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Politics Podcast: Adam Schiff Is Worried About American Democracy

This week, Senate Republicans blocked Democrats’ attempts to pass the Freedom to Vote Act — a bill to streamline voting access across the country, reform the redistricting process and bolster the security of voting systems, among other things. Democrats warn that new Republican legislation restricting voting access, along with attempts by former President Trump to overturn the 2020 election, show the vulnerability of the American democratic system and could have grave consequences for the country.

In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, we spoke with Adam Schiff, a Democratic representative from California and the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, whose new book “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could” addresses why he thinks American democracy is under threat.

You can read select, lightly edited excerpts below.

Galen Druke, host of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast: How close do you think the United States is to not being a democracy today?

Adam Schiff: I think we are still very much a democracy, but a lot of the guardrails have come down. Things that we never imagined could happen in this country have happened. It was hard to imagine, post-Watergate, another president of the United States using the Justice Department to protect those who are lying to cover up for him. But that’s what Bill Barr did: in intervening in Roger Stone’s case, someone convicted of lying to Congress and trying to intimidate other witnesses into lying to Congress; by intervening to make the whole case of Mike Flynn go away. But also using that Justice Department to go after the president’s enemies. And of course, the betrayal of that Department of Justice, which is supposed to represent the interests of justice, is only one of innumerable examples. The frequent attacks on the press as the enemy of the people, reportedly trying to raise postal rates on Amazon to punish the Washington Post is using the instruments of state power to censor the press. The flagrant violations of the Hatch Act, the flagrant violations of the Emoluments Clause. … We are still a democracy, but we are also not out of the woods.

GD: Do you have reason to think that in the future checks on overturning democracy will not hold? Do you think that maybe the Supreme Court would overturn an election? That the United States military would not be on board with the legitimate results of an election? The bad things happened and our system still held. What gives you reason to think it might not hold in the future?

AS: Well, because we were fortunate in the last election. In a couple of respects, we’re fortunate that Joe Biden won and won handily, and we were fortunate that local and state elections officials did their job and upheld their oaths of office. But those elections officials are being hounded now out of their posts, and replaced with people who would do Donald Trump’s bidding. And where the legal cases brought were frivolous and the lawyers representing the former president were clownish, with hair dye running down their face, we may not be so fortunate the next time.

GD: Why do you think that is?

AS: Well, I think that is because, again, you know, people like Brad Raffensperger did the right thing. What happens if you have someone in that position that does the wrong thing? What happens if state legislators in Michigan or Pennsylvania this time, adhere to what Donald Trump wants and send a dual slate of electors? What happens if we get to Congress and the Electoral College were tied, and it comes down to a single state, you can imagine the kind of tumult the country would go through, the kind of constitutional crisis we’d be in. So we cannot, I think, take much solace in the fact that the system held, because it barely held.

Adam Schiff Is Worried About American Democracy | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

GD: Do you think that Americans care about commitment to democracy enough that it will help determine how they vote?

AS: I’m counting on it. And look, there’s some distressing numbers — talking about polling — distressing numbers of Americans, particularly young Americans, who question whether democracy is the right model. And we’re in a competition not just at home, apparently with where the Republican Party is now, about democracy versus autocracy. But we’re in that competition around the globe. China is advocating what it calls its model that can deliver economic prosperity and law and order. They point to scenes of people climbing on the Capitol building and gouging police as Exhibit A: that democracy can’t maintain order and the economy at the same time. Now, the Chinese model, people need to know, is totalitarianism. And people cannot be lulled into thinking that that’s somehow an alternative to democracy. It isn’t. But around the world, people are questioning whether democracy is the right model. We are in, I think, a struggle not just for the heart and soul of America, but for the heart and soul of people around the world — and with huge consequences.

GD: About 20 percent of Americans said across a number of surveys that violence is at least a little bit justified if their party did not win the 2020 election. And there was almost no difference between Democrats and Republicans. Of course, the Capitol attack that you’re looking at was amongst Trump supporters. How worried are you about future political violence?

AS: I’m deeply worried about it. It’s the natural consequence of efforts to cast doubt on the whole elections process. I mean, if you can’t count on the ballot to decide who governs, then you look at other remedies like violence. And so I’m deeply concerned about it. And, you know, the violence was directed at the U.S. Capitol. It may be directed elsewhere — at state capitols, local government. You know, we see around the world dangerous illustrations. Another British parliamentarian stabbed to death. And so this is a terrible trend. You’d be hard pressed to find members of Congress these days that don’t get death threats. And some, like myself, all too regularly. And so yes, it is very much top of mind.

GD: Bright Line Watch, which is a group of academics who studied democracy globally and here in the United States, started polling Americans about their wishes to break up the country based on region. And, you know, this is just an abstract polling question. But a startlingly high number of people responded that they could support breaking up the country. Is that something that you worry about, like amongst lawmakers when you’re talking about this kind of stuff? Do you talk about worries about violence, civil war, breaking up the country? Like, does it get that bad in your mind?

AS: Well, it certainly, you know, has us talking about political violence and being extraordinarily alarmed by the prospect of more political violence. I’m not surprised, frankly, by the polling you mentioned — that an increasing number of Americans look with favor on a breakup of the Union. And that ought to set off alarm bells for us. I think part of what has contributed to that is the fact that the reaction to this virus has been so different from place to place, and you need national unity to conquer this violence. If we don’t get vaccinated, we’re never going to be able to put an end to this virus, and we’re going to have to deal with its consequences and preventable deaths for years and years to come. And I think that has really contributed to the amount of anger among those who are vaccinated towards those who are not vaccinated. And, and exposing, you know, the rest of the country to danger and, and economic damage that results from it, I think, is one of the drivers of this.

Demonstrators in Washington, DC hold up signs that read “Black Voters Matter.”

Related: How Democrats’ Failure To Pass A Voting Rights Bill Fits A Pattern Of Failing Voters Of Color Read more. »

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter.