Why a U-M professor signed a 'Statement of Concern' warning about the death of U.S. democracy

click to enlarge Smoke rises after police used pepper spray against Pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. - lev radin / Shutterstock.com
lev radin / Shutterstock.com
Smoke rises after police used pepper spray against Pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021.

To some, the events of Jan. 6 — when thousands of Pro-Trump, “stop the steal” protestors stormed the United States Capitol building as Congress convened to certify the results of the 2020 elections — might have felt like a kind of last hoorah of Trumpism; the bursting of an illiberal bubble that began inflating during Trump’s meteoric rise in the 2016 election, his eventual victory, and subsequent four-year term in office.

Many questions as to what exactly transpired on Jan. 6, remain unanswered. It has since come out that there was a fair share of participants representing Michigan that day, some of whom came away with political aspirations of their own. Efforts to establish an independent commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6 were recently defeated in the U.S. Senate, after Senate Republicans, wielding the filibuster, withheld the votes needed to bring the bill up for debate. And though Democrats say they’re still interested in finding a way to proceed with an investigation, they still have not presented a clear path as to how they plan to move forward.

But while the “stop the steal” protestors weren’t successful in their attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in favor of Trump, Republican legislators in states across the country haven’t given up on attempts to reshape American democracy in their favor.

“As of May 14, 2021, legislators across the United States have introduced 389 bills with restrictive provisions in 48 states,” according to research provided by the Brennan Center for Justice. “Twenty-two bills with restrictive provisions have already been enacted.”

The continuation of these threats to American democracy was the subject of a “Statement of Concern” signed by more than 100 academics Tuesday, published by New America, an organization of academics, policy experts, and public intellectuals whose goal is to provide a “civic platform that connects a research institute, technology lab, solutions network, media hub, and public forum.”

“We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm,” the statement said. “Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election.”

Among the academics who signed Tuesday’s letter was University of Michigan Professor of Political Science Dan Slater, who says he cosigned the statement because he believes American democracy has entered “uncharted territory.”

“Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, there's been this series of efforts at the state level especially, to roll back voting rights and to put more restrictions on street protests,” Slater tells Metro Times. “Every day you watch the ticker tape and see if there are, you know, steps in the right direction or steps in the wrong direction, and certainly, there have been a lot of moves made to take the content out of American democracy, especially in recent months, so it's really hitting what I would consider a political emergency at this point.”

The statement cites recent moves by Republican-led legislators in states like Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, and Texas to pass laws that restrict voting rights under the guise of combating election fraud. Though not directly mentioned in the statement, Michigan has also witnessed a similar push to restrict voting access by its legislators. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has voiced her objections to Republican attempts to pass voting restrictions in Michigan.

While Trump, and the cult of personality in the GOP surrounding him, have played a large part in this legislative push, Slater cautions that what’s been happening over the last several months can be attributed to a larger corollary, but often understated threat to democracy in the United States.

Trump represented movements toward “illiberal democracy,” wherein elected leaders show contempt for democratic processes, but “illiberal democracy” isn’t the only way democracies can be undermined, Slater says.

“Another way that democracy can backslide is through what we’d call electoral authoritarianism,” Slater says. “And electoral authoritarianism is not saying, ‘we do whatever we want after winning elections.’ Electoral authoritarianism says, ‘We'll do whatever we want to win elections — to prevent us to not lose elections.’ And so this is sort of the more ongoing project of the Republican Party, at this point — to make sure that the demographic shifts that are happening in the country, the disadvantages Republicans face, don't lead to major electoral defeats.”

Slater, who specializes in the politics and history of enduring dictatorships and emerging democracies with a regional focus on Southeast Asia, says he sees parallels with what’s happening in the United States with that of the history of democracy in Malaysia, where he says the historically dominant majority there, fearful of losing their privileged status, have eroded democratic norms in order to hold onto power.

As to what can be done to prevent the “backslide” of democracy in the United States, no quick or easy answers have emerged, given the ever-deepening polarized nature of U.S. politics, as well as the existence of institutional barriers to reform like the filibuster, according to Slater.

As writer Luke Savage recently pointed out in a piece for The Atlantic, Democrats have largely failed to match the urgency of their public statements with any kind of coherent strategy to fight back. Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have openly stated their opposition to filibuster reform. According to reporting done by the Daily Beast, several other Democratic Senators are likely quietly backing them.

“A lot of members are happy Joe Manchin is the tip of the spear, getting shot at every day,” a Democratic aide told The Daily Beast in an article by Sam Brody published Tuesday. “Seven or eight of them stand behind him.”

The Statement of Concern highlights proposals like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (legislation endorsed by President Joe Biden) as a step in the right direction, but ultimately “not enough.” The Statement calls for a more comprehensive set of national legislation to “ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration, guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote, prevent partisan gerrymandering from giving dominant parties in the states an unfair advantage in the process of drawing congressional districts, and regulate ethics and money in politics.”

In the 2018 midterm elections in Michigan, several ballot measures were passed which included same-day voter registration, the establishment of a citizen-led council for redistricting to fight partisan gerrymandering, and expansion of access to absentee ballots, similar to what the Statement calls for. But any actions taken by individual states are limited in what they are able to accomplish, according to Slater.

“I just think there has to be a national intervention,” Slater says. “I mean, this all, it just really shows how federalism is supposed to be a bulwark for democracy in a variety of ways.”

One of the concerns Slater has, but did not appear in The Statement of Concern put out by New America, is the proliferation of legislation targeting protest in the United States.

“I think the statement focused on ways to get people to agree to these things in a principled and nonpartisan manner,” Slater says. “But certainly, criminalizing protests and making it harder for people to get out and voice their opinions collectively is something to be concerned about. Democracy is about more than elections. Democratic participation is about more than just elections.”

Overall, Slater says he stills hold out a somewhat “naïve hope at the moment” that Republican concerns about the integrity of the ballot could translate into bipartisan legislation that would address their concerns about fraud, “even the marginal, minute kinds of fraud we’ve seen in American elections,” he says, alongside a more robust push to create a national system of voter registration with legislation to address issues like gerrymandering.

“I would encourage people to read the statement,” Slater says. “I encourage people to recognize that there's a wide range of opinions here that are sounding the alarm bells. This is something that if steps backward are taken at this point, it's going to be hard to reverse them.”

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