With vital voting rights legislation stalled in the Senate and many Republican officials continuing to cast doubt on President Joe Biden’s election, the United States is heading into pivotal midterm elections later this year. Liz Hempowicz and Bruce Stokes join The Cable to discuss the dangers facing America’s democratic institutions and what must be done to protect them, including the congressional investigation into the January 6 insurrection.
Director of Public Policy, Project on Government Oversight
Visiting GMF Senior Fellow
Executive Director, Transatlantic Task Force: Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond
Executive Director, Institute of Current World Affairs
Journalist, author of Russians: The People Behind the Power
Senior Fellow and Director of Democracy Initiatives, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Europe and Eurasia Bureau, US Agency for International Development
The Cable is produced by Glenn Kates. Audio mastering by Danil Komar.
Read the transcript:
Gregory Feifer: On the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 coup d’état attempt earlier this month, former President Jimmy Carter wrote about a brief hope that the insurrection would shock the nation into addressing the toxic polarization that threatens our democracy. But with Donald Trump retaining his hold on the Republican Party, politicians across the United States have continued leveraging disinformation and distrust and refused to cooperate with the congressional inquiry into the event. Among the big concerns, 19 states adopted restrictive voting laws in 2021, with more legislation on tap this year. Now, it’s fewer than eight months before America holds its next national election — the congressional midterms — and there are at least 15 candidates for state level Secretary of State, the officials charged with running elections in each state, who have cast doubt on President Joe Biden’s legitimacy. So, what do Americans think about where democracy is heading and what does that mean for the future of democracy globally? I’m Gregory Feifer, and this is The Cable. The transatlantic discussion about the front lines of democracy, produced in Washington by the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group and the Institute of Current World Affairs. I’m joined by my co-host, Jonathan Katz, also in Washington.
Jonathan Katz: Thanks, Greg, and happy New Year. We don’t usually focus fully on developments in the United States, but the January 6 anniversary prompted a reckoning about our own position. That means the United States on the front lines of democracy, and we’re really honored to be joined today by my GMF colleague, Bruce Stokes, who’s executive director of Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond. And we’re also joined by Liz Hempowicz: the Director of Public Policy, Project on Government Oversight Now. I want to start off with asking Bruce a question. You recently wrote that the current struggle to reform American democracy is a partisan struggle, masked by philosophical rationalizations. I just wonder if you could unpack that statement and explain the main current challenges to democracy that we’re seeing.
Bruce Stokes: Great question. I think the first thing we have to understand, and the listeners have to understand, is that two thirds of Americans in a poll in December conducted by CBS News said they thought democracy in the United States was threatened. Now, obviously, that may be people on the right who think that Joe Biden was never legitimately elected, and we know that a huge proportion of Republicans believe that. And it may be people on the left, who think that the January 6 insurrection was an attempt to overthrow a legitimate election and are very worried about Republican machinations at the state level, as you mentioned, to suppress voting in future elections. The kinds of voter suppression activities that are going on are clearly targeted at minorities, poor people, people who generally vote Democratic. And it’s also people on the left who are concerned about the threat to American democracy. We see, though in other polls, that the percentage of Americans who believe that they can trust the elections has gone way down among Republicans. Only 27 percent of Republicans believe that they can trust elections, whereas 79 percent of Democrats believe they can trust elections. So, it’s become a very partisan issue. People are attempting to hold on to their position in society and in politics, and have developed rationalizations for that, that we see playing out in statements by Donald Trump, but also multiple Republican politicians across the country. And it is not at all clear that they won’t prevail in the short run because the appeal they make is to people’s base fears, and we know that that can be a strong motivating factor for people to turn out to vote.
Gregory Feifer: I’d like to take a step back and ask you, Liz, about the events of January 6 that have rippled across not only our country, but the entire democratized world. Needless to say, the Trump administration is now gone, but from your perspective, does democracy look stronger a year into the Biden administration or now under greater threat?
