May 24, 2021
America’s democratic experiment may well be nearing its end. That’s not hyperbole; it’s obvious to anyone following the political scene. Republicans might take power legitimately; they might win through pervasive voter suppression; G.O.P. legislators might simply refuse to certify Democratic electoral votes and declare Donald Trump or his political heir the winner. However it plays out, the G.O.P. will try to ensure a permanent lock on power and do all it can to suppress dissent.
But how did we get here? We read every day about the rage of the Republican base, which overwhelmingly believes, based on nothing, that the 2020 election was stolen, and extremists in Congress, who insist that being required to wear a face mask is the equivalent of the Holocaust.
I’d argue, however, that focusing on the insanity can hinder our understanding of how all of this became possible. Conspiracy theorizing is hardly a new thing in our national life; Richard Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” back in 1964. White rage has been a powerful force at least since the civil rights movement.
What’s different this time is the acquiescence of Republican elites. The Big Lie about the election didn’t well up from the grass roots — it was promoted from above, initially by Trump himself, but what’s crucial is that almost no prominent Republican politicians have been willing to contradict his claims and many have rushed to back them up.
Or to put it another way, the fundamental problem lies less with the crazies than with the careerists; not with the madness of Marjorie Taylor Greene, but with the spinelessness of Kevin McCarthy.
And this spinelessness has deep institutional roots.
Political scientists have long noted that our two major political parties are very different in their underlying structures. The Democrats are a coalition of interest groups — labor unions, environmentalists, L.G.B.T.Q. activists and more. The Republican Party is the vehicle of a cohesive, monolithic movement. This is often described as an ideological movement, although given the twists and turns of recent years — the sudden embrace of protectionism, the attacks on “woke” corporations — the ideology of movement conservatism seems less obvious than its will to power.
In any case, for a long time conservative cohesiveness made life relatively easy for Republican politicians and officials. Professional Democrats had to negotiate their way among sometimes competing demands from various constituencies. All Republicans had to do was follow the party line. Loyalty would be rewarded with safe seats, and should a Republican in good standing somehow happen to lose an election, support from billionaires meant that there was a safety net — “wing nut welfare” — in the form of chairs at lavishly funded right-wing think tanks, gigs at Fox News and so on.
Of course, the easy life of a professional Republican wasn’t appealing to everyone. The G.O.P. has long been an uncomfortable place for people with genuine policy expertise and real external reputations, who might find themselves expected to endorse claims they knew to be false.
The field I know best, economics, contains (or used to contain) quite a few Republicans with solid academic reputations. Like just about every academic discipline, the field leans Democratic, but much less so than other social sciences and even the hard sciences. But the G.O.P. has consistently preferred to get its advice from politically reliable cranks.
The contrast with the Biden team, by the way, is extraordinary. At this point it’s almost hard to find a genuine expert on tax policy, labor markets, etc. — an expert with an independent reputation who expects to return to a nonpolitical career in a couple of years — who hasn’t joined the administration.
Matters may be even worse for politicians who actually care about policy, still have principles and have personal constituencies separate from their party affiliation. There’s no room in today’s G.O.P. for the equivalent of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, unless you count the extremely sui generis Mitt Romney.
And the predominance of craven careerists is what made the Republican Party so vulnerable to authoritarian takeover.
Surely a great majority of Republicans in Congress know that the election wasn’t stolen. Very few really believe that the storming of the Capitol was a false-flag antifa operation or simply a crowd of harmless tourists. But decades as a monolithic, top-down enterprise have filled the G.O.P. with people who will follow the party line wherever it goes.
So if Trump or a Trump-like figure declares that we have always been at war with East Asia, well, his party will say that we’ve always been at war with East Asia. If he says he won a presidential election in a landslide, never mind the facts, they’ll say he won the election in a landslide.
The point is that neither megalomania at the top nor rage at the bottom explains why American democracy is hanging by a thread. Cowardice, not craziness, is the reason government by the people may soon perish from the earth.
One thought on “The Banality of Democratic Collapse”
Great essay, Philip. You have captured the angst of those of us who remember losing elections and forming a loyal opposition. I no longer refer to the Republican Party. That disappeared in 2016. What will happen when red states negate their elections. I started re-reading 1984 a couple of years ago and had to stop. It was sounding too real.