No way out?
So, we’ve completed another round of elections, and thankfully, democracy was victorious on Election Day. Voters recognized the threat posed to democracy by pro-MAGA election deniers and came out in record numbers to defeat many of them on Nov. 8.
Dozens of election deniers—including many in the six battleground states where Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to reverse the 2020 presidential election—lost their races, including a number of Senate candidates hand-chosen by Trump himself. Those outcomes helped Democrats retain control of the Senate for the next two years, an incredible feat in a midterm election for the party in power.
There was a sense of normalcy to the elections as well. Most Republicans who lost conceded their races, something that Trump still refuses to do. Under extreme duress, our election systems held up on Election Day.
But American democracy is still imperiled, and it’s not just because of the behavior of one former president, or a small group of his allies, or their enablers in the media.
Our nation’s future is at risk because of its constitutional structure and the long-standing two-party system that’s been in place since the early 20th century.
The core of my thesis is this: Our political structure is designed as a winner-take-all electoral system that has over time coalesced into a two-party system. As such, it is far too easy for authoritarian figures to seize power.
This peril would be lessened considerably if we had a multi-party, parliamentary system. There, a fringe candidate (which is what Trump would be) could gather support for himself in a minor party. Power would only be obtainable through compromise with major parties. Further, in a parliamentary system, shares of power are more accessible to minor parties. In Germany, for example, any party with 5 percent of the vote gets a seat in Parliament. So, fewer voters feel like their vote is wasted when voting for a minor party.
That’s not the case here. We have two major parties and a smattering of weak third parties that lack the finances and organization to make a serious bid for even a share of power on the national level. The dangers we face are baked into our constitutional structure.
Let’s start with the Senate, a body whose membership is based on a nation haphazardly divided into states. Our system guarantees each state representation by two senators, which ultimately favors rural states with low populations. That, of course, has skewed the Electoral College in such a fashion that both Republican presidents this century were elected to their first terms of office despite losing the popular vote.
Now, consider how Trump, who seems to have only praise for authoritarians, has captured the Republican Party. I know some are claiming that the party is moving away from him due to the poor showing the GOP had in the elections. But, I don’t believe it – not till I see the party condemn his authoritarian ways. Let’s look back…
During his first campaign, he showed no allegiance whatsoever to long-held party positions. Furthermore, as president, his recklessness–especially in foreign policy–was condemned by traditional conservatives. He has deftly manipulated the media—especially social media—to hammer home the Big Lie and prop up anyone or anything he perceives as politically useful to him.
Finally, he instigated a seditious outburst that has led to a long-term constitutional crisis, as the vast majority of Republicans believe – without evidence – that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Through it all, though there might have been brief condemnations of his words and actions, the party always came back to him. I fear that this will happen again.
Why? Let’s look at his acolytes. Many Republicans who ran successfully in this year’s election have wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s Big Lie in the past. Hundreds of pro-Trump election deniers won their races on Election Day, especially in the races for Congress. After all, one of the leaders of the party, my own congresswoman Elise Stefanik, stated right after election day that Donald Trump is the leader of the party. And now he’s running – again.
We know from past behavior that Trump won’t accept defeat if he loses in 2024. What is to stop such a leader, especially when we witness the slavish devotion Republican electeds have shown to Trump, and the unwillingness of voters to reject his divisive and destructive policies and actions.
Given this reality, is there a way out of this danger to our nation? I fear there isn’t. We must face the uncomfortable reality that authoritarianism is on the rise. Our constitutional system is endangered, ironically enough, because of its design. The way forward is not an easy one and, quite frankly, I am not optimistic about our nation’s future, let alone its ability to come to terms with the challenges we face.
All I can hope for is that as Americans, we collectively awaken and return to sanity as we take up the hard work of self-governance and solving the problems we face. Election Day was a start – potentially. The work remains and the work requires the participation of all of us.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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