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Dartmouth Prof. Brendan Nyhan On What He Calls 'A Democratic Emergency'

Headshot of Dartmouth Government Professor Brendan Nyhan
Brendan Nyhan, courtesy
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of Government at Dartmouth College, says President Trump's refusal to say he would accept the outcome of the presidential election should be taken seriously.

Brendan Nyhan has used the phrase "a democratic emergency" in a number of successive tweets made recently with links to stories about President Trump's refusal to say that he would accept the outcome of a presidential election that he loses.Nyhan is a professor of political science at Dartmouth College and a contributor to The New York Times newsletter, The Upshot. He spoke to VPR's Mitch Wertlieb.

Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Brendan Nyhan: We've never seen a president refuse to commit to the peaceful transfer of power before. That is the very core of our democratic system, or indeed any democracy at all. The president has signaled that he may not uphold that commitment. This is an emergency.

Mitch Wertlieb: Arecent article in The Atlanticrefers to reports that some Republican electors in key battleground states have been contacted about the potential for pledging their votes to Donald Trump, regardless of whether all the mail-in and absentee ballots have been counted in those states. That could obviously tip the election in Donald Trump's favor.

How credible are those reports, to your knowledge? And can you elaborate a bit on whether such a move could actually be legal under the Constitution?

I can't tell you about the details of how every state has set up their electoral system. But what I can tell you is that we've jury-rigged our democratic system on top of the Electoral College. Even though the Electoral College is not a popular vote, states have overwhelmingly pledged to commit their electors to vote for whomever wins the popular vote in their state, with a couple of exceptions where states allocate on a congressional district basis.

Because states are allowed to determine how they choose electors under the Constitution, there is room for states to break this bargain and to change the rules at the last minute and try to substitute the will of their legislatures for the people of their state. I don't know if we will see it happen in this election, but the prospect of it even being considered, the fact that we're even talking about it, is itself damaging to democracy.

And we should point out that despite what Donald Trump has said, mail-in ballots, absentee ballots - there is no evidence whatsoever of massive fraud. Many states have been using mail-in balloting for years and years and years.

That's right. In general, widespread voter fraud is a fiction. There is no credible evidence to suggest it exists.

Benjamin Ginsberg, who is the top Republican election lawyer in the country and litigated Bush v. Gore, just wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. So the Republicans' top election lawyer has made this point clear.

"It does not get any more real or serious than this. My colleagues who study democratic erosion in other countries are terrified of what they're seeing." — Brendan Nyhan, professor of government, Dartmouth College

And yet the president is continuing to claim that the election is being stolen, that the election is being rigged, and to attack the legitimacy of our democratic process in a way that undermines confidence in the result and creates confusion and perceptions of illegitimacy.

The president is saying this mere weeks before an election that we're counting on him to accept the results of. It does not get any more real or serious than this. My colleagues who study democratic erosion in other countries are terrified of what they're seeing.

Well, that brings me to my next question, because at the time that you and I are taping this interview, Vermont's junior senator, Bernie Sanders, is giving a speech on this very topic. But is anyone other than liberals, progressives or Democrats listening to what Bernie Sanders, yourself and others have to say?

I don't know; I hope so. This should not be a matter of partisan dispute.

We've seen a handful of Republicans come out since the president's statement and affirm their support for the peaceful transfer of power: Mitt Romney, Steve Stivers, Liz Cheney, Marco Rubio, and there will hopefully be more. But we need those kinds of affirmations of a commitment to the process from everyone at all levels of government.

Bernie Sanders, it's great if you want to speak up on behalf of this, but we need Republicans and independents. We need nonprofit religious groups. We need everyone from every walk of life. And we need the media to describe very clearly what's happening. This is not normal politics.

Well, are media outlets doing enough to expose this potential threat?

I think people are starting to become more clear-eyed about the threat, although I still worry. In The New York Times and Washington Post today, Trump's comments, in which he failed to affirm his commitment to the peaceful transfer of power, were inside the paper, not at the top of the fold on A1, where they should be.

There is a way in which we've become desensitized to the president's comments. He's said things like this before. How much of news is it really? It is incredibly important news.

The way you're describing this, this feels like a slow-moving train that we can all see moving down the track and democracy itself may be tied to those tracks. Is there anything that can be done to stop a president if he loses the election, a free and fair election, from not ceding power and having that peaceful transition of power that we've become so used to for over 200 years?

The question will first go to Trump's allies: Will they stand with him? And then ultimately, it will go to the American people. And in countries where these kinds of disruptions to democracy have taken place, the ultimate recourse is to the streets. And it may take millions of Americans in the streets in protest to stop an action like this. But I hesitate to contemplate that kind of scenario. It should not be necessary in a stable democracy, where both sides play by the rules of the game and are committed to the Constitution that we live under.

But it's important to be clear: there's no magic solution here. There's no one who comes down and decides the election or prevents someone from overturning it: prematurely declaring victory, refusing to accept the results of the election. That's why we have to act now. That's why we have to sound the alarm now. And that's why we have to defend our democracy now.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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