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Progressives are breathing a sigh of relief at dodging a disastrous “red wave” rout in the midterm elections that would have given Republicans control of both houses in Congress — plus the governorships in key swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, where voter roll chicanery could swing the 2024 presidential election.
But let’s hold off on congratulating Democrats for what Sen. Elizabeth Warren called their “midterm victory.” Democrats retained their bare Senate majority by winning between zero and one seats, and relinquished control of the House by losing what will probably end up being 10 seats. I don’t want to bore anyone with statistical analysis, but a tie and a loss don’t add up to a victory.
If newcomers to U.S. political culture were confused about why election night was widely seen as a win for the Blue Team, that’s because they hadn’t been informed of the conventional wisdom that the party that wins the White House will lose badly in the next midterm elections. That’s what happened to Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1994, Barack Obama’s Democrats in 2010, and Donald Trump’s Republicans in 2018. (It also happened to George Bush’s Republicans, but in 2006 instead of the post-9/11 frenzy of 2002.)
But this pattern isn’t an unchanging law of nature but a recent law of neoliberalism. In the 60 years before Clinton, the only presidents whose party suffered a crushing midterm defeat were Harry Truman and Gerald Ford — both vice presidents who had recently taken over the White House without being elected.
I’m no historian with a researched theory, but I would guess that the recent trend of midterm backlash has something to do with the hollowing out of U.S. democracy so that both parties have had little to offer voters beyond fear and loathing of the other party — which leads to a depressed turnout from their base when the enemy isn’t in the White House.
Joe Biden’s Democrats bucked the trend this year, but it’s important that we understand why, because centrists like the Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk are eagerly claiming the results as a lesson in how moderates won the election. Like “victory,” “moderates” is another word that might seem strange to a newcomer armed only with observable facts. Yes, some of Donald Trump’s handpicked misfits like Blake Masters and Dr. Oz didn’t win, but the Republican Party as a whole (which, again, just won a House majority) is chock full of politicians bent on persecuting trans children and “stop the steal” conspiracy theorists.
But the real focus of these arguments for moderation isn’t the Republican Party, which even the most hopelessly devoted bipartisans have given up on, but a warning shot against leftist Democrats. The subheading of Mounk’s piece, “A lesson for any party that wants to succeed in 2024,” makes this clear.
A tie and a loss don’t add up to a victory.
Mounk and like-minded pundits have carefully curated a few results that fit their analysis while ignoring the failures of centrists who mirrored Republican talking points on crime, the many victories of left-wing candidates and ballot initiatives, and the massive role played in the midterms by voters’ desire to protect their right to abortion, an issue that centrist Democratic leaders have repeatedly refused to fully champion.
Neither side of this debate, however, can explain why Democrats didn’t lose more in the midterms despite being saddled with an unpopular president. It seems that the tendency of midterm backlash might be giving way to a new 2020s trend of calcified politics. That’s the term used by political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch to describe how the two parties had almost identically matched tallies in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections (although of course Trump won the first and lost the second) despite the massive changes that rocked the country in the intervening years. It seems that the midterms might be an extension of this stalemate.
You can also see this play out in presidential approval ratings. Until the last decade, it was normal for popular opinion of presidents to swing wildly. Obama ranged from 69 percent after his historic election down to 38 percent. George Bush had a sky-high 90 percent approval in the year after 9/11 and came crashing down to 29 percent as he stumbled out of office. Ronald Reagan had a gap of 33 points between his high and low, Jimmy Carter 47. But Donald Trump remained stuck during his presidency in a relatively narrow 15-point range between 49 and 35 percent, while Biden has ranged only 19 points from 57 to 38.
But calcification comes from changes not only in popular opinion but in parties’ ability to get people with those opinions out to vote. A major cause of the old midterm backlash was the fluctuations in voter turnout between the party in and out of power. But the last two midterms have seen a sharp increase in voter turnout on both sides. Voter participation is a good thing, but this increase seems to be due less to satisfaction with politicians (see again Biden’s low approval ratings) and more to the parties’ (and their media proxies at Fox and MSNBC) success in making party identification a core part of people’s cultural and regional identity.
What’s truly odd about the static results of recent elections is that voters themselves aren’t actually calcified. As many news stories have noted, millions have changed affiliations in recent years, with Democrats attracting more with college education and Republicans attracting more blue-collar men. Some of the analysis is wildly off — such as labeling Democrats “the party of upscale voters” and Republicans “a multiracial coalition of working-class voters” — when in fact most low-income voters and people of color continue to vote Democrat. Nonetheless, millions of voters have changed affiliation in both directions since Donald Trump’s election, so why has the overall margin between the two parties remained paper thin?
The recent trend of midterm backlash has something to do with the hollowing out of U.S. democracy so that both parties have had little to offer voters beyond fear and loathing of the other party.
The ongoing even split in the electorate is a historical oddity with many factors, but one factor that should get more attention is the tensions that exist not among voters but within each party. For Democrats, that conflict is between a voting base that is increasingly left wing and a funding base of mega donors who want their politicians to reassure them that nothing will fundamentally change. Republicans are pulled into unpopular positions by their motley array of far right donors and demagogues, but then face the need to get close enough to a majority to be within stealing distance. Perhaps our ongoing 50/50 stalemate is in part the result of both parties having ever more sophisticated voter data and predictive tools that are allowing them to perfect their ability to serve unpopular agendas while remaining within striking distance of a bare majority.
In any case, this stagnation has resulted in staving off a full Republican sweep, but we need a lot more than preservation of the status quo. While the two parties remain locked in stalemate, there are many critical fights over the next two years: reviving the Green New Deal, abortion rights, ballot initiatives, unionization struggles at Starbucks and Amazon, defeating the fascistic campaign against trans youth, and more.
These campaigns, which will surely include many of the impressive numbers of socialists who won on election night, can be a path towards actual victories, rather than our present state of political stagnation.
As the midterm elections wrap up with a better-than-expected showing for Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is saying that the Democratic Party must make curbing the influence of deep-pocketed political donors one of its top priorities in order to save democracy from the far right.
The right is posing a credible and concerning threat to democracy in the U.S. — and their attacks on democracy are aided by the fact that billionaires and corporations are exercising ever increasing influence over elections, as enabled by 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Sanders said in a new interview with Rolling Stone.
“We have got to do everything we can to defend American democracy,” Sanders said, explaining what he thinks the Democratic Party should prioritize for the next two years.
Something in this cycle that was “not talked about, I think, enough is the degree to which billionaire money impacted this election. It’s disgusting,” he said. “As I mentioned, I was in Pittsburgh with Summer Lee. She had to run against millions of dollars of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] super PAC money coming in the last couple of weeks, and she ended up beating it back. This is a major, major problem.”
