federalism and separated levers of power, has always been dynamic and subject to periodic rebalancing short of civil war or constitutional change. To realize already existing democratic possibilities and meet emerging threats, scholars and civic activists urgently need to think through down-to-earth, not pie-in-the-sky, grand strategies.
Here are the possible threats and lines of response we lay out for further discussion.
Scenario One: Attacks on Voting and the Loss of Faith in Elected Government
Our first scenario points to many positive developments in recent times, yet also suggests the need to overcome ongoing erosions of voter access and public faith in electoral processes in many parts of the country.
Although commentators often claim that American government is in disarray, fearful perceptions sometimes outrun reality. The federal government has for several years functioned reasonably well in difficult circumstances. Congress has enacted numerous large and important bills, including measures to address the economic and health aspects of the pandemic and provide U.S. help to Ukraine in the first explosive wartime crisis in decades. Sometimes with important bipartisan support, Congress has also devised new legislation to invest in economic infrastructure, advances in health care, and action to address climate change.
From 2018 through 2022, American citizens have also upped their civic activism, and voters have turned out in record numbers. In critical electoral arenas, majorities have supported candidates who refuse to go along with outright electoral subversion, and many states have adopted new rules and technologies to ensure expanded voter access and valid procedures for counting all honestly cast votes.
Despite these positive trends, Congress and the courts have not codified national standards for full and fair voter access, and quite a few state legislatures have enacted new limits tolerated by the courts. Restrictive laws continue apace in many Republican-dominated states, and they may very well get worse going into 2024 and for many cycles beyond. Politicized economic and cultural clashes could frustrate any efforts to build majority state- and district-spanning coalitions to both defend honest elections and push public officials to deal with broadly shared needs.
What is to be done to build on the best and avert growing erosions and inter-state divergences in U.S. democracy?
Not just supporters of specific liberal or progressive policies, but all citizens who care about democracy itself need to find ways to build broad coalitions. These should include people, communities, and organizations across states and the country as a whole, and they should allow space for different outlooks about pressing community problems and solutions. Many analysts point to the nationalization of U.S. politics, driven by forces ranging from big donors to national media conglomerates that have displaced regional and local news sources. Despite the clout of such forces, political parties and associated civic associations can make deliberate efforts to revive positive features of American federated politics—by encouraging more good candidates to run for local and especially state offices, and by building flexible alliances across places that allow citizens to work together while respecting genuine differences of outlooks and values between, say, metropolitan progressives and middle-of-the-road groups in towns, small cities, and suburbs. In recent years, proponents of gun safety and environmental improvements have often learned to pursue broadly shared goals in ways adapted to different local and regional circumstances. That mindset needs to deepen. Concerted efforts must be made to shift agenda- setting dominance away from extremist voices who want to turn symbolic cultural issues into the overwhelming focus of artificially nationalized controversies. Too often this now happens about issues, including school practices, that cannot be resolved in simplified nationwide ways and where progress can only be made through local cooperative initiatives.
For U.S. elections, national basic standards need to be established to secure the rights of all citizens to vote and have their votes accurately counted in a nonpartisan way. Beyond that, election administrations must be tailored to highly varied local circumstances. Each community needs to encourage its own version of the mundane month-by-month and year-by-year work needed to recruit new local officials and volunteers, including younger people, to run elections on a trans-partisan, honest basis and exclude or marginalize extremists. Instead of firing off tweets or emails to Congress and the White House, pro-democracy Americans should be monitoring their states’ election laws and procedures and improving citizen-supported local election administration.
Simply put, the gear box of American democracy—the nonpartisan conduct and administration of elections—needs a tune-up. As they are for jury duty, cross-sections of citizens could be recruited to serve as election workers, to protect a given cycle and spread awareness of how the system functions. The paid local and state election workforce also needs attention. The ranks of election administrators are undergoing a sharp decline due to the aging of the workforce and to intimidation and violent threats by election deniers. One in five 2020 election officials are expected to retire by the 2024 elections; in some states, these sharp departures have already occurred. There is an urgent need not just for university-level efforts but also high-school and community-college-based programs to train election volunteers and seed a new generation of impartial election administrators.
Scenario Two: Stacking the Deck for One-Party Control
Building on the first, our second scenario assumes that the many deteriorations in democracy that were underway long before Donald Trump came along will accelerate in the future. State legislatures will continue to reshape electoral rules, sometimes enhancing democratic inclusion and sometimes entrenching minority rule. Ever-deepening government gridlock may well result from entrenched congressional polarization and judicial reversals of efforts by presidents to address pressing challenges such as pandemics, immigration crises, and environmental deterioration. New national and international threats are bound to happen, unpredictably, so political efforts to undermine government capacities and responsiveness can undermine public faith in American democracy by producing inaction as well as unfortunate actions.
