Undermining Democracy

Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.

The Republican National Committee swung in to support her false claim that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, while Michigan election officials have tried to stop the certification of the vote.

It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.

American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.

This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.

Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.

It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.

It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters ­- and especially Black Democratic voters -­ from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?

The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans ­ who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud -­ will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats ­- seeing what Republicans are doing ­ will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.

We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?

Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.

Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.

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