AIPAC, a pro-Israel group that has emerged as a strong force against progressive candidates in recent years, indeed spent over $1 million in the general election and $2 million in the primary trying to defeat progressive Summer Lee in her campaign for a Pennsylvania U.S. House seat. Lee ultimately triumphed, but AIPAC succeeded in defeating other progressive primary and general House candidates along the way, like Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon, who lost to her Republican opponent by 2.5 points.
“So when you’re looking at democracy, it’s not just Trump. It is the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which has got to be dealt with,” Sanders continued.
Citizens United, which has been the subject of progressive ire for years, allows entities to pour an unlimited amount of money into elections.
This has handed an astounding amount of influence to billionaires and corporations, which progressives like Sanders say can essentially buy elections due in part to Citizens United. Indeed, OpenSecrets found in an analysis of House elections last week that, of the races called as of Thursday, 96 percent were won by the candidate who spent the most in the election.
Since Citizens United was handed down by the Supreme Court 12 years ago, the amount of money being poured into elections by deep-pocketed interests has been rapidly growing, with no signs of stopping.
According to a recent report by Americans for Tax Fairness, just 465 billionaires had poured an astonishing $881 million into the election by the end of September, putting them well on track to have spent a billion dollars on the election by the time Election Day came around.
Meanwhile, the flow of dark money — or political donations where the donors’ names and identities are hidden — has reached a record high for midterm elections, OpenSecrets has found. As of Election Day, outside groups, which are largely funded by dark money, had spent more than $2.1 billion in federal races this cycle, smashing the previous record of $1.6 billion, set in 2018.
Sanders has previously spoken up about this issue. In 2015, Sanders introduced a constitutional amendment that would undo the Citizens United decision, calling it “one of the most disastrous decisions in” the Supreme Court’s history at the time, and he has continually spoken up about the issue over the years.
This week voters will be reshaping Congress in ways that will have profound effects for the future of the country and the world at large. Indeed, this year’s midterm elections are particularly momentous, as Noam Chomsky highlights with his typical brilliance in an exclusive interview below for Truthout.
Chomsky is institute professor emeritus in the department of linguistics and philosophy at MIT and laureate professor of linguistics and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. One of the world’s most-cited scholars and a public intellectual regarded by millions of people as a national and international treasure, Chomsky has published more than 150 books in linguistics, political and social thought, political economy, media studies, U.S. foreign policy and world affairs. His latest books are The Secrets of Words (with Andrea Moro; MIT Press, 2022); The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power (with Vijay Prashad; The New Press, 2022); and The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change (with C.J. Polychroniou; Haymarket Books, 2021).
C.J. Polychroniou: Midterm elections, in which, typically, about one-third of the seats in the Senate are up for grabs while all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are contested, are yet another peculiar feature of the U.S. political system. However, midterm elections are significant in various ways. First, they are regarded as something of a verdict on the performance of the current president but have lower voter turnout than presidential elections. Secondly, the midterms almost always spell trouble for the party in power. Be that as it may, the upcoming midterm elections, to be held on November 8, are the most critically important elections in recent times both for the country and the rest of the world. Do you agree with this assessment, and, if so, why?
Noam Chomsky: It’s become common in recent years to say that the coming election is the most important ever. There are good reasons. One was laid out starkly by the astute political analyst John Nichols: “The November 8 midterm elections could be the last in which the United States operates as a functional democracy.”
Nichols is not exaggerating. There is no need to review again GOP plans to establish permanent rule as a minority party dedicated to the welfare of the super-rich and corporate sector. While legitimate questions can be raised about the extent to which the U.S. is even now a functional democracy, the descent to the Viktor Orbán-style “illiberal democracy” that is openly the ideal of the Trump-owned GOP would institute a qualitative change. It would not only condemn the U.S. to an ugly fate but would be a major impetus to the ominous fascist wave that is threatening global society.
We should note that GOP dedication to the welfare of the ultra-rich — along with pretense to be the party of the little guy — pays off handsomely. Right now, in fact. As the New York Times reports: “Fueled by an expanding class of billionaires, political spending on the 2022 midterm elections will shatter records at the state and federal levels, with much of it from largely unregulated super PACs financed with enormous checks written mainly by Republican megadonors.”
Critical as are the concerns about the fate of democracy, the issues at stake in the election are still more serious.
As the midterm elections approached, the news delivered a one-two punch, revealing how serious they are.
On October 26 the World Meteorological Organization informed us of new studies showing that “Between 1990 and 2021, the warming effect on our climate (known as radiative forcing) by long-lived greenhouse gases rose by nearly 50%,” reaching new heights, “with carbon dioxide accounting for about 80% of this increase.” The International Energy Agency reported that the means to avert catastrophe are available, and are to some extent being implemented, but “the shift toward cleaner sources of energy still isn’t happening fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, the agency said, not unless governments take much stronger action to reduce their planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions over the next few years.”
The following day, October 27, the Pentagon released its 2022 Strategic Reviews. Included is a new nuclear policy, which the Arms Control Association described as “a significant expansion of the original mission of these weapons, namely deterring existential threats against the United States.”
The original mission was indeed, at least formally, to deter existential threats. That is the doctrine shared by all nuclear-armed states, arousing great consternation in the U.S. when it has been reiterated by Putin, even before his recent annexation of parts of Ukraine. And it would be highly significant to expand the mission formally to endorsing use of nuclear weapons “in retaliation to a non-nuclear strategic threat to the homeland, US forces abroad or allies.”
The “significant expansion” is spelled out by Admiral Charles Richard, head of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). Under the new policy, nuclear weapons provide the “maneuver space” necessary for the United States “to project conventional military power strategically.” Nuclear weapons thus “deter all countries, all the time” from interfering with U.S. actions, Admiral Richard continued. Nuclear deterrence is therefore a cover for conventional military operations around the globe.
That is a significant expansion of the stated original mission, the shared doctrine. Taking a closer look, we find that there is more to the story: the actual U.S. stance on use of nuclear weapons has gone well beyond the shared doctrine.
The press described the new doctrine as not much of a change. They are right, but for reasons of which they are evidently unaware. As STRATCOM commander Richard could doubtless inform them, the “significant expansion” has been U.S. policy since 1995, when it was spelled out in a STRATCOM document on “Post-Cold War Deterrence.” Under Clinton, nuclear weapons must be constantly available because they “cast a shadow” over conventional use of force, deterring others from interfering. As Daniel Ellsberg put it, nuclear weapons are constantly used, just as a gun is used in a robbery even if it is not fired.
The 1995 STRATCOM document goes on to call for the U.S. to project a “national persona” of “irrationality and vindictiveness,” with some elements “out of control.” That will frighten those who might have thoughts of interfering. All of this is within the framework of the overarching Clinton doctrine that the U.S. must be ready to resort to force multilaterally if we can, unilaterally if we must, to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.”
It is, then, true that the new doctrine is not very new, though Americans are unaware of the facts — not because of censorship. The documents have been public for decades and quoted in critical literature that is kept to the margins.
