Portrait of Patrick J.Egan against a blue background.
“Insurrections and threats to democratic institutions were once the province of those who study other countries,” says Egan. “Not anymore.”
community voices


Voters of all political persuasions lose when free and fair elections are undermined.
by Patrick J. Egan ’92
AT ABOUT 3:30 P.M. on Jan. 6, 2021, I was teaching my NYU course on U.S. politics, which was being held on Zoom. As they tuned in from around the world, my students began sending alarmed messages to the class. Their posts were how I first learned that thousands of rioters had launched an assault on Congress as it met to certify the 2020 presidential election. The discussion persisted long after class was over, as students sought connection while one unbelievable scene after another unfolded on our screens.

Such is the job of political scientists who study and teach about U.S. politics in the 2020s. Although these developments have deep roots in our nation’s ugly history of disenfranchising the many to empower the few, insurrections and threats to democratic institutions were once the province of those who study other countries. Not anymore.

This leaves me with the challenge of continuing to speak, teach, and write about politics — including the words you’re reading right now — in a nonpartisan way. Like most political scientists, I scrupulously lay my preferences aside in my research and teaching. But it would be a disservice to ignore the fact that most efforts to undermine U.S. democracy are currently coming from one side of the aisle.

The Capitol rioters were mobilized by far-right groups and encouraged by a Republican president. Scores of GOP candidates in the upcoming midterm elections deny the results of the 2020 presidential election, and in key races they stand to gain authority over how elections are administered and ballots are counted.

This leaves political scientists wondering how to describe the threat to U.S. democracy while avoiding the appearance of favoring one party over another. Many Americans are asking this question, too — especially Republicans who desperately want the fever that has gripped their party to break. Three maxims I’m trying to live by might be helpful to anyone engaging this difficult topic.

Appeal to logic. If a democracy is working properly, sometimes your side wins and sometimes it loses. This is often forgotten by activists of every stripe, but it’s an obvious principle that most Americans understand and agree upon. You’re defying the logic of democracy if you claim election fraud only when you garner fewer votes than your opponent.

Stick to the facts. Recent efforts to discredit and overturn elections have been thoroughly debunked. False assertions have been examined and rejected by lawmakers, election administrators, and judges from both parties. The truth is that our highly decentralized election system makes it very, very hard to manufacture lots of fraudulent votes.

Provide historical perspective. Election fraud was once common, and party bosses benefited from it at the expense of voters. Today it’s remarkably rare in part because both parties abide by election administrators’ rules. Subverting this fragile norm by refusing to certify vote counts, drawing up substitute slates of electors, and conducting sham recounts is a return to the politics of the past.

Starting with the Boston Tea Party, a deep-seated distrust of authority is rooted in Americans’ political DNA. The fact that voters of all political persuasions lose when free and fair elections are discredited is perhaps the strongest nonpartisan point one can make about the current threat to U.S. democracy.

Voting is the most powerful tool we have to ensure that those who govern remain responsive to the people. Efforts by anyone to undermine the election process put power into the hands of politicians while taking it away from you and me — Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike.