Jan 6, 2025: The day democracy dies?
On Jan. 6, 2025, American democracy may very well die. The collapse of our democratic system probably won’t involve a homemade gallows, chants to hang the vice president, or a “QAnon shaman” donning war paint. But, even without the faux-military playacting, the damage will be no less real. Democracy in the U.S. is on life support, and its recovery will require that serious measures be taken in the next three years.
Many political pundits, social scientists, and politicians from both parties seem to agree on three important points. First, that Donald Trump appears likely to repeat his attempt to subvert the presidential election in 2024. Second, that thanks to increased partisan control of state-level election processes, he is very likely to succeed this time. And, finally, no one seems to know what to do about this problem. So how can Democrats, Independents, and those Republicans who refuse to cower to Trump and his base unite to stop this democratic crisis? History suggests that the answer is to focus on shoring up popular support for our democratic system. After all, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, our government was established “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Consider what happened when local officials stalled before certifying President Biden’s victory in Wayne County, Mich. Biden easily carried the county, which includes Detroit—the state’s largest city and the largest majority-Black city in the nation. The little-known Wayne County Board of Canvassers initially deadlocked on whether to certify the county’s election results, voting 2-2 along party lines. The board’s two Republican members cited minor discrepancies in the voter rolls (which were also common in numerous majority-white counties) to justify the delay. Then, just a few hours later, something surprising happened. After prominent activists, media figures, and citizens condemned the board’s action—likening it to the civil rights movement in the 1960s—the two Republicans reversed themselves, and the board unanimously certified the vote.
The brief drama in Wayne County highlights some critical weaknesses in our electoral system, as well as the likely remedy for our democratic woes. The integrity of Wayne County’s election process was not salvaged by legal minutia, court rulings, or bureaucratic structures. Instead, democracy in Wayne County was saved by intense public pressure. It clearly demonstrates that public pressure is our best hope to save democracy in America.
Of course, a number of Americans are unlikely to change their views on our elections. Thirty-one percent of Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Similar percentages of the public believe Trump was a good or a great president (35 percent), think there has been too much attention paid to the Jan. 6 insurrection (29 percent), and do not believe that prosecuting the Capitol rioters is very important (31percent). These core Trump supporters will probably refuse to accept another Trump defeat, regardless of the circumstances or the evidence, and no amount of information is likely to persuade them. The growing trend from all sides in the country, by both conservatives and progressives, to allow ends to justify the means used to accomplish them doesn’t help. However, persuading Trump’s base is probably unnecessary. History shows us that large portions of the electorate have continued to support even the most notorious political failures. Richard Nixon’s approval rating never fell below 24 percent, and 35 percent of Americans still approved of Joseph McCarthy after the Army-McCarthy hearings. The difference between a colossal political dud and a legitimate contender for the nation’s leadership lies in that next 10-15 percent of voters—the Americans who usually support Donald Trump while holding their noses at his more absurd antics.
This critical portion of the electorate must be convinced that the stakes are too high—the dangerous possibilities too grave—to tolerate this assault on our democracy. Politicians, activists, and citizens who believe in democracy need to develop clear and persuasive messaging, not just about the Big Lie and the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, but also about the predictable scam that Trump and his allies are attempting as we speak.
This is the project that every American should focus on for the next three years. At the University of Notre Dame’s Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, we intend to contribute to the conversation by creating “The January 6th 2025 Project.” While we have little influence on selection of the most viable candidates to oppose Trump, from either party, we can contribute meaningfully to the debates about protecting and nurturing our democratic institutions in the United States. Through a multi-year undertaking, the Center will bring together an accomplished group of political scientists from the nation’s leading universities to track real-time efforts at subverting free and fair elections, gauge public support for these anti-democratic efforts, and educate the public on how to defend democracy. We hope to understand and explain how our nation has reached this dangerous precipice, what might happen if we fall off the edge, and what American citizens and leaders can do to prevent it.
Some of the perpetrators of the insurrection continue to elude law enforcement officers, while others have already been prosecuted or are awaiting their day in court. But the most malevolent threats to our democratic system of government are hiding in plain sight—openly attacking our electoral process and working tirelessly to return Donald Trump to the Oval Office, regardless of the vote tally in the next presidential election. And, if they are successful, Jan. 6, 2025, will become the day that democracy dies in the U.S.
Francis Rooney was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Florida’s 19th District from 2017-2021. He also served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2005 until 2008. In 2008, the Francis and Kathleen Rooney Foundation donated $10 million to support the establishment of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. Matthew E. K. Hall is the David A. Potenziani Memorial College Professor of Constitutional Studies, Professor of Political Science, Concurrent Professor of Law, and Director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. He received his PhD from Yale University in 2009 and specializes in interdisciplinary research that spans the fields of American politics, law and society, and organizational behavior.
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