After the recent pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, along with the attempt by a number of Republican lawmakers to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, public conversation in the United States has lurched to existential assessments of American democracy. NBC’s Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd described the U.S. as “a democracy in crisis.” The historical documentarian Ken Burns wrote for Politico that America was in the midst of its fourth great crisis. Social media was rife with similarly ominous interpretations. What is happening?

Bill Scher, a contributing editor with Politico Magazine, worked for a decade with the progressive-populist organization Campaign for America’s Future, and has since written extensively about the strengths and significance of liberal institutionalism in American politics. Following the Capitol violence, Scher has argued that the U.S. needs a new domestic terrorism law to combat future threats. But he also believes American democracy passed “the ultimate stress test” during this presidential transition period, showing the significant resilience of the U.S. political system. As much as Donald Trump’s presidency amplified a growing illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiment within the Republican Party, Scher thinks there’s a real opportunity for America’s new president to win broad support for a popular, bipartisan agenda—and even begin to help depolarizing American politics as a whole.


Graham Vyse: You’ve recently made the case at The Washington Monthly that the riot at the U.S. Capitol “underscored democracy’s strength, not its weakness.” How so?

Bill Scher: We have a constitutional system of government that still stands, despite having a sitting president actively trying to thwart it. There are plenty of governments in history where, if the person who holds the most power is trying to hold on to that power, no piece of paper can stop that person. In our case, we have a system crafted by the founders precisely so there wasn’t any excessive concentration of power that would allow for such autocracy to happen.

The other piece of our system that showed its merit is that we don’t have a tyranny of the majority. Power is diffuse. Electoral losers still almost always retain some power somewhere. That gives them a stake in maintaining the system. Even if you lose an election by a couple points, your incentive is not to take your marbles and go home and try to upend the entire system, because you still retain some power in the present and you know you have pathways to gain power in the future. We talk about how lucky we were that this secretary of state did the right thing, or this judge did the right thing, or this senator did the right thing. Well, they have a constitutional incentive to do the right thing, because they’re not left out in the cold politically, even if their party loses an election.

Vyse: Explain that. Take Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who Trump pressured to “find 11,780 votes” and overturn his loss in Georgia. Why did Raffensperger have an incentive to do the right thing?

Scher: Once Georgia’s Democratic Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are seated, you will have a Congress that is nominally a Democratic trifecta, but the Democrats don’t have unlimited power to pass whatever they want. Republicans will still have a say, at minimum, in the Senate, under current Senate rules, and these parties are not monolithic entities, so if you get a bunch of Democrats who balk at a certain issue, then you need Republicans to get to a majority in the House or the Senate.

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