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Our democracy is in deep peril. Take it from political scientists who sounded the alarm this week

A group opposing new voter legislation gathered outside the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas.Eric Gay/Associated Press

Panic stations, people.

American democracy did not dodge a bullet after the 2020 election so much as delay its impact.

In swing states across the country, Republicans are passing or considering laws that would make it way harder for likely Democratic voters to cast ballots. They’re rationalizing these efforts via the Big Lie -- the baseless allegation that the election was stolen from former president Trump via voter fraud. But voter suppression is only part of it. Republicans are also trying to strip secretaries of state - including Republican ones who demonstrated integrity in the wake of the 2020 election -- of their powers, or replace them with Trump cultists willing to overrule vote tallies. The House and the Senate minorities are controlled by those who seem plenty willing to overturn elections that don’t favor them if they regain the majority. The clown show vote “audit” in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the Dallas QAnon carnival, where the traitorous Michael Flynn expressed support for a military coup -- it’s all of a piece.

We are in deep trouble here. So much trouble that, this week, a group of 100-plus political scientists and other experts on democracy joined the legions raising the alarm. Because several states are headed for “political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections,” they wrote, “our entire democracy is at risk.”


Kay Schlozman never expected to find herself in such a group. The J. Joseph Moakley professor of political science at Boston College has been teaching a course called “Parties and Elections” since just after President Gerald Ford pardoned a disgraced Richard Nixon in 1974. Until now, she has always been able to reassure her students -- even in unsteady moments like the disputed election of 2000 -- that all would be well, that the system would work.


“I told them America is the oldest democracy on earth, and the American people can be patient,” she said. “It might not work out like you want it to or I want it to, but it will work out.”

She had no such reassurance for her most recent class: The aftermath of the 2020 election, and especially the events of Jan. 6, have her wondering how our democracy can continue to function if efforts to undermine voting go unanswered.

For democracy to work, “ordinary citizens have to believe ... that even outcomes they disagree with are legitimate,” she said. Schlozman’s training as a political scientist tells her “to take a deep breath, don’t get panicked,” but what’s happening here and now makes calm elusive, she said.

Schlozman believes Republicans are motivated by neither an interest in establishing an authoritarian regime nor racism -- even though their anti-democratic measures fall disproportionately upon voters of color.

“I think their objective is not to upend democracy, but to make sure they win,” she said. “A lot of their tinkering is in fact not animated by race, but in a lot of states, especially in the South, the quickest way to disenfranchise Democrats is to target Black voters.”

Even that generous reading of GOP intent brings us perilously close to Jim Crow, however.

How do we pull back? President Biden’s valiant efforts to turn down the national temperature and appeal to our better angels when it comes to voting rights have so far failed. His Memorial Day speech connecting the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers to the very rights Republicans are erasing was lovely, but seems unlikely to move GOP leaders and voters who have decided winning is worth any cost.


The fastest route back to fuller democracy involves ending the filibuster and enacting federal legislation that would override the destructive new state voting laws. But even decent Republicans won’t budge on the Senate rule. Nor will the willfully blind West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who clings to a belief in the bipartisanship Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell vaporized long ago. Or attention-seeking Democratic Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who appears to have few beliefs at all.

Where does this leave us? In a corner, where our only choice is to fight like hell to save what is left of this grand experiment. Find a midterm contest or a voting rights group and help however you can.

This is not a drill.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.