I have not mentioned the rising threat of nuclear war in Europe, which is very serious, and discussed, though not with sufficient urgency.
How are the most serious questions we face addressed in the current election fever? By silence. That tells us something more about the state of functional democracy.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could impact the midterm elections, according to some analysts, although both parties could see a boost in voter turnout. Why has culture become such a menacing force in contemporary U.S. political climate, and how will the economy affect the midterm elections?
Perceptions of the economy will surely affect the elections. According to polls, the economy, and in particular inflation, are a dominant factor in the elections and the basis for likely Republican success.
But we have to distinguish between the economy and perceptions of the economy.
High inflation is blamed on Biden, but there are a few problems with that. One, as frequently observed, is that inflation is worldwide, hence cannot be attributed to Biden. Many of the causes have been discussed: disruption of supply chains by the pandemic, and others. One major cause rarely receives media attention: “rising profit margins have accounted for roughly 40% of the rise in prices.”
These conclusions are supported in the business press. In the Financial Times, UBS Global Wealth Management chief economist Paul Donovan wrote that “today’s price inflation is more a product of profits than wages,” according to The Hill. As usual, “Companies have passed higher costs onto customers. But they have also taken advantage of circumstances to expand profit margins. The broadening of inflation beyond commodity prices is more profit margin expansion than wage cost pressures.”
The practice goes back to the opening of the floodgates in the Reagan years. A study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that “the average profit rate since 1980 has increased from 1 percent to 8 percent and that price markups over that period increased from 21 percent to 61 percent.”
Such facts suggest some measures that could be taken to tame the inflationary beast. The Federal Reserve has a different proposal: increase unemployment — the technical term is “raise interest rates.”
The choice has ample media support, as general reporting indicates. Another illustration is Fed chair Jerome Powell’s November 2 press conference on the latest rate hike. As Common Dreams reports, “Powell fielded questions for around 40 minutes on Wednesday following the central bank’s decision to impose another large interest rate hike, but not a single reporter asked about the extent to which record-high corporate profits are fueling inflation even as companies openly boast about their pricing power.”
Best to let working people bear the burden.
There are prominent figures calling on the Fed to rethink its routine approach to inflation. But they are voices in the wilderness.
Returning to perceptions and reality, Dean Baker has been reporting regularly on the way the liberal media have been constructing a version of the economy that reinforces the “blame Biden” message. “Downplayed or ignored [is the] unprecedented pace of job growth, the unemployment rate reaching a 50-year low, the rise in real wages for workers at the bottom, the sharp drop in the number of uninsured, and savings of thousands of dollars a year in interest costs by tens of millions of homeowners refinancing their mortgages,” he writes.
The gloomy press report on the last quarter overlooked the fact that the economy created 1.1 million jobs, reducing unemployment to 3.5 percent, the lowest level since the late 1960s. Also overlooked was “healthy growth in real wages. The average hourly wage rose 1.1 percent over the last three months. That exceeded the 0.4 percent inflation reported by the consumer price index by 0.7 percentage points. That translates into a 2.8 percent annual rate of real wage growth. That’s really good by any standard.”
The October jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is even more positive. Justin Wolfers, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, comments: “This is a very strong economy. And whatever you read elsewhere, employment growth is motoring along.… Indeed, job growth over the past three months (or indeed, this month) has continued at a rate that exceeds almost any point in the pre-pandemic 2000s.”
“In normal times,” he adds, “this would be regarded as extremely rapid growth, and a strong labor market. For some reason people are shouting ‘recession’ in a crowded theatre, instead.”
These are, however, not normal times. Refracted through the “information system,” facts do not change perceptions. Nor does the longer record, which reveals that Democrats overall have a far better record on the economy than the GOP.
True to form, the New York Times lead story on the jobs report portrayed it as more trouble. The report opened by lamenting that “Job growth remained stubbornly robust in October despite higher interest rates, defying policymakers’ efforts to dampen the labor market and curb the fastest inflation in generations.” The problems are still deeper: “American workers are still seeing rapid wage gains, a sign that a strong labor market is giving them the ability to push for better pay — potentially worrying news for the Federal Reserve.”
The distortions are systematic, Baker has shown. It’s understandable that people should be more aware of the prices flashed before their eyes than by statistics on real wage growth. It’s not the proper task of the media to reinforce these misperceptions.
Like inflation, the menacing role of “culture” in the contemporary political climate is not limited to the U.S. It is a global phenomenon, found in one or another way in diverse societies: India, Israel, Brazil, Hungary, and many others. It tends to be associated with expansion of the popular base for repressive authoritarian movements and the rise of demagogic leaders.
Particularities cannot be ignored, but there are some common threads. One is breakdown of the social order, which has advanced steadily under the neoliberal assault. As intended. Margaret Thatcher helped launch the assault with her dictum that there is no such thing as society. To make sure not to misrepresent her, here are her immortal words:
‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
As Thatcher knew full well, these strictures do not apply to the wealthy and privileged. They have a rich array of social organizations and associations to sustain and protect them, and even the government that they largely dominate thanks to their ownership of the society is ready to bail them out when they are in trouble. But others are tossed into the market to endure its ravages as best they can, living lives of insecurity and precarity as they face the turbulent world alone.
Thatcher wasn’t mistaken about people looking to themselves first. As Adam Smith instructed us 250 years ago, in all ages the “masters of mankind” who own the economy will pursue their “vile maxim: all for ourselves and nothing for other people” — as long as society will let them get away with it, as it largely has under the neoliberal assault.
When social bonds collapse, or are broken by force, individuals will be easy prey to whatever seems to offer them something. Perhaps a church, perhaps a demagogue who stabs them in the back while professing his eternal love for his victims, or perhaps “cultural issues” to divert their attention to what is being done to them.
The practices are ancient. They became prominent in recent U.S. political culture with Nixon’s “southern strategy,” designed to attract southern Democrats and other white supremacists by not-too-subtle racist appeals. They have flourished since, as the social order has been fragmented by the neoliberal hammers.
The breakdown of the social order has reached quite shocking levels. One grim manifestation is the increase in mortality among the white working class, a sharp departure from the rest of the world, and from history. Other aspects are revealed in studies of public opinion, which find extreme polarization and alienation in a collapsing society.
Almost three-fourths of Republicans and half of the “very liberal” feel that the government is “corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me.” Almost half of “strong Republicans” (and 1/3 of the rest) agree that “it may be necessary at some point soon for citizens to take up arms against the government.” Half of Americans — almost 70 percent of “strong Republicans” and 65 percent of the “very conservative” — agree that they “more and more feel like a stranger in my own country.” And much more like it.
These are among the many signs that the country is falling apart. One critical factor is the neoliberal assault, which has had similar if less extreme impact elsewhere. The rising wave of global neofascism is one consequence.