Quasi-legal limits on free elections are likely to accelerate as long as the current-day GOP sees it as in its interest to use all available legislative, judicial, and obstructive measures to try to sustain minority governance pushing unpopular policies. Outright insurrection and election-denying victories may not occur, but many openings remain for cutbacks in voter access and extremist victories via the GOP nominations process. False claims about election fraud, still promoted by politicians and media figures, diminish the legitimacy of democratic institutions and make it much easier for all Republicans in power—including those who do not outright deny election losses—to place unjustified limits on voter access and empower partisans to distort procedures and misreport outcomes.
Intra-GOP factionalism and weaknesses are also a growing threat to citizen faith in American democracy, because parties play an important role in raising issues and debating different solutions. Most democracies rely on their political parties to filter out extremist, racist, and/or election-denying candidates, but in the United States such supposed outliers are now routinely selected by relatively small groups of extremists in primary elections—above all, right now, in GOP-dominated places where the primary is the only competitive contest candidates face.
Effective governance responsive to majority preferences is also threatened by forces that are taking advantage of divisions and inequalities of representation built into U.S. federalism in a period of growing metro versus non-metro divides. Democrats cater to metropolitan areas where most voters reside; but the Republican dominance of small towns and rural places translates into outsized political influence—extra abilities to prevail in close elections, Senate majorities grounded in small-population states, and capacities to block many policies most Americans want. This is not an entirely new situation in a system that has always had many institutionally designed veto points, but current U.S. social and generational trends mapped into federal elections make minority obstruction a very serious threat.
Partisan stalemates, empowered by the GOP’s outsized power or extremism, may undermine confidence in democratic institutions. Especially when sudden or percolating crises go unaddressed, meager confidence in the federal government invites angry populism that plays on suspicions of insider deals and ignored grievances and may prompt Americans to give up on public life and solutions. This is a ripe environment for politicians presenting themselves as strong leaders to seize power and override basic constitutional protections.
What might be done in the face of serious converging threats unfolding along with ongoing challenges to fair elections?
In addition to the steps we earlier recommended to give U.S. election machinery a tune-up, supporters of American democracy should pursue several avenues to slow the slide away from representative democracy and the rule of law.
- State elections for legislatures, judicial posts (where elected), local election administration, and school boards are vital for reviving the practice of democracy. They create openings for new people to get into politics and ladders toward competitions for higher offices—including in the U.S. House and Senate. Republicans and conservatives have long made these entry-point elections a priority; it is time for the Democratic Party and its allies as well as independent associations to do the same, by developing a face-to- face, on-the-ground presence across communities in every state so relevant issues can be highlighted and people recruited to run for office at all levels.
- Incorporating rural and exurban people into public policymaking more effectively is also necessary. Although a considerable amount of federal aid goes to such areas today, non- metropolitan dwellers often feel that policies are designed and administered without taking their needs into account.
- Changes in party procedures are just as important as improvement in politics and policy. Although the United States may not be able to rule out extremist parties as many other democracies do, it is time to find constitutionally appropriate ways to discourage extremists, dishonest contenders, and reckless amateurs from capturing major party nominations. The current primary election system tends to be easily dominated by small groups of donors or activists and often rewards the most strident voices. We need to find and experiment with new party rules, ranging from fresh voting procedures to multi-stage vetting and perhaps built-in roles for experienced leaders. Citizens, state legislatures, and responsible party leaders should look for new, effective ways to boost coalition-building candidates committed to governing in the public interest.
Scenario Three: A Downward Spiral Into Minority Authoritarianism
The January 6 insurrection was not just a violent moment that was contained and is now being punished through hundreds of legal convictions of rank-and-file insurrectionists. It grew out of and signals a much larger, ongoing radical project: to install minority rule led by an authoritarian faction of the GOP. Supporters are not deterred as yet. As now leading GOP House member Marjorie Taylor Greene put it, “We would have won” if she had run the revolt. They could still win if she and her colleagues in office manage to mitigate punishments and encourage a savvier, less overtly violent rerun.
Because of the way U.S. two-party, single-district, winner-take-all politics works, it is very possible that in 2024 or some time thereafter radically authoritarian-minded Republicans will gain control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, expanding beyond the control they already hold over many courts and state legislatures. This is our third scenario. In such circumstances, election victories might be stolen from others and threats of violence or suppression that now happen informally might become institutionalized. That government would also be one committed to rolling back many additional social and civil rights beyond the abortion rights and election guarantees that have already been snuffed out by the Supreme Court working in tandem with right-wing civic activists and many GOP-dominated state governments. Many things most Americans do not want, even hate, could happen, but without truly fair electoral mechanisms to toss out “elected” perpetrators.
