America has never been greater than it is today — or at greater risk of collapsing tomorrow.
This is the central message of the Republican National Convention through its first two nights. And while the RNC has done little to substantiate the triumphalist half of its argument (a tall order amid a pandemic that’s killed 177,000 U.S. residents and more than 6 million U.S. jobs), the convention has made a strong case for believing the American Republic isn’t long for this earth.
On the convention’s opening night, the GOP informed America that teachers unions are bad — not because they oppose “school choice” or donate to Democratic campaigns — but rather because they are hell-bent on “subverting our republic” by deliberately undermining “educational excellence, morality, law and order” in our classrooms. Florida congressman Matt Gaetz proceeded to warn that Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door.” Trump campaign adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle clarified that Democrats don’t just want to endanger your family but rather “to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.” The president, for his part, told conventiongoers that the opposing party was “trying to steal the election from Republicans, just like they did it last time, with spying.”
On night two, we learned that Joe Biden will force all Christians to choose between “being obedient to God and obedient to Caesar — because the radical left’s god is government power,” and that Planned Parenthood is actually a racist, eugenicist organization whose “abortion facilities are strategically located in minority neighborhoods.” Florida lieutenant governor Jeanette Marie Núñez then revealed that Joe Biden is actually a crypto-communist who serves a radical left that “systematically chisels away at the freedoms we cherish,” as its members “normalize socialism to dismantle our Constitution.” Eric Trump declared that “Democrats want an America where your thoughts and opinions are censored,” while his half-sister Tiffany warned that even now, liberals have made it impossible for Americans to trust their own minds, as “our thoughts, our opinions … are being manipulated and coerced by the media and tech giants.”
None of these things are true, of course (take it from me, the media). But the fact that the Republican base believes such things constitutes one horseman of our democracy’s apocalypse. Among the others: a presidential system that favors divided government, legislative institutions that overrepresent white rural areas, and partisan polarization along lines of racial attitudes and religious fundamentalism.
If there is an answer to the problem posed by these realities, the RNC has made it clear that Joe Biden doesn’t have it. As Barack Obama’s running mate in 2012, Biden famously predicted that Mitt Romney’s defeat would break the GOP’s tea-party “fever” and force it to reconstitute itself as a more moderate and diverse center-right party. Like a millenarian preacher stood up by Armageddon, Biden responded to reality’s refutation of his prophecy by simply revising its date. Obama’s reelection may have rendered the Republican Party more ideologically extreme and dispositionally authoritarian than it had been before. But “with Donald Trump out of the White House,” Biden told reporters last year, “you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.” Faced with one more electoral rebuke, the GOP will recognize that serving as Biden’s loyal opposition — which is to say, as a party that aims to influence his agenda at the margins, but not to nullify his democratic mandate through obstruction — is its best bet for regaining the electorate’s trust. At last week’s Democratic National Convention, Biden’s party proffered a similar vision of national healing. While casting Trump’s GOP as an authoritarian threat to democracy itself, Democrats nevertheless argued that Biden could quell America’s divisions and revive bipartisanship on Capitol Hill through sheer force of affability.
At the time, this message sounded only a bit less preposterous than our president’s theories on the curative properties of bleach. Two nights into the RNC, the proposition “a Biden victory will force Republicans to moderate” is now exactly as plausible as “injecting disinfectant into the lungs will cure COVID-19.”
Before Trump remade the conservative movement in his image, the conservative movement remade Trump in its own.
