Without robust federal legislation, it will soon be impossible to stop America’s degeneration into a diluted pseudo-democracy.
It has not been a good start to 2022 for American democracy. MLK Day came and went, and even though Democratic leaders, including President Biden, are finally pushing hard to pass federal legislation that would protect voting rights, they have so far been unable to deliver: while Republicans remain united in obstruction, Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema keep chasing the chimera of “bipartisanship”. As Democrats are likely to lose either the House or the Senate in this year’s midterm elections, it might soon become impossible to stop America’s slide into authoritarianism.
I understand this may sound hyperbolic. Donald Trump was voted out, his coup attempt failed; Joe Biden is president, and Democrats have the majority in Congress. How bad could it possibly be? But since the 2020 election, Republicans have actually escalated their assault on the political system, particularly on the state and local levels. They remain united behind Trump, and they have decided that if they cannot have democracy and Republican rule, then democracy has to go.
In states where Republicans are in charge, they are fully committed to erecting one-party-rule systems. The playbook is always the same: aggressive partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, facilitating future election subversion by purging state and local election boards and giving Republican-led state legislatures more power over how elections are run; and they are flanking these measures by criminalizing protest in order to pre-empt a mobilization of civil society. These initiatives are not subtle, and Republicans undoubtedly feel emboldened by the fact that the conservative majority on the US supreme court is clearly on their side.
How are Republicans justifying their assault on democracy? They consider themselves the sole proponents of “real America”, and they believe to be defending it against the insidious forces of leftism and “wokeism” that have supposedly captured the Democratic party. What follows from that proposition is that Democratic governance – whether or not it has the support of a majority of the electorate – is fundamentally illegitimate: the Democratic party is not simply a political opponent, but a radically “un-American” enemy.
Trump is himself a result, not the cause, of this conservative turn against democracy. The Republican party has been on an anti-democratic trajectory for a long time. For several decades, the Republican party has been focused almost exclusively on the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives who tend to define “real America” as a predominantly white, Christian, patriarchal nation. America, to them, is supposed to be a place where white Christian men are at the top. As a political project, modern US conservatism has been animated by the goal of preserving that white Christian nationalist version of “real America” since at least the 1950s; it has been the Republicans’ overriding concern since the 1970s, when conservatives came to dominate the party.
Due to political, cultural and most importantly demographic changes, Republicans no longer have majority support for this political project – certainly not on the federal level, and even in many “red” states, their position is becoming increasingly tenuous. That’s the paradox at the heart of the current political situation: yes, democracy is in grave danger because reactionary forces are on the offensive. But they are not attacking out of a sense of strength, but because they are feeling their backs against the wall. And they are reacting to something real. America has indeed become less white, less Christian, more liberal – has moved closer to the promise of multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
No one understands this better than Republicans themselves. In a functioning democratic system, they would have to either widen their focus beyond the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives, which they are not willing to do; or relinquish power, which they reject. They have chosen a different path – determined to do whatever it takes to protect their hold on power and preserve traditional hierarchies.
Could it actually happen here? Without effective federal legislation to protect and reform democracy, the country will rapidly turn into a dysfunctional pseudo-democratic system at the national level – and on the state level will be divided into democracy in one half of the states, and authoritarian one-party rule in the other. As a whole, America would cease to be a democracy.
If that sounds far-fetched, remember that it would in many ways constitute a return to what was the norm until quite recently. Before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, America was fairly democratic only if you happened to be a white Christian man – and something entirely different if you were not. The Reconstruction period after the civil war was a notable exception – which only strengthens the argument: America’s first attempt at multiracial democracy was quickly drowned in white reactionary violence and supposedly “race-neutral” laws. Jim Crow apartheid became the reality in a significant portion of the country: an authoritarian system in which the rule of southern Democrats was never in question, allowing these Dixiecrats to entrench white supremacy while also shaping and obstructing national policy.
Will the US finally become a functioning multiracial, pluralistic democracy – or will the history books record the years from the mid-1960s through the early 2020s as a fairly short-lived and ultimately aborted experiment, before a more restricted, white man’s democracy was restored? It is crucial we acknowledge that the stakes in the current fight over voting rights legislation are enormously high. And not just for America: as we are witnessing a similar conflict shape the political, social and cultural landscape in many western democracies, this is a struggle of world-historic significance.
Thomas Zimmer is a historian and DAAD visiting professor at Georgetown University where he focuses on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States
Source: The Guardian