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McDermott: We assume American democracy is unshakable. History warns otherwise.

McDermott: We assume American democracy is unshakable. History warns otherwise.

The Proverbial Frog

There’s an old parable about human nature: Drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, and he will immediately jump out. But put the frog into a pot of tepid water, and raise the temperature slowly enough, and he will eventually be boiled alive without ever realizing he’s in danger.

I don’t know whether this is true (and for the sake of frogs everywhere, please don’t test it at home), but I thought about it while pondering the growing consensus among scholars that American democracy is in trouble. The danger signs have arisen so gradually that most of us don’t seem to notice:

• More than a dozen Republican-run states this year have imposed laws restricting voter access, using former President Donald Trump’s big lie of mass voter fraud as justification. Changes include making it easier for state politicians to overturn election results — a demand Trump specifically made of Republican politicians after his Nov. 3 loss.

• Senate Republicans last month blocked a probe of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in which domestic terrorists tried to prevent certification of an election at the behest of a defeated president seeking to stay in office.

• Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser and a retired three-star general, suggested last week that a Myanmar-like military coup “should happen here,” drawing cheers from a pro-Trump crowd. That Southeast Asian nation’s democratically elected government was overthrown by its own military in February.

• Trump himself has reportedly told associates he expects to be “reinstated” as president by August. There is no constitutional mechanism for that, but it has nonetheless become a favorite talking point on the right.

One of our two major parties has given up on democracy. Some of them even say it plainly — We’re not a democracy, we’re a republic. — exposing in one breath their definitional ignorance and their basic contempt for the principle of one person/one vote.

We tend to assume democracy is permanent. History warns otherwise. Stanford University scholar Larry Diamond has noted that, after a late 20th-century surge in which more than 80 nations had democratic forms of government, one in six democracies has since failed. And while Myanmar-like military coups still happen, it’s more common for democracies to corrode from within, at the hands of the very politicians elected to lead.

“The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism,” Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die.” They note that Hitler, Mussolini and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez each rose to authoritarian power within democracies after “establishment politicians overlooked the warning signs and either handed power to them … or opened the door for them.”

They added, presciently, that American states “are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.” Fast-forward to last week: More than 100 scholars released a letter warning that U.S. democracy is “now at risk” from the “radical changes to core election procedures” being implemented across red-state America.

Anyone who thinks American democracy is unassailable isn’t paying attention. Here, though, the coup wouldn’t come with armed soldiers on Main Street or tanks patrolling the interstates. It would be subtler, with a false constitutional veneer. Trump and his party have already provided the blueprint. It would go something like this:

The 2024 rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden has yielded the same results as last time — Biden has won the popular vote by millions, and a clear electoral-vote victory — but the congressional backdrop is different. Republicans took back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms, as is common for the party out of power.

Since 2020, the GOP has made clear it will simply never acknowledge another electoral loss. The only difference is, they now control Congress. So when Republicans again refuse to certify the election results with false claims of fraud backed by absolutely no evidence, this time it carries the day.

Under the 12th Amendment, the disputed election is now thrown to the House — not with a vote of all members, but with one vote per state. Though there are far more Democratic than Republican voters nationally, Republicans control more states. With multiple small Republican states like Wyoming (population 578,000) each getting the same single vote as the few large Democratic states like California (population 39.5 million), Republicans are able to hand the election to Trump, over the opposition of a wide majority of the country.

This is a coup, American-style.

Is it really such an outlandish scenario? When this is exactly what 147 congressional Republicans tried to do on Jan. 6? Since then, if anything, the party has increasingly rallied around Trump’s lies, as its stonewalling of the Capitol-riot probe demonstrates.

It was one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters who famously explained how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.” It may be that such a dynamic applies to political bankruptcy as well. Maybe we’re all the proverbial frog in the pot, the water heating up so slowly that we don’t think to jump out until it’s too late.

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