Two Attacks on Democracy

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On January 6, 2021, the United States experienced two serious attacks on its democratic institutions. The first was an unruly mob of Trump supporters, invited and encouraged by the President himself, who stormed the Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral votes in the presidential election. With remarkably feeble resistance from federal authorities, they smashed windows and doors, injured scores of police officers, and vandalized offices. They succeeded in interrupting Congressional proceedings for six hours, while senators and representatives had to hide out in a secure location.

The second attack was in many ways even more troubling, since it was carried out by the people’s own elected representatives. Seven Republican senators and a solid majority of Republican House members voted to reject the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania. They had intended to do the same for four other battleground states, but after the day’s ordeal, few members had the time or the stomach for it. The states whose voters were to be disenfranchised were not selected because their elections were demonstrably improper. The sixty lawsuits that alleged such improprieties were so baseless that courts all over the country quickly rejected them, including the many courts run by judges appointed by Trump himself. No, they were selected because they were states that Trump needed to win and most hoped to win. For Trump and his supporters, his loss itself was enough evidence that something had gone wrong.

The party of Trump will forever be associated with these attacks on democracy. But how had the Grand Old Party fallen so far?

In 2012, The Romney-Ryan ticket ran mainly on “trickle-down economics” and lost. In 2016, Donald Trump ran mainly on white Christian nationalism and won. He appealed primarily to the status anxieties of white working-class men who have been losing ground both economically and culturally. Their position in the rapidly changing economy is precarious, to be sure. Yet Republican economic policies still tend to favor the wealthy, which was a liability for Romney and Ryan. In order to peel off working-class voters from the Democrats, Republicans have come to rely on the wedge issues of race, religion and gender. In 2016, Trump won rust-belt states like Michigan with slim margins, but he won every state in the former Confederacy and the Bible Belt except Virginia by piling up huge margins among Southern white men. Then Congressional Republicans could proceed with their fiscal agenda, passing an unpopular tax cut favoring corporations and the wealthy, and trying to weaken or destroy the increasingly popular Affordable Care Act.

Although Trumpism did not take center stage until 2016, it hardly came out of nowhere. The truth is that Republicans have been flirting with white supremacy and right-wing authoritarianism for a long time. The G.O.P. has been making such appeals ever since William F. Buckley’s 1957 National Review editorial favored white rule over majority rule (because whites “live by civilized standards”); and since presidential candidate Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Richard Nixon adopted the “Southern strategy; and Ronald Reagan made “welfare queens” the poster child for wasteful government spending; and George H.W. Bush made Willie Horton the face of urban crime; and Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices gutted the Voting Rights Act, paving the way for states to enact new voting restrictions designed to suppress the black vote. It is a little late now for Republicans to disclaim responsibility for Trump and his angry white mob, determined to take back what they call their country.

The Congressional Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election claim the right of Republicans to rule, not because they have earned it by enacting policies helpful to the majority of Americans, but because they represent the “right” kind of people—white, Christian, and increasingly far right. If the party is to redeem itself, it won’t be enough to deplore violence, as, of course, all parties should. The party will need to reawaken its democratic soul.

Despite my frustration with today’s Republican Party, I do believe in the two-party system. I think that both conservatives and progressives have a contribution to make to open and honest debates over policy, such as the debate over the future of jobs in the knowledge economy. Each party can act as a check to curb the worst proposals of the other. But these debates have to be premised on a mutual commitment to democratic principles and practices. I have no illusion that racism, sexism, authoritarianism or religious intolerance will disappear anytime soon. But may they be confined to small fringe parties, closely watched by democratic authorities, while the major parties set a higher standard. What we saw this week was not worthy of the party of Lincoln.

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