‘We’re in an Emergency’

Jan. 6 Capitol crowd

'We're in an Emergency'

More than 170 political science scholars penned an open letter raising alarms about threats to American democracy. We talked to one of them.

by jesse fox mayshark • June 7, 2021


Pro-Trump insurgents storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Creative Commons 2.0)

It has been a tumultuous 12 months in American politics, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, from the presidential campaign to last November’s election to the efforts to overturn it and the mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

UT professor Nate Kelly: 'It's sad that this has become partisan, but it has.'

Any hope that tensions might diminish after the inauguration of President Joe Biden dissipated swiftly as Republican-led state legislatures around the country enacted new voting restrictions and in some cases moved to change the oversight of the election process itself.

A majority of House Republicans voted against certifying the results of November’s election. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was removed from her GOP leadership position for challenging former President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of election fraud, signaling that the party as a whole is ready to use such allegations again in the event of another electoral defeat. 

All of this has alarmed many who study government and politics and who see the United States as potentially teetering on the brink of abandoning its commitment to democracy. Last week, 173 political scientists — among them national figures like Laurence Tribe, Larry Sabato and Norm Ornstein — issued a public “Statement of Concern” sending up flares about the threats they perceive. The letter has been cited by the New York Times and Washington Post, among other outlets.

Their concern is that a political party that has lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections may be close to giving up on democracy entirely and could use any method — including legislative override of the election results in swing states — to lock in minority rule.

The letter concludes, “We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary — including suspending the filibuster — in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.”

One of those who signed was Nate Kelly, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee who specializes in the study of how economic inequality shapes and is shaped by the American political system. Also signing was Jana Morgan, who is also a professor of political science at UT Knoxville and happens to be Kelly’s wife.

Compass sat down to talk to Kelly about the letter and his growing concerns about the stability of the U.S. political system. (Morgan was not available for the interview.) The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Compass: As you watched the sequence of events from election night through everything that happened in the weeks afterward, culminating in Jan. 6, what were your thoughts as a scholar of democracy?

Kelly: For those of us who are in the community of scholars who pay attention to these things, the alarms were starting to sound months before the election, really. A lot of these concerns were actually coming from people who don't study the United States but study other countries that have gone through cycles where they've moved from democracy to not-democracy. For those folks, they saw things happening in the American system that looked all too familiar to them. They started pointing out the things they were seeing. And those of us who focus more on American politics were seeing those things, too, but to hear those alarms from people who have seen transitions from democracy to non-democracy, for me at least, was extraordinarily alarming.

And then, of course, the election happened and the aftermath of the election. That immediate aftermath of the election was, from a scholar’s standpoint, very interesting in a lot of ways. Based on the behavior that we were observing, it wasn't completely clear exactly what the transition was going to look like, whether we were going to have a typical transition. And clearly we did not have a typical transition. What we witnessed in the interim between November and January, and the inauguration later in January, was not a peaceful transition of power.

Compass: Which was basically unique in American history, right? I mean, there was 1860 …

Kelly: Yeah. There have been some things sort of analogous, but not in the modern era — not in the era that we think of the United States as having a fully consolidated democracy. You know, when the founding happened, it was a radical democratic experiment at the time, that excluded women and excluded Blacks. Women were then eventually included, Blacks were eventually included, and then excluded (during the Jim Crow era), and then included in the 1960s. And we're still having these conversations now about who's in and who's out in American democracy.

Those are conversations that have been happening for a long time. That’s not new. But the questions about whether we would respect the rules as they're written, whether we agree with them or not? That's something that I have not witnessed in my lifetime, my dad has not witnessed in his lifetime, my grandfather did not witness in his lifetime. And that's the kind of thing that motivates me to actually say something that could be viewed as partisan in our current context.

