The actions of the Republican Party since Trump’s loss two months ago have clarified the present crisis more than a Trump victory could have. Not only has President Trump tried to overturn the will of American voters, growing numbers of congressional Republicans have backed his efforts.
Take it from a historian: this has never happened before. We face the real possibility of profound democratic backsliding, and there’s no end in sight.
Let’s define the parameters of this crisis in its most basic terms. Nothing is more fundamental to democracy than these two linked principles: elections are free and fair, and the losers of those elections duly concede power to the winners. President Trump and many of the leading contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination reject both principles. Republicans are turning from the American experiment, and we don’t know when or how this will end.
Today’s crisis recalls the civil war not because we’re on the verge of anything like that era’s violence, but because once again the most basic principles of democracy are in dispute. If you don’t accept the results of a free and fair election you are rejecting democracy itself. It’s pretty simple.
Secessionists could not abide the results of an election that brought an anti-slavery party to power. So they tried to leave the union. They did not pretend they won the election. If secessionists saw breaking the democratic compact as their path to power outside the union, today’s fire-eaters see hollowing out that compact as the means to power within a diminished union.
In the crisis of 1860, there was a satisfying clarity to secession. The immediate end of the union beckoned. The crisis was clear, the battle quickly joined. Today’s crisis is frustratingly diffuse. It is not announced with articles of secession or seizure of federal forts. It slowly grinds away at the very machinery of self-government and democratic procedure by which we have pledged to work out our differences.
If the Republicans succeed, we will be left with a country having the form of democracy but denying its power. (Yes, I’m going for the biblical allusions). There will still be elections but they won’t take place on a level playing field. Well-timed prosecutions of political opponents will become routine. Deployment of power across a range of institutions and life experiences will become increasingly partisan and personal rather than bureaucratic and rule-bound.
The rights and privileges of citizenship will still be enshrined in the constitution, but will become increasingly theoretical and detached from the day to day existence of ordinary citizens. Courts, media, universities, to name just a few key institutions, will lose some of their independence and become increasingly beholden to the ruling party.
These are not abstractions. We’re talking about a world where ordinary citizens have even less recourse to the law than they do now, where corruption, bribery, violence, and arbitrary power of all kinds is more routinely felt in peoples’ lives.
This is about the time in our theorizing when we stop short, confounded by the opaque nature of democratic backsliding. Are we overreacting? Is this a resistance fever dream? Or is it really plausible that the United States is in danger of joining the ranks of Hungary and Turkey, Russia and India, and so many others? For what it’s worth, the people who’ve spent their lives studying democracy tend to be concerned.
And there’s a broader historical reason to see our fate as tied with these other young democracies (or erstwhile democracies). We are a young democracy ourselves. In the robust form that we think of it, our democratic government was established when my parents were kids, as the civil rights movement transformed both the legal and cultural foundations of American democracy. In large swaths of the country some of the most basic provisions of the constitution, such as the 14th and 15th amendments, only began to be seriously enforced just two decades before I was born. And I’m still a young guy!
The United States is in danger of democratic backsliding not simply because we have a bumper crop of unprincipled Republican senators (though we do!). More basically we are a fledgling democracy trying to do something that has no real precedent: establish a truly equal liberal democracy with a diverse population made up of all the peoples of the earth. This is an exciting and inspiring project. It has real enemies.
What, then, should we do?
Are you kidding? I’m just a historian writing up a stream of consciousness rant on a Sunday evening. I want to read more from people who have really thought about and studied these issues. But I do have a couple general ideas.
–Make the abstract concrete. Look, I get warm fuzzies from talking about “the rule of law” and “democratic norms” and my stomach does little somersaults of anger when the President abuses the pardon power. But I have to face the fact that many ordinary people don’t really care. They want to know what policy and politics means for their paycheck, their family’s future, their neighborhood. We need to bring the abstractions of democracy down to the block where people live. The best defense of democracy is an invigorated democracy, where people are truly empowered not just to vote, but to shape their workplaces and communities.
–Make unlikely alliances. For instance, unless you truly in your heart of hearts hate democracy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is your friend. So is Mitt Romney. So are millions of Americans with whom you have profound political disagreements. We might not agree on how best to promote human flourishing. But we do know that a democratic future is the only one in which we will get to constructively contest our differences and build shared prosperity.
–Settle in for the long haul. This doesn’t mean being in a perpetual state of alarm. If nothing else, such a posture is unsustainable. Instead, it might mean relatively simple changes in the way you engage politics and voting in your social circles. Make “Does this candidate support democracy?” a litmus test. This crisis is so slow-moving and bizarre that lots of people don’t realize we’re in one, especially since it’s likely to last for many years. But you, dear reader, do see the crisis! So spread the sobering but hopeful news. This American experiment is really worth preserving.