Should this gravest of possible scenarios ever come to pass suddenly—for example after one obviously reversed election outcome or amid coercive measures instituted by pretext in some national emergency—then the nation would be visibly on the verge of falling apart amid growing chaos and all-around anger and fear. Perhaps more likely would be a cumulating series of facially legal but practically minority-authoritarian measures instituted nationally or in many states over a period of years or decades, including limits on free speech and public protests as well as corruption of electoral access and administration. Such changes are already spreading by imitation from state to state, and we must all keep in mind that “national” transformations in the United States have often happened by cross-state diffusion instead of national direction.
Democratic deteriorations that happen that way today can proceed mostly under the radar in the current highly centralized U.S. news media system.
What responses make sense if sudden or cumulative moves toward authoritarianism happen—in multiple states or at the national level?
If minority authoritarian measures or even full governmental moves in that direction occur, all of the tactics we outlined above for scenarios one and two still apply. Defenders of democracy would likely continue to hold sway in some states and areas, including many with the youngest, most socially diverse electorates and vibrant economies. However, if authoritarian power grabs happened suddenly or over months, many Americans would want to find effective ways to push back. Lawsuits and huge metropolitan street demonstrations are the sorts of tactics deployed in the past, but these would likely not suffice.
Given the present makeup of the Supreme Court and many state high courts, judicial challenges to authoritarian policies or actions could get bogged down or meander to ultimate defeat. Big street protests could well enable coercive police, even military, crackdowns. Either way, many middle-of-the-road democracy supporters might eventually become discouraged and drop out, pulling back into private lives and solutions. Minority authoritarianism could lock in for a long time, just as the rollbacks of African-American civil rights and voting rights that unfolded for years after the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction culminated in a new undemocratic status quo that persisted for decades.
To avoid defeat or discouragement, democracy supporters in America need to be prepared in advance to respond to sudden or cumulative lurches toward minority authoritarianism in preventive and sustained ways. Here are a few lines of action that might work, and concerned groups should look for additional ideas.
- Acquiescent elites need to be activated to push back against peers who advocate authoritarian measures. Even as some leaders, often dismissed at first as crackpots, seek power and profit by whipping up popular fears to further authoritarian measures, too many of their supposedly “moderate” peers—in legislatures, professions, the media, the Republican Party—do nothing publicly to stop the extremists. What steps can supporters of American democracy take to cut off such elite acquiescence? Appeals to “conscience” and “courage” are clearly not enough; rather, real costs need to be imposed not only on the outright extremist rule-breakers, but also on others who provide crucial quiet support or sit by silently in situations where they have a positive duty to push back. Disbarment proceedings for lawyers and other complaints through professional regulatory bodies can be pursued, as can civil lawsuits aiming to impose heavy monetary penalties for illegal attacks on private businesses or on people’s rights, safety, and livelihoods. Sometimes monetary losses speak louder to miscreants than mere attempts at public shaming.
On the more proactive and positive side, all Americans who care about the health of democracy should prod—and help—universities, business and professional associations, and various other institutions to actively educate their participants about the strong stake they have in accountable democracy and the impartial rule of law. History makes the lessons clear enough: Authoritarians may start by targeting vulnerable minorities or partisan opponents, but once they consolidate unchallengeable state power and subvert civil institutions, they foster economic corruption and patronage—rewarding cronies and excluding or punishing other business elites and professionals. Even if democracy means that businesses and privileged professionals have to put up with taxes, regulations, and moments of accountability they do not like, they need to learn from vividly conveyed examples why they are likely to be hurt much more if authoritarian leaders take charge. These days, there are enough examples of corruption, cronyism, and misuse of legal tools to get the lesson across to business and professional leaders who can still help cut short the most worrisome trends.
- In the broader democratic realm, coalition-building for vigilance and persistent pushback is the only way to prevent or respond to authoritarian forces, who must be defeated at the ballot box and in every sphere of social influence. To lay stronger groundwork, supporters of American civic democracy need to include party-building, not just voluntary group activities, in their menu of reform efforts. State and local parties full of citizens alert to democratic threats and possibilities have a vital role to play as year-round sites for civic cooperation. Of course, the primary goal of parties is to field and work for good candidates at all levels—and as we have already discussed, their capacities to weed out extremists need to be bolstered. But parties need to do more than come alive at election time; as organizations and venues, they must also become places where pro- democratic constituencies can build coalitions, pool information, and flexibly respond to emerging authoritarian bills or regulatory abuses (such as those happening all the time these days in the state of Florida). Both party players and affiliated civic groups also need to be geared up for person-to-person canvassing to keep people informed and attentive between elections as well as during them. To make that possible, organizing must become part of everyday life (not restricted to election time) and tied to naturally existing institutional settings—schools, libraries, and civic gatherings. Organizing also has to mix fun with serious work.