That consequence has been well documented. Dani Rodrik found:
broad and compelling evidence, from Europe as well the United States, that globalization-fueled shocks in labor markets have played an important role in driving up support for right-wing populist movements. This literature shows that these economic shocks often work through culture and identity. That is, voters who experience economic insecurity are prone to feel greater aversion to outsider groups, deepening cultural and identity divisions in society and enabling right-wing candidates to inflame (and appeal to) nativist sentiment.
These tendencies were particularly strong among “switchers,” workers who voted for Obama and switched to Trump after Obama’s betrayal. Rodrik found that:
Switchers viewed their economic and social status very differently from, and as much more precarious than, run-of-the-mill Republican voters for Trump. In addition to expressing concern about economic insecurity, switchers were also hostile to all aspects of globalization — trade, immigration, finance.
It should be stressed that none of this is inherent in “globalization.” Alternatives to Clinton’s investor-rights version of globalization were developed by the labor movement and Congress’s own research bureau (the Office of Technology Assessment, dismantled soon after). These could have directed globalization along very different paths, benefiting working people rather than private capital. But they were quickly dismissed, a chapter of the ‘90s that has been too little discussed.
There are hundreds of candidates across a variety of races who denied the outcome of the 2020 election results. How important is Trump’s role in the midterms, and is it safe to say that GOP leaders have lost complete control of the base?
GOP leaders began to lose control of the base, and even the party management, in 2016, when, to their shock and dismay, they were swept aside by the Trump crusade. By now they have either succumbed, often slavishly, or have been expelled, apart from a few relics who are hanging on in silence. By now it’s Trump’s party. He has managed, skillfully, to maintain a voting base that he is undermining at every turn along with dedicated service to the traditional Republican constituency of extreme wealth and corporate power.
Denialism is one sign of the breakdown of the social order, and is an element of the undermining of democratic forms. It is rampant among the GOP voting base, and among those running for election, amounting to “A majority of Republican nominees on the ballot this November for the House, Senate and key statewide offices,” according to The Washington Post.
“The implications will be lasting,” the Post analysis continues. The deniers will “hold enormous sway over the choice of the nation’s next speaker, who in turn could preside over the House in a future contested presidential election” and the winners of state elections “will hold some measure of power overseeing American elections.” Every careful analysis has shown that the charges of election fraud are utterly groundless, but alienation and desperation are so extreme that facts don’t matter: “the movement arising from Trump’s thwarted plot to overturn the 2020 election is, in many respects, even stronger two years later. Far from repudiating candidates who embrace Trump’s false fraud claims, GOP primary voters have empowered them.”
“It is a disease that is spreading through our political process, and its implications are very profound,” political scientist Larry Jacobs observed: “This is no longer about Donald Trump. This is about the entire electoral system and what constitutes legitimate elections. All of that is now up in the air.” No exaggeration.
Again, the phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. Brazil is an extreme example, despite its having perhaps the world’s most efficient and secure voting system. Bolsonaro’s pre-election campaign to discredit the results if he did not win even reached the point of his calling in foreign ambassadors to berate them on the matter. Scholarship has shown that more generally, GOP denialism “bears alarming similarities to authoritarian movements in other countries, which often begin with efforts to delegitimize elections. Many of those promoting the stolen-election narrative, they said, know that it is false and are using it to gain power.”
There is a huge divide among Democrats over many issues, but there seems to be a consensus among them, at least as reflected on the campaign message, that if the Republicans take power the U.S. could backslide into outright authoritarianism, if not turned into a semi-fascist polity. How likely is this message to resonate with the average American voter, and why do Democrats keep losing the rural vote?
It’s primarily in the rural areas that people “more and more feel like a stranger in my own country.” Understandably. Apart from ongoing demographic and cultural changes, neoliberal globalization has hit these areas hard. Their small industries have collapsed. Farmers have been edged out by subsidized agribusiness. Stores are closing. Young people are leaving. Though in the federal system they are supported by the more educated and prosperous urban society they resent, perception is different. As the Democrats have steadily become a party of affluent professionals and Wall Street donors, they have abandoned rural America along with the working class. In these sectors warnings of democratic decline and rights of minorities have little resonance, if any.
The consensus on the drift toward a semi-fascist polity may turn out to be accurate, dooming the world to a bitter fate. It has not been inevitable. Many hands have contributed.
It is not inevitable now, but time is short.
Millions of Americans are facing voter suppression during this election season, with consequences ranging from disenfranchisement to prison time. New and old tactics to make it harder to vote disproportionately target many groups, including people with felony convictions as well as Black, Latino, Native American and working-class communities.
On top of the pre-existing barriers to voting, the 2022 election cycle has seen a number of new laws and tactics designed to make it more difficult to vote. According to The Guardian, “the proliferation of election crime legislation represents the most intense voter suppression threat in decades and comes in direct response to former president Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent.”
Forty-two state legislatures have considered at least 130 bills collectively that would make law enforcement more involved in the voting process, and 28 have passed. One law in Utah stipulates that election officials must check if voters vote twice and tell police or prosecutors about suspected voter fraud.
Voting restrictions disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities. Strict voter ID laws, long wait times, difficulty voting by mail and polling place closures can make it difficult to vote. A study published in the academic journal Politics, Groups, and Identities found that between 2012 and 2016, “the gap in turnout between more racially diverse and less racially diverse counties grew more” in states that enacted photo ID laws.
Historically, Black and Indigenous voters have faced many of the same obstacles. In Arizona, a proposition would eliminate the possibility of voting without a photo ID. Under current law, a person can provide two forms of identification that do not have photos. This disproportionately affects Indigenous voters, who often use tribal ID cards to vote, which sometimes do not have photos. The proposition would also add stricter requirements for mail-in voting, such as demands for date of birth and voter identification number.
There are only four offices where a person can get an ID in Navajo Nation, which is over 27,000 square miles — greater than the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Many people living there do not have access to a vehicle. Older Indigenous voters may not even know their government birthday, or can have conflicting information from different government agencies, creating yet another barrier to receiving identification.
Arizona Democratic Party Deputy Political Director Rachel Hood told The Arizona Republic that the proposition “places an undue burden on voters, especially those who already have a hard time voting. For Native voters, anything that requires address-displaying forms of ID are harder to access because they typically do not live in areas with traditional street addresses.”
Last month in Montana, a state court overturned three laws that would have targeted the ability for Native Americans to vote. The laws would have prevented ballot collectors from being paid, prevented people from registering on the same day that they vote and challenged use of a student ID.
In some cases, vigilantism has been legalized and encouraged by state governments.
In 1948, Native Americans in Arizona won the right to vote when the state Supreme Court overturned a case where Native Americans had sued for their rights but lost. Other states recognized Native Americans’ voting rights in the years after. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act guaranteed all Americans accessibility to vote and banned discrimination against people who did not speak English. In the 1970s, the U.S. outlawed literacy tests for Native Americans that discouraged non-English speakers.
