The step of Presidential Election Reform Act in the House of Representatives on Wednesday highlighted the curious fact that the only Republicans willing to take a stand to protect American democracy are those with no political future in their party. The law is designed to close the constitutional loophole that Donald Trump tried to use on January 6 to allow Congress to override the Electoral College. In theory, it should be a reform that enjoys broad bipartisan support, since a repetition of the attempted insurrection would lead to a constitutional crisis.
The law, co-authored by Representatives Liz Cheney and Zoe Lofgren, was bipartisan only by a slim margin. Cheney was joined by eight other Republicans who voted in favor along with 220 Democrats. ace washington post reports“None of those nine Republican lawmakers will be a member of Congress next year, either because they lost their primaries or decided to retire.”
In other words, support for the bill among Republicans came from a small minority faction within the party, a minuscule group that has already been effectively purged. The vote on the law is just the latest evidence that the GOP mainstream has fully embraced Trumpism and turned its back on democracy.
The current threat to democracy is so pressing that even mainstream media outlets that have long emphasized bipartisan neutrality have been forced to acknowledge the asymmetrical danger of the Republican Party. on Saturday, New York Times senior reporter David Leonhardt published a substantial and extensive feature examining “the twin threats to American democracy.” The first threat, according to Leonhardt, is “a growing movement within one of the country’s two major parties, the Republican Party,refuse to accept defeat in an election.” The second threat, the journalist maintains, is more “chronic” and structural: “The power to set government policy is increasingly disconnected from public opinion.”
Because of its clarity on the first threat, Leonhardt’s column is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on the fragility of American democracy. It’s crucial that centrist voices like Leonhardt are explicit about the growing consensus within the GOP that the election can be overturned. Leonhardt convincingly argues that the recent anti-democratic turn in politics can be attributed to white Americans anxious about changing demographics, along with the ease with which counter-majority mechanisms in the political system (the Senate, the Electoral College, the Court Supreme) can be exploited by a political party adopting the minority government.
The story of American politics in the 21st century is that geographic classification (densely populated urban centers become more Democratic, rural America becomes more Republican) has made an already counter-majoritarian system even less responsive. to the popular will. And Republicans have not only embraced the undemocratic features of the system, but have also made it more extreme through gerrymandering and rolling back voting rights.
However, Leonhardt’s analysis is hampered by the persistent centrist vice of nostalgia, the desire to idealize a mythical past when a consensus in favor of democracy enjoyed unchallenged acceptance. He goes on to stress that the current situation is “unprecedented,” when in fact conspiracy-fostering authoritarianism has too strong a history in the United States. Without understanding the deep historical roots of Trumpism and the way democratic rights have been successfully curtailed for many decades in the past, it is impossible to recognize the full danger of the new authoritarian threat.
Leonhardt writes that Trump’s “embrace” of the election “was markedly different from the approach of previous leaders of both parties. In the 1960s, Reagan and Barry Goldwater finally isolated the conspirators of the John Birch Society.” The word “finally” carries a heavy load in this sentence. In fact, both Reagan and Goldwater came to power thanks to their ability to mobilize members of the John Birch Society, whom they rejected only when it became politically expedient to do so. In Goldwater’s case, his ultimate turn on the birchers it didn’t happen until he became a presidential candidate. Running for Governor of California in 1966, Reagan skillfully welcome Birch Society, while suggesting that the problem with the group was that it was infiltrated by a small minority of extremists (rather than being extremist through and through). Leonhardt assumes that the lines that separate conventional conservatism from conspiratorial extremism are clear and impermeable. But the best recent research on the American right, in particular the work of Nicole Hemmer of Vanderbilt University other Edward H Miller of Northeastern UniversityIt emphasizes that mainstream conservatism and the far right have long had porous boundaries, with elected Republican politicians since at least the beginning of the New Deal laundering ideas borrowed from inflammatory authoritarians and racists.
For all his forebodings, Leonhardt offers a fundamentally optimistic view of American history. His simplified Whig narrative has America becoming more and more democratic, until the recent rise of Trumpism. Leonhardt argues,
Throughout history, American government has tended to become more democratic, through women’s suffrage, civil rights laws, direct election of senators, and more. The exceptions, such as the post-Reconstruction period when black southerners lost rights, have been rare. The current period is so surprising in part because it is one of those exceptions.
The word “weird” stuck in my throat, as the post-Reconstruction period of disenfranchisement for black Southerners stretched from the late 1870s through the civil rights revolution of the 1960s That’s nearly a century of a large group of people living in an apartheid regime, hardly anything to be glossed over as an unfortunate exception to a happy rule.
To confirm my skepticism, I contacted retired Columbia professor Eric Foner, the leading living expert on Reconstruction. Foner emailed me saying that “calling the overthrow of Reconstruction and other undemocratic processes in US history ‘weird’ is misleading.” He added: “There have always been Americans, often very powerful, who think too many people vote.”
Reconstruction aside, there have been many periods of democratic backsliding in the United States, with African Americans, women, the working class, immigrants, and indigenous people often the victims of backlash. The beginning of the 19th century is often celebrated as a period of democratic expansion, culminating in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. But as historian Daniel Walker Howe pointed out in his book What God Has Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1948this democratic revolution benefited white men as the economic barrier to voting was removed, but saw other groups actively disenfranchised.
According to Howe,
The less the right to vote depended on economic criteria such as property or paying taxes, the more clearly it depended on race and gender. Those few women in New Jersey who had ever exercised the suffrage had been deprived of it in 1807. Now, a movement arose to roll back the right to vote for black men, to clearly identify suffrage with white masculinity. Black men lost the right to vote in Connecticut in 1818, in Rhode Island in 1822, in North Carolina in 1835, and in Pennsylvania in 1838. When New York eliminated its property requirements for white voters in 1821, it retained one for blacks. Of the states admitted after 1819, all but Maine disenfranchised African Americans. The United States was on its way to becoming a “white republic.”
This story offers crucial cautionary lessons: political rights are never guaranteed, they are always contested. They can be lost for generations. The counter-majoritarian structure of the US Constitution often works in favor of anti-democratic forces, as when the Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow for decades. American political elites often push for these democratic changes. The only way these anti-democratic waves have been thought of has been through mass movements: abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement. The historical record is clear: democracy can never be taken for granted. It’s always a fight. Trusting the benefit of conservative elites is a game of cups.