A hallmark of community-wide engagement is its reliance on neighbor-to-neighbor volunteer outreach, not just professional legal cases or pressures on elected officials. Neighbor-to-neighbor networks can also tilt businesses (whether local, national, or multinational) to stay in the pro-democracy column when hard anti-democratic moves occur. Appeals to American traditions and values associated with the Constitution and national symbols like the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance are also effective means for peeling away traditionally conservative groups like the state Chambers of Commerce, faith communities, and veteran groups from anti-democratic forces.
- Finally, longer-term responses to authoritarian gains might involve rethinking and reworking federal fiscal arrangements to keep more of the tax resources disproportionately generated by “blue” regions in the hands of democracy-respecting public officials and civic associations. Since the New Deal and the 1960s, liberals have become accustomed to trying to shift resources and leverage toward the federal government. Defending truly national accomplishments like Social Security and Medicare may be possible, but Obamacare expansions of state-administered Medicaid programs have already failed to reach the final dozen ultra-conservative states, and right- wing forces, increasingly backed by Supreme Court rulings, are looking to limit federal redistribution and use whatever taxes the federal government controls for punitive cultural policing and payoffs to cronies.
The upshot is that independents and liberals may need to turn to states and interstate alliances to take public action on issues like economic fairness and environmental challenges. And in the process, they may need to raise or retain tax revenues to support state governments and alliances, without channeling monies through congressional appropriations or federal agencies hobbled by edicts of the federal courts. Indeed, supporters of American civic vitality might even need to call for limits on federal taxes and subsidies, to keep resources out of the hands of corrupt patronage forces. What good does it do to send tax money from liberal states through the federal government supposedly to help the poor of Mississippi if it ends up in the hands of the governor’s rich cronies?
Securing a Democratic Future
In conclusion, let us stress that we are not wedded to any specific tactics outlined here. Further fresh thinking is needed, and each set of suggestions needs deeper analysis and debate. Our point is simply that, in the face of ongoing mild, moderate, and even severe threats to democracy and the rule of law, citizens and groups need to think ahead, consider possible responses, continue acting now on many promising fronts, and envisage what should be done, or not be done, if more serious threats unfold.
We do feel certain of the need for much more outreach and infrastructure building beyond Washington, D.C. Increased engagement with communities across the country is a good thing in its own right because it can spread awareness about the realities of varied places and help generate broader participation and varied policy responses adapted for different states and districts. Over time, such widely distributed civic action could translate into electoral gains for pro-democratic and moderate forces, particularly in non-metropolitan areas, flipping the script on the current right-leaning biases built into the Senate and the Electoral College.
Democracy has always required constant nurturance and victories in recurrent political battles. The history of America has been written by pitched struggles to secure and preserve the rights to vote, to free assembly, to marry loved ones without regard to racial or gender identity, and to hold lawless government security services to account. Now Americans find themselves in yet another period in which earlier gains are imperiled—and even devastating setbacks are possible. Ours is not a time for democracy’s allies to despair or become complacent. Rather, it is a time for all friends of American democracy to undertake renewed efforts and smart strategizing. We must prepare to meet the full range of authoritarian challenges and to seize the best civic opportunities available now or waiting just over the horizon.
The What’s Next Project includes (with institutional affiliations for identification purposes only):
Amy Fried, John M. Nickerson Professor of Political Science, University of Maine;
Jacob S. Hacker, Professor of Political Science, Yale University;
Lawrence R. Jacobs, McKnight Presidential Chair, Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies, University of Minnesota;
Steven Levitsky, Professor of Government, Harvard University;
Suzanne Mettler, John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, Cornell University;
Jamila Michener, Associate Professor of Government and Public Policy, Cornell University;
Rob Mickey, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan;
Manuel Pastor, Equity Research Institute, University of Southern California;
Paul Pierson, John Gross Endowed Chair, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley;
Lara Putnam, Professor of History, University of Pittsburgh;
Eric Schickler, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley;
Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, Harvard University;
Kathleen Thelen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
Chloe Thurston, Associate Professor of Political Science and Institute for Policy Research Faculty Fellow, Northwestern University;
Mary Waters, John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology, Harvard University;
Vanessa Williamson, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, Brookings Institution;
Julian Zelizer, Princeton University;
and Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard University.