One of the most troubling developments of the 2022 election cycle has been the nomination of Doug Mastriano to be the Republican Party’s candidate in the Pennsylvania governor race.
Mastriano tends to hold views on the rightward fringe of the GOP ideological spectrum, but that by itself is not reason enough to be sounding alarm bells over his candidacy. There are plenty of conservative and far-right republicans on the November 2022 ballot, and quite a few already occupy seats in Congress.
Doug Mastriano is a particularly concerning figure because of the unique threat his authoritarian tendencies pose to the democratic norms of our country and the system they reinforce.
He has consistently touted baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election and used his personal campaign funds to bus supporters to the rally he attended preceding the riots and breach of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
While the members of Congress who objected to the results of the 2020 presidential election certainly damaged our democratic process by sowing doubt into the minds of many Republican voters, Mastriano poses a much more potent challenge to U.S. democratic institutions.
A Governor Mastriano would be responsible for nominating Pennsylvania’s next secretary of state, who would oversee elections in the commonwealth. All signs point to Mastriano choosing someone who supports his election denial conspiracies and his uniquely broad view of the governor’s powers to intervene in the electoral process, an idea not rooted in any legal precedent.
Mastriano has vowed to take extreme action in the event that he believes the 2024 presidential election in Pennsylvania is illegitimate, a position which apparently does not require much evidence considering he maintains that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump. If Mastriano’s preferred candidate does not prevail in 2024, he has assured his supporters that he will use his office to ensure the state sends presidential electors that reflect what he believes to be the true outcome of the election.
This proposed expansion of executive powers is a clear example of what political scholars call executive aggrandizement, albeit on the state level. It demonstrates a gradual weakening of the checks on executive power, making it more difficult for opposition to counter executive actions.
Even if Doug Mastriano is not able to institute wide-ranging additions to his executive powers, his strategy of appointing officials who are sympathetic to his cause will allow him to subvert the power of those offices. This is a strategy favored by many authoritarians abroad.
Mastriano cannot be trusted to select a secretary of state that will refute his claim that he can decertify every voting machine in the state and correct the election as he sees fit, or one that will conduct fair elections regardless of the political consequences.
Mastriano has also fallen into the predictable authoritarian tendency of promising to manipulate elections strategically by supporting strict voter registration guidelines, appointing election officials who echo his conspiracies, and attempting to augment electoral rules to support his agenda under the guise of election security.
Slow democratic erosion starting from the bottom up could have serious ramifications for electoral integrity in the United States. Former President Donald Trump has effectively used his status as the kingmaker of the Republican Party to bolster candidates who are willing to support his stance that the election was stolen and essentially blacklist politicians who reject his conspiracies.
Donald Trump’s attempt to decertify the 2020 election results in states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona was thwarted by state officials, many of whom are Republicans, who have refused to go along with his narrative. President Trump did not have significant support in 2020, but if his handpicked candidates win in 2022, the enforcement of the 2024 election will be their responsibility.
Democratic backsliding can take root when government officials on many levels enable authoritarians to undermine their democracies.
It is easy to brush off Donald Trump’s grievances about the election as unimportant, but they take on a much deeper meaning when people wielding power at all levels of government are willing to go along with them and begin to use their authority to subvert the electoral process.
Political parties are meant to be the gatekeepers who protect democracies from authoritarian leaders. They can only serve this function if they are populated by people who understand their role in filtering the best political candidates that will uphold democratic norms. When demagogues gain control of the levers of power, they can no longer fulfill this role.
This form of toxic populism has enabled strongman authoritarians in nations like Turkey, Bolivia, and Venezuela to use nationalistic rhetoric and subtle democratic subversion to expand their powers and backslide their nations into authoritarianism.
If Trump-endorsed candidates like Doug Mastriano are elected in 2022, they will eventually assume ranking positions in the party. This means that mutual toleration between the parties in the United States will be undermined, and the validity of opponents will no longer be respected.
If this happens in Pennsylvania, opponents of Doug Mastriano’s agenda are not safe from his proposed weaponization of the state election system.
The bottom line is that Doug Mastriano’s rise to the governorship has the potential to cause a democratic crisis that will test the endurance of our nation’s electoral system.