After losing control of the White House and Congress in the 2020 elections, Republicans across the U.S. are rewriting voting laws to improve their chances of winning future races. Eighteen state legislatures have passed laws this year restricting access to voting, and all but one of those states are controlled by the Republican Party. In a parallel strategy, party legislators are moving to seize power over elections from local officials, whether through state-level boards that can investigate and fire them or by establishing criminal punishments for vote counters who decide to accept technically questionable ballots. These measures build on former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, along with his failed attempts to pressure officials in at least four states, and the Department of Justice, to overturn the election results. Many Americans saw an existential threat to U.S. democracy in the Trump presidency, but could the actual threat be greater now than it was then?

According to Steven Levitsky, the co-author of the 2018 book How Democracies Die and a professor of government at Harvard University, it is. As Levitsky sees it, the Republican Party is moving toward authoritarianism in its willingness to reject election results and to condone the political violence of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. But this authoritarian turn predates Trump, Levitsky says. Its combination with Trump’s refusal to admit defeat, and with the chance occurrence of an exceptionally close presidential election in 2020, create a realistic possibility that Republicans will subvert the 2024 presidential election if their candidate loses. Despite these dangers, Levitsky sees it as highly unlikely that long-term authoritarianism will take root in the U.S., thanks to civilian control of the military, the strength of the Democratic Party, and other enduring elements of support for democracy in America.

Michael Bluhm: Is U.S. democracy in bigger trouble now than it was over the previous four years?

Steven Levitsky: It is. We may have underestimated the degree of threat four or five years ago. What we missed somewhat was that it wasn’t just Trump. The entire Republican Party is transforming not only into an extremist party but an authoritarian party, an anti-democratic party.

We treated the Republican Party, in the book [How Democracies Die], as having dropped the ball in nominating Trump, as being reckless and irresponsible in backing his nomination. But we were wrong in predicting that there would be a faction of the Republican Party, especially in the Senate, that would draw a line—and likely constrain it. That faction disappeared. The party Trump-ized much more quickly than we imagined.

The party, across the country—especially at the state and local levels—is growing increasingly authoritarian.

It’s impossible to separate this from Trump, but it started before Trump. Movements to suppress the vote began before Trump. Norm-eroding behavior began before Trump. This is speculation, but there’s every reason to expect it to continue after Trump. This authoritarian turn has a momentum of its own.

We can talk about violence on January 6, but the greatest threat continues to be at the ballot box. Something very unusual can happen in 2024: a stolen election by the opposition party. In How Democracies Die, we focus mostly on elected leaders abusing power in office—Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. It’s not very often that the opposition party can steal an election, but there’s a chance of it in 2024.

Seattle Municipal Archives

Bluhm: The Republicans are the opposition party today, but they might well retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections. Gerrymandering through the redistricting process alone could give them the five seats they need to flip control.

Levitsky: Which would enable them to use constitutional hardball, at least in theory, to make the electoral loser president in 2024.

Bluhm: In your book, one of the four key signs of authoritarian behavior is whether a party accepts or rejects the rules of the democratic game, such as free and fair elections. The state-level laws that Republicans are proposing, passing, and enacting could do a lot to undermine elections and the legitimacy of elections. How would you describe the threats today to the rules of the game, particularly to elections?

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