“I’m scared, Cameron. Things never used to be like this. They were never great but they’ve never been this bad.”
This was my mom’s reaction to watching the news coverage of the January 6th Insurrection. Uncertainty. Worry. Fear. These are sentiments that are echoed by my entire family, and they’re feelings that have become far too familiar when we discuss American politics. I do my best to alleviate their worries and concerns, instill hope in our democratic process and in our nation’s future, and while I truly do believe we will overcome this, I share their concern and their fears. So do most Americans.
A Pew Research Center Report from June of this year found that 29% of Democrats and just 9% of Republicans stated that they trusted the government “just about always” or most of the time. Even confidence in the American judiciary is slipping, with just 47% of adults reporting their trust in the judicial branch, a 20 percentage point drop from just two years ago and the lowest since Gallup first started tracking support in 1972. Uniquely impacted by this overwhelming distrust are young people and college students such as myself. For members of my generation, this is all we know of American politics: name-calling, blatant lies, and unprecedented polarization. A recent New York Times/Siena College Poll found that 48% of Americans aged 18-29 believed that voting did not make an impact on how their government operates. Nearly 50% of young people believe that the cornerstone of our democracy, voting, had no impact on the workings of our government. I see this in members of my family, and I hear it from my peers as well.
On campus, I have the privilege of working for a non-partisan organization called Suffolk Votes. As a part of this job, I spend time going into classes to spread information about the importance of voting, speaking with peers and professors, and working to get as many people registered as possible. From these experiences and discussions, I’ve seen these statistics mirrored in personal experience. It isn’t uncommon for me to be asked why voting matters or what it really accomplishes. People are unconvinced that they hold political power and are fearful about the prospect of change ever arriving. All in all, people are losing faith in the system.
When talking with friends and family, the largest source of this lack of faith in our future as a country comes from polarization and the new political rhetoric. Political violence, personal attacks, and outright lies have become commonplace. Scandals that once would snuff out a candidate’s ambitions now barely make a dent in their support. The political left and right have never been farther apart ideologically. Structural issues like the filibuster and gerrymandering, abused by both sides, make it seem like progress is impossible. It’s easy to share my mother’s worries and frustrations; things have never been this bad.
While my job as a member of Suffolk Votes is focused on getting people registered and out to vote, I find myself compelled to address the deeper issue in my own time: America has a democracy problem. Recent years have seen unprecedented threats to our democratic system, and the simple fact of the matter is that threats to American democracy come overwhelmingly from the far-right, the rhetoric of which has become all too normalized. Political violence is on the rise. We’ve seen it in an armed attack on F.B.I. offices following their search of former President Trump’s Mar a Lago. Just last year, the United States Capitol was invaded for the first time in American history for the purpose of overturning the results of a democratic election. Not even during the thralls of the Civil War were the boundaries of our Capitol breached.
The January 6th insurrection was entirely planned and carried out by far-right groups, acting on what they believed to be direct instructions from President Trump to “stop the steal” and “fight like hell.” As the chaos unfolded, President Trump did little to nothing to stop this illegal attempt to keep him in power, despite the certified results of a free and fair election. Instead of taking action and condemning the violence as his advisors and family recommended, he watched the havoc grow from a TV in the White House. His repeated and baseless claims of fraud are still echoed by members of the Republican Party today. Donald Trump revealed a frightening new reality: the Republican Party is headed in a direction that is no longer committed to the perseverance of American democracy.
Yes, Democrats have contested the results of elections as recently as 2016, but the scale and scope of such assertions are unmatched entirely when put next to the current GOP. I concede and find it important to highlight the point that many Democrats raised concerns about Trump’s 2016 victory. Many pointed to claims of Russian interference, the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, and suppressive voter laws passed by various state legislatures. Democrats in Congress also raised similar concerns during the certification in 2017, with Representative Barbara Lee of California arguing that Michigan’s electoral votes should be thrown out due to alleged Russian interference and the malfunction of a number of voting machines. What separates these instances is the fact that the losing candidates, from as early as Al Gore in 2000 to Hillary Clinton in 2016, conceded their defeat and did not encourage Congress to reject the certification of the election. Not only has Trump still yet to concede the race, but he continues to argue that the election was stolen from him. Many Republicans to this day still repeat these accusations and have not made the acknowledgment that Joe Biden won the 2020 Presidential Election.
Recently, an Associated Press review found that nearly 1/3rd of Republican candidates for statewide office supported or campaigned on false election claims. In Arizona, Republican Nominee for Governor Kari Lake has repeatedly made baseless claims of voter fraud. In Wisconsin, Tim Michels, the Republican Nominee for Governor, has said would be “open to exploring” a legal route to decertify Biden’s win in the state despite legal counsel affirming there is no such route. Even more notably, FiveThirtyEight has reported that 60% of all Americans will have an election denier on the ballot in 2022. The simple fact that this is a large majority of Republican candidates currently seeking elected office is a source of legitimate and serious concern. The GOP has taken a hard shift to the right and has seen its ideology pivot from small-government to anti-government. Extremism has always been found in both parties, but the failure to condemn it is blaring in the case of the GOP.
I should make the important distinction that this is not an attack on the political ideology of conservatism. Politicians like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who are both undoubtedly conservatives, have been ostracized by their party for saying the obvious: the 2020 Presidential Election was not stolen. Stating the facts was enough cause for the Republican Party to effectively oust these candidates. While the GOP has stood by Trump as he echoes false claims, Cheney and Kissinger were both effectively removed from the Republican Party and from Congress for the vice of honesty.
In a way, the removal and subsequent replacement of Liz Cheney from her post as the No. 3 official in the House GOP are emblematic of my fears for the future of a more extremist Republican Party. A prominent conservative is ousted from leadership within the caucus for telling the truth, and in her place rose Elise Stefanik, an election denier who objected to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes and joined over 100 GOP House members in signing an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 election. Divisive and dangerous conspiracists such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert have brought in millions of dollars of campaign donations and have seen little serious condemnations from their own party in response to their baseless accusations and dangerous rhetoric. Lies and conspiracy theories have become commonplace in this new wave of outsiders turned Republican candidates, and they’ve found little opposition to their tactics from within their party.
The Republican Party, for the sake of our democracy, is in desperate need of a recalibration. Republican state legislatures across the country are instituting undue restrictions on the right of people to vote in response to baseless claims about fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election. A Global Parties Survey found that the Republican Party does far worse than the global median on metrics of respect for norms and support for ethnic minority rights, putting it among the likes of the Turkish ruling party, the AKP. Denying the results of a legitimate election and elevating candidates who do so as well is entirely unacceptable. For the sake of the future of our democracy, the GOP must realign itself back to its core values — to once again become the party of small government and not the party of Trump.