The working class faces obstacles to voting as well. Many states mandate paid time off to vote, but they may not allow enough time to wait in line. Twenty-one states do not mandate any time off from work to vote, making it difficult to reach the polls. In 2020, the Brennan Center for Justice found that voters of color self-reported longer wait times compared to white voters. Georgia even banned handing out food and water to voters waiting in line. Absentee voting is a possibility, but voters still face many challenges.
People with felony convictions, who are disproportionately Black men, face significant obstacles to voting. According to the decarceration advocacy group the Sentencing Project, approximately 4.6 million people are barred from voting due to prior convictions; this translates to 1 out of every 50 American adults.
In Washington, D.C., Maine, and Vermont, incarcerated people and those with a felony conviction are not stripped of the right to vote. In addition, people who have served their sentence do often regain the right to vote. However, many are not made aware of this change, and states frequently require people to pay all their court fees before they are eligible to vote.
Crucially, an error can send someone back to prison. In August, 19 people were arrested in Florida for alleged voter fraud. At least 13 were Black, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Many of the people arrested had received confusing or bad information about their eligibility to vote.
“They’re going to pay the price,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a press conference. The individuals were identified by DeSantis’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security.
Brad Ashwell, the Florida director for the nonprofit group All Voting is Local, told the Marshall Project: “These actions are really about striking fear in a voter’s minds and intimidating them.”
In 2021, Oregon began counting incarcerated people where they are incarcerated instead of where they lived previously, even though people in prison cannot vote. This gave more power to many majority-white districts where prisons are located.
Legislation to allow incarcerated people to vote will be reintroduced in Oregon, according to Zach Winston, director of policy and outreach at the Oregon Justice Resource Center. This would also make it easier for people who are incarcerated while awaiting trial to vote.
“When you start picking and choosing who can and can’t vote, you create all sorts of problems,” Winston told the Center for Public Integrity. “If we can re-enfranchise those in prison, we can build out some structure for corrections as a whole.”
In addition to dealing with law enforcement, voters may encounter illegal vigilante intimidation. On November 1, a federal judge issued a restraining order against Clean Elections USA, a right-wing voter-intimidation group, barring them from “visibly wear[ing] body armor,” carrying weapons openly or yelling at voters. The group had been stationed at ballot drop boxes in Arizona, taking photos of voters. Influenced by former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, the group has also been banned from making inaccurate claims about voting rules in the future.
In some cases, vigilantism has been legalized and encouraged by state governments. In Georgia, conservatives have taken advantage of a 2021 law that allows voters to challenge other people’s voter registrations in the state. According to the voter rights group New Georgia Project, more than 64,000 registrations have been challenged and at least 1,800 people have had their registrations taken away since the law was passed.
“The intensity around election administration has not subsided since 2020,” Jonathan Diaz, senior legal counsel for voting rights at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, told CNN. “It’s not just voters, but state and local election administrators are really feeling the pressure from these organized outside groups who have organized these challenges or … taken it on themselves to monitor drop boxes.”
It was 100 years ago that Alexander Terrell, a former Confederate officer and Texas representative, claimed that “Mexicans are induced on election day to swim across the Rio Grande and are voted before their hair is dry.”
The Terrell Election Law of 1903, fueled by false claims that non-citizens from Mexico were voting in Texas elections, restricted primaries in Texas to white voters only.
Following the Civil War, the 15th Amendment of the Constitution in 1870 had banned states from restricting the right to vote on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Political parties still had wide leeway in nominating candidates for office, however, and this was a workaround that was quickly adopted throughout the South to take the right to vote away from recently freed Black men and other people of color.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled white primaries unconstitutional in 1944. Terrell’s rhetoric and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and immigrants coming across the border illegally became a permanent tactic.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric has featured prominently in Republican candidates’ campaign ads and speeches ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. But watchdogs say this election cycle is different because of how much the GOP has embraced and promoted a more sinister mix of fringed conspiracy theories rooted in xenophobia and white supremacy.
Experts and voting rights advocates worry history is repeating itself as red herrings about noncitizens voting and claims of an invasion at the border are used while lawmakers curtail voting rights and ballot access across most of the country. Immigration advocates worry the lies and hateful rhetoric brewing this election cycle could spur some to violence.
That became apparent when a 21-year-old man walked into a Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, in the border city of El Paso and used an AK-47 to kill 22 people. The fear of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” drove him more than 650 miles from his home. His mission: to kill Mexicans.
This and other racist massacres committed across the country in recent years have been inspired by a fringe conspiracy theory, widely known as the “Great Replacement Theory” — the claim that Western elites, often injected with anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jewish powerbrokers, want to replace and disempower white Americans.
Once confined to the dark fringes of the internet including white nationalist sites, aspects of replacement theory have gone mainstream on primetime Fox News shows and is front and center for many GOP candidates, according to Zachary Mueller, political director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group that’s been tracking GOP messaging in political ads since 2018.
The group has tracked more than 600 messages about an invasion at the border from more than 100 GOP candidates, political action committees and right-wing media outlets this election season. More than 130 messages tracked by the group falsely claim Democrats are purposely allowing immigrants to enter the country illegally to gain voters.
There is no statistically meaningful evidence of non-citizens voting in U.S. elections. And far from the border being “open,” record breaking numbers of migrants have been stopped by border patrol this year.
“Democrats are actively ignoring laws on the book and allowing millions of migrants to come into our country illegally. Why? Because the thinking goes that if they’re given enough handouts, these migrants will eventually be Democrat voters,” an election campaign email sent by Monica De La Cruz in September reads. De La Cruz is a Trump-backed GOP candidate running for Congress in Texas’ 15th District.
The replacement and invasion rhetoric was mainly on the fringes of the Republican party in 2018, Mueller said, but this year the number of messages is about five times higher and it’s coming from the leadership all the way down.
“That’s dangerous because some segments of those folks that believe that racist lies are going to take it upon themselves to act as vigilantes to try to stop it,” Mueller said.
In the wake of a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket last fall, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-highest ranking House Republican, faced criticism for a series of Facebook ads that warned of a “permanent election insurrection,” arguing that Democrats want to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and “overthrow our current electorate.”
In an interview rebutting the allegations that her ads echoed the conspiracy theory that inspired the Buffalo shooter, Stefanik said there’s nothing racist about wanting a secure border or opposing mass amnesty.
Stefanik’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Democrats and immigration rights advocates have also condemned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and state Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, for describing immigrants crossing the border as an invasion.
“We are being invaded,” Patrick said at a press conference this past year. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been more true.”
Abbott said at the same presser that “homes are being invaded” as he announced the state would be spending an initial $250 million to construct a barrier at the state’s southern border with Mexico to fill in gaps that have remained since the border wall was first constructed nearly 30 years ago.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, condemned Abbott’s and Patrick’s remarks in a tweet after the press conference.