Liz Hempowicz: It seems to me, I think the threat level is essentially the same. One big difference we’ve got right now is President Biden has been very clear that he supports democracy reforms. So that’s one big change, but we haven’t necessarily seen policy and law really catch up with that yet. I just kind of want to center what Gregory said earlier that the January 6 insurrection was fomented by disinformation, but also played to people’s existing fears that the government isn’t to be trusted. And so, I think a big part of the democracy reform conversation needs to also include strategies and laws and actions to rebuild the credibility of our government. And I think reforms that dramatically increase transparency and make it possible to even enforce existing anti-corruption legislation are a really critical part of that, as is this legislation in front of Congress now at the federal level to protect the freedom to vote. We’re talking about democracy. What is democracy at its core? It is the ability of the people to choose who represents them and also to have the information they need, and the ability to hold those individuals accountable if they are not representing the people.
Bruce Stokes: Could I jump in here for a minute? I think that our international listeners in particular, should understand what’s not being debated in the US right now. Less than two out of three eligible voters in the United States actually bestowed themselves to vote. So, we have a democracy that really depends on turnout rather than reflecting the overall voice of the people. There is literally no discussion in the United States about requiring people to vote, which is the case in Australia. It is the case in Belgium too. And I doubt there ever will be in our lifetime that kind of discussion. I know when I was at the Pew Research Center, we once asked that question and something like 17 percent of the public thought that would be a good idea. What we do have is a problem that at least about a third or more of Americans at any given election — and in this upcoming congressional election it will be more like almost half of Americans — won’t take the time and effort to vote, despite the voter suppression going on at the state level. It’s much easier to vote today than it’s ever been, with mail in votes and the longer times you can vote. And yet people don’t rise to the occasion. And I think that this is another indictment of American democracy, that people really don’t take the right to vote as seriously as one would hope one would in a democracy.
Jonathan Katz: Can I add, you said something — I think it’s really important. What are the consequences when you don’t have a large chunk of the population voting? How does it play out and, do people like that feel disaffected or that their vote doesn’t count? Do you see that as the factor?
Liz Hempowicz: I think you’re hitting on so many good points, but it seems to me almost as if there’s a chicken and an egg problem here, right? Are voters staying home because they feel like their votes don’t matter, because they’ve seen partisan gerrymandering reduce the impact of a single vote? They see Senate inaction on things like voting rights, even though the majority of the population across the country is largely in favor of protecting the freedom to vote? When we talk about turnout being an issue in our country, I think you’re absolutely right. But look at the 2020 election. We had record turnout because in many places, emergency measures were put in place because of the pandemic. A response in a healthy democracy to seeing those facts play out, would be that we would then see a lot of those emergency measures made permanent. But in fact, what we have seen now instead, is not just getting rid of those, but going backwards. So, the response to the people at home looking is that a record number of Americans participated in the 2020 election and that was a problem. That was a problem for the powers that be across the country. And so now they’re taking action to prevent that from happening in the future. I just come back to the role that Congress needs to play here at setting federal standards. That is going to have a really big impact on our federal policy and what our country looks like going forward.
Bruce Stokes: And I agree with that. I think that we should applaud the record number of Americans who turned out in 2020. And I think that’s what now feeds the big lie about that election, because it’s a little hard to say that we had a fair election and I lost. So, Trump claims that it was an unfair election, that he actually won, that somehow it was stolen from him because he can’t argue on the merits of the turnout. And while I might lament the fact that it wasn’t 100 percent, it was still, as you said, a record number. We should be proud of ourselves for that. And as you have suggested, there shouldn’t be 19 states trying to restrict elections. There should be 19 states trying to improve turnout, make it easier to vote. And that’s not happening.
Liz Hempowicz: I’m sorry, I just wanted to jump in on what you said. So, when we talk about the reaction to the 2020 election and spreading the big lie and continuing to perpetuate debunked myths about voter fraud, wouldn’t it be great, when our Department of Justice came out and said there was no fraud, or a negligible amount of fraud in this election, when they come out with a statement like that, wouldn’t it be amazing if the American public in an overwhelming fashion could see that and trust that the Department of Justice is telling us the truth? Kind of thinking through the insurrection on Jan. 6 last year, it was not only disinformation, but it was the fact that there are so many in the public who don’t see our government institutions as credible. So I think again, beyond protecting the freedom to vote, which absolutely should be the number one priority for everybody, I think we also need to be thinking about institutional reforms that rebuild that trust. And I think efforts to make it easier for whistleblowers to come forward without retaliation, to make it easier for Congress to get information from the executive branch so that when there are questions about the credibility of particular government officials or government actions, it’s not just trust us. It is look at the documents that support this. Look at the evidence that we’ve put in front of you based on your tax dollars.
