Previous | Next
In the two books I have been reviewing here, Tim Miller’s Why We Did It and Dana Milbank’s The Destructionists, Milbank gets my prize for the single most useful insight into what has happened to the Republican Party. He says it has become “an authoritarian faction fighting democracy” because “democracy is working against Republicans.”
What he means by “democracy working against Republicans” is mainly a demographic trend: Republicans have “chosen to become the voice of white people,” but white people are declining as a percentage of the U.S. population. Most older Americans—almost everyone over the age of 57 as of this year—were born after the Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas to preserve the existing ethnic makeup of the country, but before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the doors to the wider world. They are the whitest collection of old folks we are likely to see in this country, and I trust the most Trumpian.
I would take Milbank’s insight further. I would go beyond demographics to suggest that democracy is now working against Republicans in a much more general way.
The struggle for democratic rights
In the light of American history, democracy is hardly static. The United States has a long history of extending rights to racial and ethnic minorities, non-Christians, women, children, workers, people with disabilities, and the list goes on. No serious student of American history should fail to see what remarkably restricted lives many people used to lead in a supposedly free country. Making democracy work for more people is arguably what America has been all about.
These extensions have not been easy or uncontested, since every new right for someone entails new responsibilities for someone else. The right of Blacks to be served at a restaurant entails the responsibility of the restaurant to serve them. The rights of workers to bargain collectively entails the responsibility of an employer to bargain with them in good faith. This does not have to be a zero-sum game, where anybody’s gain is somebody else’s loss. The country as a whole benefits from the contributions of people liberated from second-class citizenship. Corporations benefit from having a large and affluent middle class to buy their products. Expanding rights for women or black people does not have to make life worse for white men, although it does challenge some unfair privileges like men’s ability to abuse women with impunity. Legitimate male rights like the right of accused men to due process can and should be preserved. Nevertheless, some people resist other people’s liberations out of fear for their own loss of status, especially if they are insecure in that status in the first place.
Because of these dynamics, seekers of new rights and protectors of existing rights and privileges often find themselves in opposing political factions.
The battle for the center
In a two-party democracy, each party needs votes from the center of the political spectrum in order to govern. But either party may alienate centrists by pushing their partisan agenda too aggressively, whether it’s a progressive quest for new rights or a conservative defense of existing rights and privileges. I know of no law of political science that says that a conservative party is always the one trying to impose their agenda on an unwilling majority. Barry Goldwater was too conservative for the American people in 1964, but George McGovern was too liberal for them in 1972. (That was the year my own father abandoned the Democrats and starting voting Republican.)
The radicalization of the Republican Party over the past quarter century is only comprehensible in the larger context of twentieth-century politics and social change. In the period of relative peace and prosperity that followed the Great Depression and World War II, many idealistic progressive movements flourished: movements for civil rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, world peace, sexual freedom, gay rights, consumer rights, and others. In general, they looked to the Democrats to support their causes. The 1960s and 70s were a time of tumultuous cultural change. But it was also a time when many Americans came to feel that too much was happening too fast, and too many of their customs and traditions were being threatened. Once the savior of the white working class, the Democratic Party was now associated in the the public mind with urban riots, antiwar protests, welfare spending and gay pride rallies. The Republican Party now promised law-and-order, patriotism, family values and fiscal responsibility.
The Reagan Revolution promised to replace the era of Big Government and Democratic domination with a golden age of conservatism and Republican rule. The center of American politics shifted enough to the right to give the Republicans some significant presidential and Congressional wins.
But it didn’t last very long, because the longer-term trend toward expanded democracy continued beneath the surface. Ideas that seemed radical in the 1970s, like abortion rights or gay marriage, came to be more accepted. More women had careers; more black workers moved into professional and managerial positions; more gays came out of the closet; and the world didn’t come to an end. The center moved slowly but steadily toward more progressive positions, and democracy began to work against Republicans instead of for them.
An interesting case in point is attitudes on immigration. For many years, Gallup has asked people whether immigration should be increased, decreased, or kept at the present level. When the country was moving in a conservative direction, the percentage answering “decreased” went up, going from 42% in 1977 to a peak of 65% in 1993. Since then, however, it has gone down to 38%. Republicans are clamoring to “build the wall” at a time when the desire to keep immigrants out is actually declining.
Similarly, Mitch McConnell’s machinations and Donald Trump’s appointments got enough conservatives onto the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, but that only made clear that most Americans didn’t want it overturned. Support for Obamacare has also been building quietly, even as the RNC continue to call for its repeal.
The response to all this has been righteous indignation, as Republicans who felt destined to rule for a very long time have found themselves on politically shaky ground. Believing that they represent the real America, they are not willing to share power gracefully.
A sign of weakness
As public opinion has moved slowly but steadily toward a more progressive view on many issues, Republicans have been losing voters in the more forward-looking segments of the population. These include the college-educated, suburbanites, and cutting-edge technological areas like North Carolina’s research triangle. That puts more pressure on Republicans to motivate the base that remains, especially rural, less educated voters in the regions Colin Woodard calls Greater Appalachia and Deep South. The problem is that the GOP doesn’t have a whole lot of hope to offer those folks. Republicans are not talking much about rural redevelopment, or vocational training for non-college-bound youth, or new jobs for displaced coal miners, or debt relief, or their own plan for affordable health insurance. Instead, their appeal is mostly to fear—fear of immigrants, or foreign trade, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or clean energy. What has Donald Trump actually done for his constituents besides amplify their fears and hostilities? He talks big, but his main economic accomplishments include starting a trade war that hurt farmers and passing another tax cut that mostly helped corporations and the wealthy.
The political agenda that excites Republicans today includes closing the border to immigrants, banning abortion, keeping discussions of race and sexuality out of the schools, making it harder for many people to vote, and giving state governments more power to overturn election results. Not exactly an agenda to inspire the younger generation, and it doesn’t.
This is the context for understanding why Republicans have turned to the undemocratic tactics described by Milbank. Such behavior is not a sign of strength, at least not the kind of strength that a democracy requires. People who can win debates on the merits of their arguments should not need to lie, demonize opponents, sabotage institutions or exploit racial tensions. What deserves to happen to a party or candidate who adopts such tactics is that they keep losing until they change their ways or get out of politics. Sometimes they do win, one way or another. But then the country loses, since they govern only for themselves, their cronies, and some privileged classes.
The title story in this week’s Economist is “The Man Who Would Be Trump: Bolsonaro prepares his Big Lie in Brazil.” Facing a likely loss in the upcoming elections, Jair Bolsonaro may be planning to reject the results and try to stay in power anyway. Let that be a warning to all of us.
The next couple of national elections will probably settle the fate of the debased Republican Party. They could win, and perhaps plunge the country into a fascist nightmare. Or they could lose, and consider serious reforms. We can only hope that Trumpism loses its grip on the party, and a more reasonable form of conservatism reemerges. That would be a win for all of us, and for our democracy.