“If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” Escobar wrote.
Abbott took it a step further: He issued an executive order in July that invoked the U.S. Constitution’s “Invasion Clause” and directed state law enforcement to arrest migrants and drop them off at ports of entry. Article IV Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution says the federal government “shall guarantee every state in this Union a republican form of government and shall protect each of them against invasion…”
(The term “republican” refers to a republic of representatives, not the Republican party.)
After years of former President Donald Trump demonizing undocumented immigrants and using the word invasion on a regular basis, more than half of Americans say there’s an “invasion” at the southern border, according to an August poll by NPR and Ipsos,
But experts say, “the current increase in apprehensions fits a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure,” according to a recent analysis by the Washington Post.
As Texas politicians continue to attack immigrants and sound the alarm on border security, they have also ramped up efforts to restrict access to the ballot box.
Last year, Abbott signed into law one of the nation’s strictest voting bills. The bill rolled back extended voting hours and drive-through voting, restricted voting by mail, added new voter ID requirements, banned some forms of organizing voter turnout and increased criminal penalties for violating election laws.
Abbott and Patrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The reality is that Texas is not alone: Access to the ballot box has gotten worse in 26 states, and this has been particularly bad for people of color, according to a Center for Public Integrity report looking at voting inequalities in all 50 states and Washington D.C.
False claims that non-citizens are voting and influencing elections have been used to justify some of those new restrictions. In Arizona, Republican legislators passed a new law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. It could have the most significant impact on the state’s elderly Indigenous population, who are less likely to have birth certificates or other documents proving citizenship.
“It’s not politically popular to say, ‘Hey, I just don’t want non-whites to vote, so we’re going to create these arbitrary barriers so that only more middle-class white folks and affluent whites can vote,’ that’s not going to win you an election that’s pretty on face,” Mueller said. “So they create these other kinds of boogeyman to do that sort of thing.”
This article first appeared on Center for Public Integrity and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.
A newly released survey finds that hundreds of county sheriffs believe their power as law enforcement overseers supersedes state and federal laws in an alarming show of right-wing radicalization of law enforcement across the U.S.
In a survey of over 500 sheriffs conducted by The Marshall Project and political scientists Emily Farris and Mirya Holman, nearly half of respondents, or over 200 sheriffs, agreed with the statement that “The sheriff’s authority supersedes the federal or state government in my county.” Even more sheriffs, about 71 percent, agreed with the statement that they are willing to interject when they do not personally support a state or federal law.
The survey is a show of the rise of “constitutional sheriffs,” or people who believe that they are a singularly powerful legal authority who outrank federal or state officials within county borders. In modern years, constitutional sheriffs have thrown their efforts behind the movement to overturn the 2020 election results; in some places, constitutional sheriffs are on the ballot this election.
The movement’s organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, boasts hundreds of dues-paying sheriffs and has thousands of other members and sympathizers, including figures like Donald Trump-pardoned Joe Arpaio, a former county sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, who committed a long list of inhumane and potentially criminal actions during his time in office.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the group as extremist, with roots in white supremacy and ties to far right groups like the Oath Keepers — in fact, the group’s founder, Richard Mack, was once a board member of the far right militia.
The growth of the constitutional sheriff movement is also representative of the growth of far right ideology among sheriffs; an alarming 11 percent of respondents said that they personally support the group, while about a quarter of respondents said they had never heard of them.
Data shows that values of the constitutional sheriff movement are dangerous; a 2019 study found, for instance, that constitutional sheriffs are 50 percent more likely to have violent encounters with their constituents and federal Bureau of Land Management employees.
At the same time, Mack has tied the constitutional sheriff movement to the rise of far right ideology within the mainstream Republican Party. In past years, for instance, constitutional sheriffs found popularity in refusing to comply with gun control laws put in place by Nevada lawmakers in response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, comparing the state government to Nazi Germany.
“A lot of [Constitutional sheriff] talking points are squarely among the center of the Republican party now,” Jessica Pishko, a former University of South Carolina researcher and author of an upcoming book on sheriffs, told USA Today.
Recently, the group has taken hold among two mainstream far right movements. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of sheriffs objected to mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
Now, constitutional sheriffs have tied themselves to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and destabilize future elections in the U.S. — conservative activists have in fact been seeking out such sheriffs to help them in the cause. Sympathetic sheriffs, who are likely to identify with Republican sentiments about the supposed tyranny of the federal government, can bring the support of armed law enforcement to the cause in a time when right-wing vigilantes are intimidating voters at the polls.
The movements indeed have parallels; just as election deniers are seeking positions that could have power over election administration, constitutional sheriffs are in elected positions in which they are willing to violate the very laws they’re supposed to enforce.
Law enforcement analysts and voting rights experts are warning local officials of decentralized efforts by conspiracy believers and right-wing extremists to disrupt and sway the midterm elections on Tuesday, raising fears that the results could be marred by voter intimidation, a deluge of frivolous lawsuits and even violence fueled by former President Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.
From Florida to Pennsylvania and Michigan, far right groups and pundits are calling on their followers to surveil ballot drop boxes and volunteer as poll workers, observers and vote challengers, efforts that already sparked legal battles over election observation rules and allegations of voter intimidation. The armed vigilantes who staked out a drop boxes across Arizona’s Maricopa County last week heightened fears that precincts serving high concentrations of Black and Brown voters will be targeted in cities such as Phoenix and Detroit, which were at the center of baseless internet conspiracy theories after Trump spread lies about the 2020 election. After hearing from voting rights groups, a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on the far right group operating in Maricopa County this week.
Federal law enforcement agencies recently distributed intelligence bulletins warning of a “heightened threat” of “domestic violent extremism” fueled by conspiracy theories and election denialism, with potential targets including “candidates … elected officials, election workers, political rallies, political party representatives, racial and religious minorities, or perceived ideological opponents,” according to CBS News.
Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week to prepare local election officials and police departments for right-wing disruption efforts. This could include a potential deluge of phone 911 calls claiming to report “voter fraud,” according to reports. With far right groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers focusing on local precincts and communities, officials must make firm public statements asserting that voter intimidation and armed militia activity around polling locations will not be tolerated, McCord said.
“All of these efforts are really part of this strategy to not only threaten and intimidate, but also to really gum up the works, which will lead to the ability to file lawsuits” challenging the election results, McCord said on MSNBC this week. “They might be frivolous, they might be baseless, but they are trying to set up a rational to allow for filing of those suits.”
News outlets first reported the intelligence bulletins warning of extremist violence on Friday, the same day that a man broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home in California and brutally attacked her husband with a hammer in an attempt to hunt down the Democratic leader. Analysts say the suspected assailant, David DePape, left a trail online suggesting a “standard case of online right-wing radicalization.”