Bruce Stokes: But I do think that there’s a broader issue here at work, and I really don’t have an answer. Joe Biden has repeatedly said, and I must admit it’s the position I always believed, that the way you best defend democracy is democracy delivers for its people, that democracy is effective and that’s the best defense against autocracy. Nevertheless, if you look at the last year, over 200 million people have gotten vaccinated in the Biden tenure. We have a very low unemployment rate. We have created more jobs in the last year than at any time since 1939. We have fairly strong economic growth estimates of about 5.5 percent, which would be the fastest since the Carter administration. We have record Wall Street performance and yes, we have inflation, which is a concern of people. But a poll by The Washington Post at the end of last year found that a majority of Americans, 63 percent, said the Biden administration had accomplished nothing, nothing. And that suggests that the whole premise that if you deliver for people they will support you, may be in question in this new era of alternative facts, alternative beliefs. But more importantly, the tribalism in American politics – that if the other guy does it, it’s bad, and if my guy does it, it’s good. People believe that Donald Trump built the wall on the Mexican border when he didn’t. I mean, just simple things like that. And so I do worry about democracy from that level. The theory that if democracy produces it will be supported is not really testing out with a large percentage of the American population, maybe not the majority, but a large minority.
Jonathan Katz: Bruce, I think you point out something interesting, and I wonder if the Biden administration has picked up on this — that perhaps you’re seeing a shift in approach that goes more into the tribalism of politics that you spoke about, that the administration is shifting because it doesn’t necessarily work even when you can prove the point or speak to the point, that the messaging isn’t getting through. And Liz, I’m sure you’re seeing this.
Liz Hempowicz: I am sympathetic to this idea that democracy is delivering for the people. I understand how it can be frustrating when the administration and the Congress feel like they are delivering for the people and it’s not hitting home. One thing that I can’t help but think is that even when there are real, tangible benefits for individuals across the country, where we’re seeing government action impact our daily lives, the public also sees all too well how easy it is for elected and unelected officials to take advantage of that same system. Those elected and unelected officials are using it to enrich themselves, target their political opponents and misdirect tax dollars. So, I think of the fraud and the waste that we’ve already been able to see through some of the various COVID aid packages. And I think back to the fight, the just absolute fight. We had to take the Trump administration to court in several lawsuits just to get basic information about the Paycheck Protection Program so that we could see where the money was going. Is it benefiting the folks that it is actually supposed to benefit primarily? And the answer was no, and there wasn’t really a response to that. Steve Mnuchin, who fought the release of all this information, wasn’t really held accountable. I mean, it’s in this broader framework of we need our policymakers and the leaders of our country to walk and chew gum at the same time. They need to be able to show that democracy can deliver for the people. But also, there are weaknesses and loopholes in our democratic framework that allows for corruption to run relatively unchecked throughout these programs. And that deserves a response at the same time — because you can throw as much money as you want at a problem, but if we don’t have the accountability and oversight structure in place, well the American people aren’t dumb. They can see that happening and they can see it’s not an efficient response to these problems.
Gregory Feifer: Liz, Biden has said, about the continuing threat from Donald Trump and his supporters, that he will not allow anyone to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy. He’s since urged reforming the filibuster in the Senate to enable Democrats to pass important voting rights legislation. So, I wanted to ask you whether you’ve seen any real shifts in the president’s approach to the disinformation we’re seeing, at least recently.
Liz Hempowicz: Just so that people really understand the state of the Senate right now, yes, the Freedom to Vote Act and various legislation to protect the freedom to vote has come up for a vote. But we haven’t even had a single debate in the Senate on this legislation because it’s filibustered before they even open any kind of debate. There are a lot of folks weighing in on voting rights and various other legislation, but the Senate is not working as it’s supposed to work. It is not this great deliberative body anymore. I think it was a really important shift to see the president — particularly as somebody who spent so long in the Senate — come out and say explicitly that filibuster reform needs to be on the table if a minority of senators are able to continue to weaponize that rule to the point where we don’t even have debate on some really foundational legislation.
