Democracy experts sound alarm ahead of midterm elections

Oct. 3, 2022, 7:31 p.m.

This year’s midterms are a watershed moment for free and fair elections in the United States and Stanford democracy experts want to make sure everyone knows it. The upcoming elections will determine who administers and potentially controls the outcome of the 2024 elections, raising concerns about the future of democracy in the U.S.

Candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election won almost two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices that have authority over elections. This November, elections for Governor and Secretary of State in five swing states — Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are especially important, given these states’ roles in determining the Electoral College victor in 2024.

“We can all have many different visions of what America is,” said Kathryn Stoner, director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). “But most would agree that it is — it should be — a democracy, and we’re coming close to it not being so right now. Democracy in the U.S. is in danger.”

President Joe Biden raised concerns about threats to democracy in the United States in his prime-time address on Sept. 1, pointing to recent wins in primary elections by unambiguous election deniers and the politicization of the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.  

“The threats to our democratic institutions are real, and I think [these threats are] deeper than any of us who have some expertise in the field could have predicted,” said Erik Jensen, law professor and director of Stanford’s Rule of Law Program. According to Jensen, “the unwinding and breaking of norms that we thought were hard-baked into our political culture were proven not to be hard-baked.” 

In many states, “election deniers are trying to get into positions that would enable them to subvert free and fair elections,” said political science professor Larry Diamond ’73 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80, who is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Hoover Institution.

“If these candidates are elected, it could mean the end of free and fair elections in those states,” Diamond said. 

FSI Senior Fellow Francis Fukuyama echoed his concern about the threat to healthy elections in the US.

“The Republican Party now seems committed to a narrative that the 2020 election was fraudulent,” Fukuyama said. “And they’re putting themselves in a position to be able to overturn the 2024 election if it’s a close one.”

“It doesn’t take much to imagine very bad scenarios that would lead to an extremely severe constitutional crisis having to do with the legitimacy of the electoral process itself,” he added.

Diamond said America’s democratic backsliding is part of a global trend of “democratic recession.” Freedom House, a research and advocacy organization, wrote that the world is in its 16th consecutive year of democratic decline in its 2022 annual report on democracy.

Jensen concurred with Diamond and Fukuyama, adding that a “rule of law recession” has accompanied the democratic recession. Jensen is particularly concerned with how judicial review, which is supposed to serve as a check on executive power, is being co-opted by authoritarian regimes to strengthen their power. 

While 96% of countries have some form of judicial review, “the composition and role of judiciaries in autocracies have attracted a lot more attention because they’ve become a source of power,” Jensen said. “At least formally, they are supposed to be a check on the power of the executive.”

Democracy experts are particularly concerned about the battle for democratic ideas amid challenges from authoritarian nations such as Russia and China. “We have to realize that in some ways we’re fighting a normative and ideological battle, not just a geopolitical one,” Diamond said.

“A lot of people grew up with the benefits of liberal democracy, in societies that were peaceful and prosperous, and have come to take it for granted,” Fukuyama said. According to Fukuyama, a return to moderation, on both the far left and the far right, is necessary for American democracy to defend itself against ideological threats. 

“There’s a famous assertion that politics is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of ideas,” said Fukuyama. “If you don’t have the ideas out there, you’re not going to change the culture. And if you don’t change the culture, you’re not going to change the politics.”

To highlight culture-changing ideas, Fukuyama co-founded an online magazine, American Purpose, in 2020 amid the turmoil of that year’s presidential election. 

Fukuyama also advised students to mobilize beyond Stanford’s campus. “It’s not sufficient to express your opinions on Twitter or on Facebook, because that’s actually not where the core of the problem is,” Fukuyama said. “Social media is just a starting point for a broader mobilization that has to be translated into votes and into elections … You need to get people to vote for the right people, and then you can have the right policies.”  

Jensen also urged students to vote. “It’s really important to exercise that civic responsibility,” he said.

American democracy is fragile and cannot be taken for granted, Stoner said. “It has to be defended — not with arms, but with votes.”

Diamond added that, in addition to voting, “students can model the behavior that they want to see in our democracy by engaging in thoughtful and mutually respectful deliberation.” According to him, “it is important to create a culture in which diverse political voices can be heard and respected.”

Stanford Votes, a student-run organization that seeks to foster civic engagement, has compiled resources explaining how to vote on campus or by mail.

Jack Murawczyk is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Program.

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