Hillary Clinton dipped her toe back into the political waters Tuesday, issuing a call to arms for activists to take on issues such as voter suppression and election interference ahead of the 2020 elections.

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. is facing a historic, “defining” moment, drawing comparisons to the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Racist and white supremacist views are lifted up in the media and in the White House,” she said. “Hard-fought-for civil rights are being stripped back. The rule of law is being undermined. The norms and institutions that provide the foundation of our democracy are under assault.”

Mrs. Clinton was speaking at an event at George Washington University co-organized by the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers and her own Onward Together political action group.

She said defending democracy can’t be a “spectator sport” and that the U.S. is facing a “crisis in democracy” with President Trump in the White House.

Mrs. Clinton said she has spoken with many of the current contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

“I’ve answered their questions about everything from digital outreach to investments in the early states, and I’ve ended every conversation by saying to each one: Let me tell you what I think the biggest obstacle might very well turn out to be,” she said.

She said you can have the best plans and even win the popular vote but still lose the electoral college and be denied the presidency — as she was when she lost to Mr. Trump in 2016.

She cited voter suppression, outside hacking efforts, “phony” online news stories and so-called “deep fakes,” and a lack of security in U.S. election systems as reasons for concern.

She said some people accuse those trying to analyze patterns of voter suppression of “re-litigating” past elections.

“Now, that’s a convenient way to deflect the truth, which is that we are witnessing a deliberate and ongoing effort to undermine the integrity of our elections and to silence the voices [of] millions of Americans — particularly young people, the elderly, women, and people of color,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton, who was dogged in 2016 by WikiLeaks’ rolling releases of embarrassing campaign-related emails, said a more secure election in 2020 will require changes in law and “real investments.”

“When we add this all up, we have a fundamental set of threats to the bedrock of our democracy,” she said. “And anyone who stands in the way of confronting those threats, from Mitch McConnell and his allies to the president himself, is abdicating their responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution.”

Though she has remained a public critic of Mr. Trump, Mrs. Clinton has shied away from the spotlight somewhat since her shocking defeat in 2016. Her comments about 2020 and the Trump administration could present a double-edged sword for Democrats.

Many in the party say the 2016 election was effectively stolen from Mrs. Clinton through outside forces such as Russian interference and former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the case about her private email server. Others, though, appear more eager to simply move on and press forward with a new face of the party.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a longtime Clinton ally who introduced Mrs. Clinton via video, said not enough people listened to her in 2016 and that her voice remains a valuable one.

“This woman has more knowledge and understanding of the world in her pinky finger than most of us can ever hope to have,” Ms. Weingarten said.

There’s a clear distinction between an event like the one Tuesday and a more overtly political event where she might endorse one of the 2020 candidates, said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

“When she says something like she did today and talks about Russian interference and ballot security, she has a tremendous amount of credibility with Democratic primary voters,” Mr. Bannon said. “In terms of the nomination, based on the polling I’ve seen, an endorsement by Hillary would be a major asset for one of the Democratic presidential candidates because she’s still very popular with Democratic primary voters.”

But Paul Goldman, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said she might be better off steering clear of overtly political subjects — to the extent that would be possible for someone such as Mrs. Clinton, also a former U.S. senator and first lady.

“For her, she had a long pursuit of the presidency; it’s not going to happen. And so she might be better off just realizing that look, I got to pick my spot,” Mr. Goldman said.

The Trump campaign appeared to welcome the notion of Mrs. Clinton playing an active role during the 2020 campaign.

“We hope the 2020 Democrats take advice from two-time losing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews.

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