Jonathan Katz: I want to build on what Liz has said about some of the things that are moving through Congress, but also this issue of accountability for what took place on Jan 6. Just looking at polling, how do you know Americans want there to be accountability for what took place on January 6 and what might that look like?
Bruce Stokes: First off, we have to put it in context. When Americans are asked about the biggest problems facing the country, this doesn’t appear. The American public is concerned about the economy. They’re concerned about COVID. Some are still concerned about immigration. But this issue is not high on people’s agenda. When you ask specific questions about what happened on January 6th, you get some partisan break. Democrats are more concerned than Republicans. Democrats want more accountability than Republicans. It’s not as if you get Republicans who are totally against any accountability or have no concerns about this, but when you dig deeper into especially Republican views of what happened, you do have a disturbingly large minority who believe that January 6th was the product of left-wing agitation. And then we’re dealing with people’s alternative universes, where the information universe that they live in has told them lies that they believe. You do see in the public opinion surveys that Republicans are more likely to say let’s move on than Democrats, and, this was in the past, and we should move on to more important things or whatever. And I think that is, in part, what Republicans who are obstructing the investigation into what happened on January 6th are banking on. That at least their voters don’t want to be bothered by this. They want to move on. And that if and when we get any findings from the January 6 committee, they will be ancient history for at least Republican voters. And that’s just the context in which this is taking place, even though I personally believe that the potential for violence in the future in the United States electoral system is huge and growing. January 6 was just a foretaste of that. And while Americans will say they expect more violence, it still doesn’t suggest that that’s what they really are worried about. At least the polling does not suggest that.
Gregory Feifer: I’d like to focus on a more intangible imbalance in the country’s major political divide, and this is a question for either of you. On the one hand, you have most Republicans, some of whom are openly challenging democratic institutions by bending or breaking rules. And on the other hand, you have Democrats trying to lead by example. But there’s a problem here. By sticking to the old rules, are they not being complicit? Because surely pretending otherwise only helps normalize bad faith actors who reject democratic institutions?
Bruce Stokes: Look, I could not agree with you more. I think that there is a tendency among Democrats — and I say this as a Democrat, so one should take it with a certain grain of salt — but I think there’s a tendency to believe that we Democrats can’t go down to the level of the Republicans and engage in some of these activities that are unacceptable to us in a democracy. But that’s also, unfortunately, it seems to me, trying to play the new game with the old rules. It means you’re bringing a knife to a gunfight. The perfect example would be the filibuster, which if our listeners don’t understand, is the ability to delay a vote or block a vote by not having enough votes in the Senate to force a vote. In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights debate in the United States, when southern Democrats, in this case, were trying to block civil rights legislation, they used the filibuster to block votes 8 percent of the time. Eight percent of legislation in the 1960s was blocked by filibuster. In the first two years of the Obama administration, the Republican minority used the filibuster to block 80 percent of legislation. Eighty vs. eight. We have a substantive, a qualitative change in the use of the filibuster. And that’s why the filibuster has to be done away with or severely constrained. Because this rule of the Senate that was used only in extreme circumstances is now being used as a regular piece of business, and as Liz said, this was supposed to be the great deliberative body and there’s not even deliberation because you can’t even get to the point where you have a debate because it’s blocked by the filibuster.
Liz Hempowicz: And I think that’s what’s so frustrating about this. The conversation around filibuster reform is that it feels like we’re not even having a conversation based in reality. Proponents of keeping the filibuster talk about it as if the filibuster is preserving the rights of the minority to weigh in in a way that encourages compromise and coming to agreement. When is the last time we saw the Senate with any regularity coming to compromise an agreement on anything? It’s just divorced from reality and certainly divorced from the statistics that Bruce just pulled out.
Jonathan Katz: The filibuster issue and the things that are happening in the United States are resonating globally. And Bruce, I wanted to ask you how you see what’s taking place here in the United States playing out globally and whether or not you see the prospective erosion in the United States impacting efforts by Biden in the world to renew democracy. What does it look like – what do the numbers look like globally?