However, the right-wing media quickly dismissed the attack with a bizarre and homophobic conspiracy theory with help from Trump and other figures who were quick to share debunked claims and hearsay online. Thanks to the insular nature of right-wing and pro-Trump media ecosystem, the baseless conspiracy theory was likely accepted as reality by a sizable chunk of the GOP base, according to Matt Gertz, a researcher at Media Matters for America.
The right-wing media bubble has pushed election denialism since 2020 and is currently spreading misinformation about the midterm elections and “voter fraud” as Republican operatives organize an “army” of poll watchers to contest the vote, according to Truthout’s analysis of content on conservative social media sites. Gertz argues that right-wing media consumers exist in a sort of “parallel universe” where they are “uniquely vulnerable” to conspiracy theories that frame political opponents as evil, Satanic enemies, fueling violence and extremism in the process:
The right-wing press spent decades spinning out these politically convenient narratives about the diabolical nature of their perceived enemies until the audience came to demand them. Few on the right — and none with any real degree of influence — are interested in debunking the rampant lies once they get going. Instead, powerful figures at Fox News and elsewhere end up pushing the likes of QAnon talking points and scoffing at its extremism. And decades of right-wing attacks on the mainstream press have created a bubble in which the audience is unlikely to receive or credit contradictory information from those outlets.
It’s within this media bubble that intelligence analysts, journalists and voting rights groups are looking for evidence that extremists are plotting to sow chaos on Election Day. While law enforcement cautions that violence could arise from any end of the political spectrum, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin obtained by news outlets last week said the “most plausible” threat comes from “lone offenders who leverage election-related issues to justify violence,” including grievances about Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden in 2020.
Madeline Peltz, a researcher at Media Matters for America who covers former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said the far right agitator’s “War Room” podcast is a central hub for radicalizing people with election conspiracy theories and pulling together right-wing efforts to disrupt and subvert the vote.
“Over past few weeks and months, Bannon is using his platform as an organizing hub for dozens of election denial groups that are recruiting volunteers to participate in the election process, both externally and also has through government positions such as poll workers and watchers,” Peltz said in an interview with Truthout.
Bannon’s fans and other right-wing audiences are explicitly being called to challenge the vote in Democratic strongholds, Peltz added. Voting rights groups and nonpartisan observers will be on the ground to assist voters and document any abuses, if they occur. Voting rights groups are currently distributing resources to help voters identify and report illegal voter intimidation, including militia activity near the polls that is banned in several states.
Various state laws govern what designated “poll watchers” are allowed to do inside the polls, including challenge a voter’s ballot. Even if your qualification to vote is challenged by a “watcher” or observer at the polls on Election Day, voting rights groups say you still have the right to cast a regular ballot unless that challenge is sustained and, at minimum, you have the right to cast a provisional ballot before leaving the site.
New polling finds that nearly half of Americans think the U.S. should be a Christian nation — and that, among those who believe as such, over half think that the word of the Bible should take precedence over the will of the public when it comes to writing laws.
The research, by Pew Research Center, finds that 45 percent of adults surveyed say that the U.S. should be a Christian nation, while 51 percent disagree. While two-thirds of Americans say that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of government affairs, there is still a sizable — and perhaps alarming — amount of Americans who believe that Christianity should guide U.S. law, the polling found.
Among those who said that the U.S. should be a Christian nation, a majority (52 percent) said that the federal government should never declare an official religion. But still, among that group, a larger share (54 percent) said that the Bible should have more influence on U.S. laws than the will of the public, while 22 percent said that the Bible should have an impact but not overrule the will of the people. This means that about 27 percent and 19 percent of the poll’s respondents agree with these statements, respectively.
Additionally, about a third of the group that believes that the U.S. should be a Christian nation said that religious diversity “weakens American society,” or about 19 percent overall.
Pew notes that some seemingly conflicting views shown in the poll may be explained by the fact that respondents may not fully agree on what it means for the U.S. to be a “Christian nation,” or that respondents don’t fully understand the implications of such a declaration. For instance, 60 percent of respondents said that the U.S.’s founders originally intended for the U.S. to be a Christian nation, even though it is explicitly written in the First Amendment that U.S. lawmakers should never establish a national religion through law.
Some respondents may think that Americans should act under a unified set of morals, not that it should be written into the law, Pew said. Or, they may simply think that a majority of the population is already Christian — as exemplified by the fact that 33 percent of Americans evidently think that the U.S. is already a Christian nation, the poll found.
However, the fact that there is a rather large portion of respondents who seem to be hostile to religions other than Christianity and that they believe the Bible should essentially be translated as rule of law is concerning, especially in a time when Republicans are increasingly embracing Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism is a dangerous ideology closely associated with white supremacy and fascism; moves like the Supreme Court’s Christian, far right judges ruling to overturn federal abortion rights earlier this year are an example of the spread of Christofascism on the right and inside the corridors of power.
The ideology is still unpopular, the survey found. Five percent of respondents said that they have a favorable opinion of Christian nationalism — a large number for such a fringe and malignant view, but still a small proportion overall. About a quarter of respondents said they have an unfavorable view of Christian nationalism, while 54 percent said they have never heard of the ideology.
There is little doubt that pro-Trump Republicans are going to challenge voters and contest results that they do not like in 2022’s general election. And should they lose those challenges and contests, they are not likely to accept the results.
The warning signs are everywhere.
There are recruitment drives to challenge voters and voter registrations. There are instructions to disrupt the process and counting of votes. There are assertions not to trust any vote-counting computer. Some general election candidates are already claiming that the results will be rigged unless they win.
Election officials and their defenders are anticipating these actions. They have written and shared guides on how to deal with subversive poll workers and unruly party observers. Election officials have been urged to build relationships with the press before crises hit, and tell stories about “friends and neighbors” who run the process to build trust. They are being reminded to bolster cybersecurity, be calm and professional, and use posters and handouts that explain the process.
But as the November 8, 2022, Election Day nears, it appears that the people most likely to be attacking and defending the process are, in many respects, talking past each other. What the critics are seeking — a level of simplicity and transparency in the vote-counting protocols and rules — is not what is being teed up and offered to the public in defense of the voting to come.
“In a lot of these close races, the margins are not going to be close enough for a recount, but close enough that the election deniers will be able to attack the results,” said Chris Sautter, an election lawyer who has specialized in post-election challenges and recounts since the 1980s. “The margin that triggers recounts is much smaller than the margin that will trigger attacks.”
Stepping back, a key question that has hovered over the investigations by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol remains: How much can the electoral system be stressed before it breaks, whether from disruptions, disinformation, partisan interference, or something else that is unexpected but swirls out of control later this fall?
“We will soon find out if American democracy is robust enough,” concluded the New Yorker’s Sue Halpern, in an October 4 report that detailed how “Republican-led legislatures and right-wing activists alike are making things more difficult for election officials.”