As scholars, we're trained to be rigorously nonpartisan. It is just the facts. It’s focused on the data. We really a lot of times avoid partisan politics, more than even the normal person on the street would. So when things like this become politicized in a partisan way, it's scary, number one, but it's very jarring. Because we're also trained to be institutionalists. We're trained to respect institutions, and we’re trained to believe in democracy. So there's this tension between our nonpartisan nature and our pro-democracy nature right now. And I'm at the point where I'm willing to risk the nonpartisan thing for the pro-democracy thing, because the pro-democracy part is more important in the scheme of things. It's sad that this has become partisan, but it has.

In this particular case, you've got one political party that's really taken some very substantive steps to undermine our democratic institutions. And somebody has to say that out loud. One thing I sort of disagreed with in the letter was the end, ‘History will judge us.’ Well, that depends on who wins. I think what I would prefer to say is that what we decide will determine what history says about this. Our decisions now will be making the history. Will we still be a beacon of democracy 50 years from now in the United States or not?

UT professor Nate Kelly

University of Tennessee political science professor Nate Kelly.

Compass: You talked about how in a lot of ways, this is the fight we’ve been having all along: Who the country is for, who gets to be a citizen, who gets to count. Obviously there have been a lot of literal fights over that, with a lot of people killed. But the overall trajectory has been a broadening of the franchise. So what does our current situation mean in that context?

Kelly: Every time we've changed things, we've changed things to open it up and to make American democracy more inclusive, not less inclusive. I think it would be really the first time that we would substantially make democracy less inclusive, in a systematic way. But that’s a fight we’ve always had, and that’s a fight that as a scholar I can sort of tolerate. Part of politics is deciding who's in the polity and who's not, and polities get to decide that — that is a legitimate decision for a polity to make.

The thing that I've noticed about some of these very recent pushes from November onwards is it's moved beyond a fight about who counts and who doesn't. We're now actually fighting over whether we will follow the rules we agreed to before the election, after the election. We're now having a situation where some of these state legislatures are saying, not only are we going to do things that clearly have disparate impacts on certain groups. They're also saying, implicitly or explicitly, that election results are merely recommendations. It's the current elected officials deciding whether the election that determines whether they stay in office was legitimate. That is the thing that really pushes me into panic mode.

I don't think that this is a unique moral failing of Republican leaders. I think that the landscape right now is pushing them to this really bad thing for our system. The way it's supposed to work is that the rules are supposed to be stable, democracy is supposed to be constantly expanding, and then the parties are supposed to be competing for votes by shifting their policies around in order to win elections. And Republicans have put themselves in a place where it's very difficult for them to move their policy in a direction that will garner enough votes with an expanded electorate.

So they're fighting tooth and nail in the system that we have, by trying to change it around the edges in some cases. And restrictions like making voting hours shorter, these are things that you can like or not like, but they're legitimate moves for elected officials to make. They do have every right to make the rules for elections. 

But it's that next level of saying that we're just going to view elections as advisory — that is a death knell for democratic institutions. That cannot happen. That cannot be OK. If that is OK, then we're circling the drain. I mean, it's over at that point, because that takes away all incentive for parties to compete for votes. It just says, get power one time and then keep it. It’s very hard to go back once you’ve done that.

Compass: So what is the goal with the open letter? Who was it sent to?

Kelly: They published it as an open letter, obviously disseminated it to some journalists and policymakers. You never know what's going to happen with those things when you sign on to them. But I was glad to see that there's at least been some attention to it.

I think the key actors right now who need to be cognizant of the situation are Democratic senators. I don't think that you can necessarily pass legislation that will totally prevent the crumbling of democracy, if legislatures around the country want to undermine democracy. But things like national legislation that protect voting rights and do things that make it harder for legislatures to intervene in elections politically are good steps that need to happen. And for those things to happen, action needs to occur, particularly in the Senate. It's just pretty clear that there just aren't enough Republican votes to get to 60, because this has become such a partisan issue.

So the key Democratic senators who are deciding whether they need to reform the filibuster, or get rid of the filibuster, or make an exception to the filibuster for this kind of thing, they need to hear that we're in an emergency. We've been in a public health emergency for quite a while now. Well, we're in an American democracy emergency, too. They need to realize that and they need to act accordingly.