Democracy can’t function without a certain level of civic virtue, a modicum of consensus; at the very least, everybody has to agree to play by the rules. When that doesn’t happen, contested elections, violence, even civil war can result. For many decades now, Americans, like Israelis and many Europeans, have been spared those plagues. Unlike Franklin and Nixon, too many of us now take our system for granted. Few of us are mentally prepared for the highest offices of state to be occupied by people who do not play by the rules, are not suffused with civic virtue, and do not mind damaging the delicate democratic consensus if that’s what it takes to win.
For Americans, Israelis, and many others, the primary danger of “Stop the Steal” tactics lies precisely in their novelty: If you haven’t seen or experienced this kind of assault on the fundamental basis of democracy—if you’ve never encountered a politician who is actively seeking to undermine your trust in the electoral system, your belief that votes are counted correctly, your faith that your nation can survive a victory by the other side—then you might not recognize the hazard. The majority of Republican voters appear not to. Other than Representative Liz Cheney, Representative Adam Kinzinger, and a handful of other officials, even elected Republicans seem not to understand exactly how corrosive this form of politics might eventually become.
The secondary danger of these tactics is their potential to spread. “Autocratic learning” is a real phenomenon: Dictators are copycats, imitating one another’s use of surveillance technology and crowd control. Historically, democrats have been copycats too: There is a reason democratic revolutions have come in waves, whether in 1848 or 1989. But democrats who aspire to become autocrats can also learn from one another.