The most pronounced assault on American democracy is a consortium of three erosive acts proceeding President Trump’s defeat in the 2020 Presidential Election; First, Trump’s disregard for the established peaceful transfer of power and his conjuration and delineation of false claims challenging the validity and integrity of said election results. Second, the violent insurrection at the U.S. capitol on January 6th, 2021, a culmination of incitement on behalf of Trump and his staunch political allies, interrupting the constitutional certification of said election results and ending with desecration and death. “Plato noted a particular risk for tyrants: that they would be surrounded in the end by yes-men and enablers. Aristotle worried that, in a democracy, a wealthy and talented demagogue could all too easily master the minds of the populace,” (Snyder, pg. 1). Finally, the conception of “MAGA” or “America-First” political candidacies. Prominent installations of a post-Trump GOP, these candidacies earn and employ the former president’s influence and political capital over conservative electorates through propagating election denialism, e.g., the “Big Lie,” determined to administer undemocratic electoral reform.
This third component of the consortium is most concerning. Without question, the violent sacrilege of the U.S. capitol is the most visibly appalling offense on our democracy. However, it is the popularity and success captured by political candidates engaging in election denialism posing a greater risk to our democracy.
This analysis will concentrate on nationally recognized figures utilizing Trump’s influence and brandishing election denialism with the opportunity of securing statewide office. Prominently featured within this genus is Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano, former television news reporter Kari Lake and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, all Republican candidates for statewide office in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada.
As a Pennsylvania State Senator, Mastriano exhausted numerous legislative efforts, among them introducing an alternative slate of electors, in an attempt to overturn Trump’s defeat in Pennsylvania. His presence at the Jan. 6th insurrection is well-established, having been subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating the incident. The Philadelphia Inquirer described Mastriano as having established himself as a “MAGA favorite and leading election denier” saying that as governor of Pennsylvania, “he would decertify ‘compromised’ voting machines, eliminate no excuse absentee voting, and impose stricter voter ID rules.”
Lake, Republican nominee for Arizona Governor, said of 2020’s election results, “considering how much already at the time information we had about serious irregularities and problems with the election, I would not have certified it right then.” She showcases “election integrity” as a prominent platform issue of her campaign; her website claiming, “Arizona’s audit revealed numerous deficiencies and issues with our elections, on a scope and scale sufficient to have changed the outcome of 2020.”
Laxalt, Republican nominee for Nevada’s Senate seat, served as the state’s co-chairman for Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. In an effort to overturn Trump’s defeat in Nevada, he unsuccessfully filed lawsuits against the state’s mail-in voting system, attempted to stop the counting of votes in Clark County and falsely claimed tens of thousands of illegal votes had been cast. NBC News reported that upon announcing his campaign, Laxalt said, “There’s no question they rigged the election,” and suggested filing preemptive legal challenges against Democratic opponent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto prior to votes being cast.
This strategy is exercised throughout the country. A Washington Post analysis has identified approximately 108 Republican primary winners seeking statewide or congressional office having engaged in election denialism.
Why is this movement pervading conservative politics in the U.S.? How is it a mechanism of democratic erosion? As demonstrated, election denialism is pervasive, attaining prominence not exclusively among swing states rich with electoral votes, but finding hosts throughout the nation. “Election integrity” and denialist rhetoric has infiltrated the playbook of conservative politics, effective in securing elected office for election denialists. Republican lawmakers and hopefuls have recognized the incentive of espousing election denialism and casting election integrity as an issue of necessity. Historian Timothy Snyder divides national Republican lawmakers into two distinct categories: the “breakers” and the “gamers.” Election denialists, identified as breakers, view the big lie as a treasure rather than a “danger to be avoided,” (Snyder, Pg. 10). The treasure is increased political capital, extensive media visibility and coverage and expanded support and popularity from considerably far-right, more extreme constituencies, helping candidates seize party nominations. While no political party nor figure has necessarily been above the exploitation of a particular event or cause to improve one’s acclaim or scope of support, most fail to fundamentally erode democracy and its institutions.
Election denialists have not only the opportunity to create and direct policy, but control and deconstruct our democratic processes and institutions, including elections. In illustrating how a constitutional democracy can be lost, scholars Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg assert that within a constitutional liberal democracy, democratic electoral systems “require a bureaucratic machinery capable of applying rules in a neutral and consistent fashion over an extended territory,” (Huq & Ginsburg, Pg. 10). Applying Schumpter’s Dictum, they argued, “meaningful elections with a genuine possibility of alteration in power is necessary to democracy,” (Huq & Ginsburg, Pg. 9). Thus, Trump and election denialists have demonstrated performances antithetic to democracy, employing elements of constitutional retrogression. Identified as an enemy to democratic elections, constitutional retrogression consists of a more “incremental decay in three basic predicates of democracy,” (Huq & Ginsburg, Pg. 6), including rule of law, liberal rights to speech and association, and competitive elections. This is particularly troubling considering the institutional vulnerability of our elections and their protective measures, exposed and exploited by Trump and election denialists. The constitution’s text “is otherwise silent as to disruptions of the presidential or congressional election process,” (Huq & Ginsburg, Pg. 30), and “gives no indication of how either derailing disruptions to voting or ex post evidence of outcome-determinative fraud would be addressed,” (Huq & Ginsburg, Pg. 30).
Election denialism can diminish a citizenry’s confidence in their democracy and discourage their participation within it. It composes and amplifies a pre-facist, post-truth society. “Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth,” (Snyder, Pg. 3). Election denialism redesigns electoral politics in that “no fraud is necessary; only allegations that there are allegations of fraud. Truth is to be replaced by spectacle, facts by faith…To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself,” (Snyder, Pg. 11).
Let us not mistake election denialism as a mere product of disinformation, nor its champions as disillusioned couriers. They are deliberate, calculated game-breakers; political actors utilizing democracy to dismantle it. To yield authority and oversight of our democratic institutions to those without respect for them is a surrender of democracy itself.
- Caputo, Marc. “A GOP Senate Candidate Walks ‘Rigged Election’ Tightrope in Nevada.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/elections/adam-laxalt-walks-rigged-election-tightrope-nevada-senate-campaign-rcna14609
- Gardner, Amy, and Isaac Arnsdorf. “More than 100 GOP Primary Winners Back Trump’s False Fraud Claims.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 June 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/14/more-than-100-gop-primary-winners-back-trumps-false-fraud-claims/
- Huq, Aziz Z., and Tom Ginsburg. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2901776
- “Official Kari Lake Campaign Website – Kari Lake for Arizona Governor.” Official Kari Lake Campaign Website – Kari Lake For Arizona Governor, https://www.karilake.com/.
- Marnin, Julia. “Adam Laxalt, Trump Ally Who Filed Suits to Overturn Nevada Election, Running for Senate.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 16 Aug. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/adam-laxalt-trump-ally-who-filed-suits-overturn-nevada-election-running-senate-1619872
- Seidman, Chris Brennan and Andrew. “A Look at Doug Mastriano’s Ties to Jan. 6 and His Efforts to Throw out Pa.’s 2020 Election.” Https://Www.inquirer.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 June 2022, https://www.inquirer.com/politics/pennsylvania/inq2/doug-mastriano-pennsylvania-2020-election-denial-timeline-20220609.html
- Snyder, Timothy. “The American Abyss.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html