Bruce Stokes: The Pew Research Center did a survey last year, and they found that a disturbingly large percentage of people in countries around the world, in not an insignificant number of countries, a majority of people believed that the United States was no longer a model for democracy for the world. Now we presume at one point in the past they did think that and now they don’t. There’s not a whole lot of data about that, so we don’t know. But certainly, this idea that we are the shining city on the hill, that Ronald Reagan used to talk about, is certainly not the case in public opinion in Europe and around the world. I just finished interviewing a number of European transatlantic experts and 40 young parliamentarians in various European parliaments under the age of 40. And one of the things that came out of that set of interviews was that even though there was some support for policy issues that the US, the Biden administration, was propounding, whether it was around climate change or security or the economy and trade, what kept coming up at the end of the conversations with these people was, we trust the Biden administration’s sincerity, but we do not trust the American political system. We don’t necessarily believe there won’t be a return to the kinds of policies we Europeans experienced during the Trump administration, and we see American democracy in decline. I think that we, as Americans, need to understand that one of the strengths of America around the world since World War II has been our soft power, and the perception of American democracy has been one of our strengths and our soft power. If we lose that, and on specific issues, if, let’s say, Europeans are wary of making a deal with us because they don’t know whether they can trust American democracy to continue to produce leaders that they can work with, that inhibits the ability of the United States to pursue its policy agenda internationally. That’s not in the interest of the American people, certainly, and I would argue it’s not in the interest of many people in the world.
Jonathan Katz: Liz, question for you. What do you see as the worst case scenario for democracy immediately following the next presidential election in 2024? And could the reforms you’re working on prevent it from happening? And what are you seeing done at the state level that may have a positive or negative impact on democratic elections?
Liz Hempowicz: My crystal ball stops at the end of 2024 when it comes to your question. I think that’s because at the point of the election is when we will know, do we have voting rights laws that allow for the Americans that want to participate and should be able to participate in our electoral system? Are they afforded a reasonable way to do that? And if the answer is yes, then I think our democracy continues. And if the Protecting Our Democracy Act hasn’t passed by then, I think that would be next on the to-do list as a way to continue to invest in our democratic institutions and protect them against the weaponization and abuse from within government and from political actors. But if the answer to that question is no, and if we don’t have a 2024 election that provides a realistic opportunity for Americans across the country to weigh in in our elections, then at that point I think the sad answer would be that we don’t really have a democracy anymore. So, reforms that we talk about after that day, I’m sure I would have some answers. But right now, I’m struggling to come up with any because at that point we really need to just kind of kiss democracy goodbye. At that point, we would have failed already. I hope that’s not too depressing an answer. But I think that’s really what it comes down to for me.
Bruce Stokes: If I could jump in here to add to the depression. Not to catastrophize all of this, but you know, I’m a former journalist and bad news sells and good news doesn’t, so I’ll give you some bad news. My worst fear, to take Liz’s fears to the next step, is that one of the things that’s happening at the state level in the United States is in Republican controlled states, a number of them are trying to allow the state legislature, which they expect to be controlled by the Republicans in 2024, to disavow the popular vote in their state and award the electoral votes to the Republican even if the Democrat wins the 2024 popular vote in their state. It would appear the Constitution may allow that. If that is the case, and I would say currently, the fears in the United States are about violence from the right in the United States. Certainly January 6 was an example of that. But if after the 2024 election, the Republican candidate is declared the winner in the Electoral College and that’s because three or four states controlled by the Republicans threw out the popular vote in their state and awarded the electoral votes in that state to the Republican candidate for president, irrespective of how many votes he got in their state, I worry that the left in the United States may see that there’s no reason not to resort to violence because, as Liz said, at that point, the democracy that we have known and built over 250 years, may not exist anymore. And I would remind our listeners that while the violence in the United States has largely come from the right in recent years, I’m a child of the 60s. In the 60s, the violence was coming from the left, and I worry about growing pockets of violence in the United States, if in fact, it appears that the 2024 election was fraudulently determined.
Gregory Feifer: Bruce and Liz on that very sobering note, I want to thank you very much for a fascinating discussion.
That was Liz Hempowicz and Bruce Stokes. And this is The Cable, a podcast of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group and the Institute of Current World Affairs, hosted by Jonathan Katz and me, Gregory Feifer. Glenn Kates is the producer, and Danil Komar conducted audio mastering. If you like what you’ve heard today, please share this podcast with your colleagues and friends, recommend it in your newsletter and take a second to rate us wherever you listen to podcasts.
Photo: Tear gas outside the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia Commons)