The first time the New York Times ever printed the phrase “election subversion” was in May 2020. It was in an article about how then-President Donald Trump’s allies were going to attack the investigation of Russian interference in U.S. elections. The next time the newspaper used the phrase was in the spring of 2021 to describe Georgia’s new anti-voting law, Senate Bill 202.
Since the Jan. 6 insurrection, Republicans have launched a massive election subversion effort aimed at undermining the accurate counting of ballots and certification of election results. The risk of domestic election subversion by the GOP is now a greater risk to free and fair elections than foreign interference.
It was against this backdrop that President Joe Biden gave a national prime-time address on Thursday, Sept. 1 on the growing risks the Republican Party poses to the future of democracy. The president’s central thesis was simple: The Republican Party is controlled by Trump sycophants (what Biden called “MAGA Republicans”) who are systematically undermining American democracy.
Standing before Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Biden captured the immediacy of the threat facing our country this November: “Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win, or they were cheated.” Yet, that is exactly what Republicans say they believe. And it is what we have seen Republicans insist in nearly every close election in the last two years.
When now-Gov. Glenn Younkin (R) defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for Virginia governor in November 2021 by 2%, Republicans criticized McAuliffe for not conceding on election night. He conceded the next day. Yet, during the very same election, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli lost to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in the New Jersey governor’s race by over 3%, Ciattarelli was encouraged to fight on for more than a week.
This is not the first time that Biden has sounded the alarm over Republican election subversion. More than a year ago, he delivered a similar speech about democracy, again in Philadelphia. He warned then that our country was “going to face another test in 2022: a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression, and raw and sustained election subversion.” He described the continued attack on free and fair elections as “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
Then, in January 2022, Biden spoke in Atlanta, Georgia and again clearly warned that “the goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them. Simple as that. The facts won’t matter; your vote won’t matter. They’ll just decide what they want and then do it. That’s the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies.”
The question is, why don’t more Americans understand the urgent nature of the threat to free and fair elections? Why isn’t every citizen as concerned about the domestic risks facing our democracy as they were about foreign risks to our country after 9/11? Politicization is part of the answer, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. Disinformation and the media’s obsession with false-equivalent both-sides journalism are other key components.
However, I believe the real culprit is the innate optimism of the American people that our democracy is assumed not only to survive but to thrive, no matter what. What started as an imperfect democracy in 1789 has seen a steady expansion ever since. With the 15th Amendment, Black men received the formal right to vote in 1870, and women received the right to vote in 1919. The 1960s saw an expansion of voting rights on all fronts — from registration to voting access to fairer congressional districts. In the decades that followed, we saw red and blue states expand the availability of mail-in voting, early voting and same-day registration. For far too many people, it seems like American democracy has been on a one-way ratchet of expanding rights and committing to free and fair elections. The truth is that the ratchet not only goes in both directions, but it can break under too much pressure.
As Biden put it on Thursday evening, “for a long time, we’ve told ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed, but it’s not. We have to defend it, protect it, stand up for it, each and every one of us.” One way we have protected it has been to celebrate it.
In 1981, former President Ronald Reagan began his inaugural address by celebrating the peaceful transfer of power. “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” Winning and losing candidates have been repeating a similar refrain ever since.
Even when there have been legal disputes over elections, losing candidates have shown a grace and commitment to democracy. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against former Vice President Al Gore and handed President George W. Bush the presidency, Gore told his supporters: “Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
A day after the 2016 election, a defeated Hillary Clinton assured her stunned supporters that “our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”
What changed after 2020 was the Republican calculus in how to react to losing. Rather than showing grace and celebrating our commitment to democracy, Republicans now deride such actions as a sign of weakness. The GOP is more concerned with undermining unfavorable election results than winning fair and square.
In his address, Biden offered the following warning to Republicans: “History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights. And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion.” Let us hope he is correct.