For the past several months, I have been paying close attention to conservative talking points from right wing media and from family members and neighbors who still have Trump signs in their front yards. I knew that my regular diet of progressive opinion pieces and cable television analyses was missing something. A recent article in Foreign Affairs (“The Real Crisis of Global Order,” by Alexander Cooley & Daniel Nexon, January/February 2022) helped me make sense of it all.
When reducing the raging arguments across America to their essence, one issue stands out. Each political party and its followers claim that the other side is taking steps to destroy democracy. Each believes that it is the last bulwark to prevent the demise of our longstanding American constitutional republic into an unrecognizable form of government.
Democrats and Republicans have separately developed a model for America that precludes compromise. As explained in the Foreign Affairs article, “There remains the overwhelming crush of intense political polarization, hyper-partisan scorched-earth tactics, and legislative gridlock ... After 30 years of dysfunction in the country, the political and foreign policy establishments have failed to reckon with this reality.”
The epiphany for me is that the political battle being waged is not about losing democracy. It is about choosing sides on an acceptable form of democracy with a distinct plan for America. The Republican vision is centered on saving white culture. Democrats want diversity with policies based on universal equality.
It is important to remember that many nations who hold regular elections have adopted illiberal democracies that are against immigration and in favor of a stronger executive branch. This approach often includes attacks against an open media and against legislative checks and balances. However, if a majority of voters continues to favor such a system, it remains a democracy in spite of its tilt toward nativism.
In today’s political climate, it is easy to forget that only 70 years ago our country was still fighting anti-democratic forces seen in domestic political movements, parties and politicians. Our 1950s federal government permitted the authoritarianism of racial segregation and bias against Jews and other minorities. Women were discriminated against at work and had little protection from domestic violence. Adults were jailed for expressing their sexual preferences. Democratic elections were a sham in Southern states. Yet, we labeled ourselves the leader of the democratic free world.
Today, Republicans are in favor of a more illiberal democracy that would counter what they view as the “replacement” of white political, social and cultural control with a takeover by Black/brown and secular tendencies. A recent study revealed that almost all the Donald Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6 were from communities that had experienced an uptick in minority populations over the past decade. Other polling has disclosed that in order to push back against this perceived loss of white influence almost half of the American electorate is willing to embrace limitations on voting rights and to permit partisan challenges to election results. More troubling, according to a new national survey by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, almost one-third of Republicans say they think violence may be necessary to solve the problems facing the United States brought on by progressive policies.
Democrats insist that Republicans who support Trump are responsible for the impending collapse of democracy. They equate the political developments over the past year as a sure sign that Republicans intend to transform America into an authoritarian state.
Not to be outdone, Republicans also accuse Democrats of attempting to subvert democracy. The allegations include the fabrication of criminal charges against Trump so that he cannot seek reelection; doing away with the Electoral College; packing the Supreme Court with liberal justices; and changing the filibuster procedural rules in the Senate.
A look behind the curtain reveals that democracy is a convenient foil and not the real issue. If saving democracy were at stake, the conflict would be between a powerful central state and a small political elite waging war against society as a whole. Our present conflict is between two equally matched segments of society each attempting to use democracy to impose its vision of America on the other.
Americans have been down this road before in choosing between two diametrically opposed views of their country. In 1858, the societal conflict between North and South led to the Civil War. In 1968, the conflict between baby boomers and their elders over the Vietnam War and civil rights appeared irreconcilable. The United States survived both.
The interesting question is whether America, with today’s stark divisions, can be governed at all. I find some encouragement in the words of historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote during the violence of the late 1960s as follows: “When one considers American history as a whole, it is hard to think of any very long period in which the country has been well governed. And yet its political system is a resilient and well-seasoned one that has shown the ability to summon enough talent and good will to cope with its afflictions.”
In whatever fashion the conflict is resolved, I do not believe that a society based on Trumpism or one committed to socialism is in our immediate future. The kind of country most of us can tolerate (together) lies somewhere in between. Our democratic constitutional republic will ensure a messy moderate result, as it always has.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.