The Coming Attacks
There have been no signs in recent months that pro-Trump Republicans have tempered their belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Instead, there are ample signs that their mindset is becoming more belligerent.
In early August, after the FBI raided the ex-president’s home in Mar-a-Lago to retrieve secret documents that should not have left the White House, there was an uptick in social media posts threatening a coming “civil war.” On August 29, Trump again cited baseless 2020 conspiracies and demanded a new election.
Trump loyalists and copycat candidates have built on these sentiments.
Matt Braynard, an ex-Trump campaign staffer whose claims that voter fraud tilted the 2020 election have been debunked by media fact checkers, nonetheless announced plans on October 5 to “challenge votes” in nine battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin — and is recruiting volunteers.
Days before, at an October 1 forum in Arizona, Shawn Smith, a retired Air Force Colonel, member of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and president of Cause of America, another election-denying group, told the audience that no voting system computer is reliable. “The people telling you they are secure are either ignorant or lying,” he said, before naming 10 of the nation’s top election regulators, election administration experts, and voting industry spokespeople. These experts are some of the same people now advising local election officials on how to respond to threats this fall.
Jim Hoft, the founder and editor of the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump website that has championed Trump’s false stolen election claims and sees the January 6 insurrectionists as heroes, has gone further. On October 3, his site published an “action list… to save our elections from fraud,” whose instructions include urging party observers inside election offices to “escalate,” “disrupt,” or “require a temporary shut-down of the faulty area” if they see anything suspicious. The action list also recommended that postal workers should be followed, “incident reports” should be prepared, and lawyers should “[f]ile lawsuits demanding oversight.”
“Patriots must register as poll workers, observers, and get involved,” Hoft wrote. “But we must do more.”
Meanwhile, candidates who have embraced Trump and his “big lie,” such as Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake in her August primary or New Hampshire GOP U.S. Senate nominee Don Bolduc on October 10, said the vote count was rigged in 2020 and was likely to be rigged again this fall.
“And as long as we have this type of fraud and irregularities that are susceptible to our system across this country, we are going to be in big trouble,” Bolduc told a radio interviewer. “So, it’s less about whether we focus on 2020[’s] stolen election and [more about] how we focus on how we’re going to win in 2022 and [that we] don’t let it happen.”
Arming Election Defenders
Meanwhile, nearly a dozen organizations — from federal agencies tasked with cybersecurity, to nonprofits specializing in voting rights and running elections, to professional organizations of election administrators, to consulting firms staffed by former election officials — have been preparing and sharing guides, tools, and taking other steps to defend the process and the 2022 general election’s results.
“Thanks to the folks at… [the Alliance for Securing Democracy,] Brennan Center, Bipartisan Policy Center, Bridging Divides Initiative, Center for Election Innovation & Research, Center for Tech and Civic Life, CISA [U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency], The Elections Group, National Association for Media Literacy Education, and National Association of State Election Directors for all the work they’ve done for elections officials and for providing the resources here,” wrote Mindy Moretti, editor of Electionline.org, a news and information hub for election officials, in an October 6 weekly column that listed and linked to more than 40 publications, guides, and other resources.
The topics covered include audits, communications, cybersecurity, election management, election security at polls and operations centers, legal advice, mis/disinformation, insider threats by election workers, poll worker security gaps, de-escalation techniques, nonconfrontational training strategies, standards of conduct for election workers, testing voting systems, voting by mail, and more.
The “De-Escalation Guidance for Poll Workers,” from Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, for example, emphasizes planning, training, and monitoring one’s responses.
“Familiarize yourself with federal and state laws and guidance on polling place disruptions and unauthorized militia,” it said in its section on planning. “Remember the goal is not to win an argument but to calm verbal disruptions and prevent physical disruptions,” it advised as part of its training guidance. “While de-escalating don’t: order, threaten, attempt to argue disinformation, or be defensive.”
“As trite as it sounds, you need to take control of the ‘narrative’ before it takes control of you,” wrote Pam Fessler, a former National Public Radio reporter who covered elections for two decades there, in “Telling Our Story: An Elections Communications Guide,” written for the Elections Group, a consulting firm run by former election officials.
“Of all the stories you have to tell, the most important one is this: ‘Our elections are safe and secure, and run by Americans you can trust,’” Fessler’s communications guide said. “It’s about feelings and belief, more than numbers and facts. Those who question the legitimacy of elections refer to what they believe are ‘facts’ about voting discrepancies, but their appeal is largely emotional: ‘People are trying to steal our elections; we need to take our country back.’”
“You can counter by appealing to these same emotions — patriotism, desire for freedom and civic pride,” it continued. “You might even find common ground. Many of those who question the voting process believe they too are defending democracy and that if they don’t, they risk losing control of their lives.”
Ships in the Night?
Arguably, the country has not seen as wide an array of proactive measures among election officials to anticipate and counter potential disruptions and propaganda. In 2020’s general election, the focus concerned implementing new protocols that surrounded mailed-out ballots and safer in-person voting — as COVID-19 vaccines were not yet available — and cybersecurity to protect voter and ballot data.
However, what is not emphasized in these tools is what some pro-Trump Republicans say that they have been specifically seeking, which is easily understood evidence that results are accurate. That desire is behind their movement’s push for states to stop using vote-counting computers and to count all ballots by hand.
Pro-Trump legislators in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, Washington, and West Virginia) introduced bills in 2022 to ban these computers. A handful of rural towns and counties have put forth measures to require hand counts and a few have passed, including in Nye County, Nevada, a swing state. Candidates such as Arizona’s gubernatorial nominee Lake and GOP secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem have sued to require hand counts. (They lost in court in September rulings but have appealed.)
Beyond studies that have also shown that electronic vote-count systems are more accurate than hand counts (which are error-prone due to their repetitive nature and can take days to complete), the current timelines in many states between Election Day and when the official results must be certified do not accommodate hand counts — especially in states where millions of ballots are cast.
Moreover, the margins in state law that trigger recounts (which come after the results are certified) are generally 1 percent or less. That volume is much smaller than the volume of votes that pro-Trump Republicans have claimed were suspect in 2020 — even though they never offered any proof that was accepted by a court.
Thus, while election officials and their defenders might be preparing to convince reasonable Americans that the voting and counting is accurate and legitimate, it appears that pro-Trump Republicans who did not accept 2020’s results will not find much to be reassured by — since their movement’s self-appointed IT experts continue to say that election system computers cannot be trusted.
These factors and seemingly irreconcilable views are poised to collide after November 8. This is why growing numbers of pundits are starting to ask aloud if the system will hold under the coming stress test from election deniers.
“Until we are able to return to the point where the losing side accepts the vote count as valid, we’re going to be trapped in a world of election wars,” said Sautter. “Of course, transparency, public oversight, and public access are paramount to restoring faith in our elections so that we can get to that point.”
This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.