The idea that the conservative movement’s authoritarian paranoia is a mere outgrowth of Donald Trump’s requires a willful amnesia of Biden’s own tenure in the White House. The Apprentice star helped popularize birtherism. But conservatives did not acquire their psychedelic conspiracism about the first Black president from Trump; he acquired it from them. In 2009, Trump repeatedly and effusively praised America’s new president, saying that Obama had “a wonderful personality” and was “doing a really good job.” The mogul learned of birtherism — and the opportunity for self-promotion that it presented — through his own consumption of right-wing media. Once Trump transitioned into the role of far-right demagogue, his personal tendencies toward authoritarianism, conspiracizing, and zero-sum thinking served to reinforce and exacerbate the conservative movement’s own worst impulses. But those tendencies existed within the GOP before Trump got there. The Christian right has long taught its adherents to view political conflict as an epic struggle between good and evil in which nothing less than salvation is at stake (a similarly fundamentalist, Manichaean outlook once found secular expression in the John Birch Society’s wild-eyed anti-communism and currently informs the McCarthyist Islamophobia of Frank Gaffney & Co.). The conservative movement’s plutocratic patrons, meanwhile, have always viewed democracy through jaundiced eyes and seen the seeds of totalitarianism lurking within the Democratic Party’s most milquetoast plans for economic reform. And the nativist right that powered the tea-party challenge to the GOP’s patrician Establishment has understood center-left immigration policies as an existential threat to America’s national survival for decades now. Which is to say: Before Trump’s emergence, some of the most powerful interest groups within the GOP coalition already viewed the Democratic Party as a threat so catastrophic the imperative of keeping it away from power would justify most any means of resistance.
Trump has certainly cultivated his party’s authoritarian elements more energetically — and delegitimized his opposition more shamelessly — than any other 2016 presidential candidate was liable to do. But regardless, the basic fact remains that the GOP is — and has been — dominated by a movement that sees the Democratic Party as an internal enemy of the United States and any election that a Democratic president wins as illegitimate by definition. In the aftermath of a landslide victory, Biden might be able to secure the cooperation of a couple idiosyncratic Republican senators (Mitt Romney might be invincible enough in Utah to chart his own course; Lisa Murkowski already knows that she can win elections in Alaska without the GOP’s institutional support). But the bulk of the congressional GOP is bound to resist Biden’s agenda as though the salvation of the Republic — and realization of God’s will — depend on it.
The (constitutional) system is rigged.
By itself, the conservative movement’s apocalyptic paranoia might not constitute an existential threat to American democracy. The depths of the American right’s radicalism are formidable, but its breadth of popular support is not. The donors, activists, and primary voters who set the GOP’s agenda are more ideologically extreme than the Republican Party’s median general-election supporter. And so long as the GOP caters to the former, its national coalition is likely to be a minority one. Thus, if the United States were a majoritarian democracy — in which the Republican Party had to win a majority of the nation’s votes to have a hand in federal governance — then the party might soon find itself with sufficient incentive to marginalize its most extreme elements. But the U.S. is a very different kind of polity.
Every elected branch of the U.S. government structurally overrepresents low-density areas. And since America’s two parties are now polarized along urban-rural lines, the GOP has ballots to burn. Losing the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections hasn’t stopped Republicans from holding the White House for a majority of this millennium. Republican senators have represented a majority of America’s population for only two years in the last four decades — but Republicans have boasted Senate majorities for more than half of that period anyway. And many election forecasters expect the pro-Republican biases of the Senate and Electoral College to grow more pronounced in the years to come.
Those biases, combined with midterm elections that inherently favor the sitting president’s opposition — and a two-party system that ensures Republicans will always be the only option for “change” voters when a Democrat is in office — set a high floor beneath how far the GOP can realistically fall. One testament to this reality lies in the mounting evidence that Republicans have actually increased their support among nonwhite voters during the Trump era, even as the party has catered to white racial animus. With only two parties to choose from, socially conservative and/or disaffected nonwhite voters have proved willing to rally to the GOP banner even as Republicans have replaced their dog-whistle appeals to white grievance with foghorns. For these reasons, it is unlikely that Republicans will be consigned to the political wilderness long enough to make a break with the conservative movement thinkable.
How do you solve a problem like the GOP?
When Biden prophesied an impending Republican epiphany last year, he made a separate, far more defensible claim: that if no such awakening was in the waiting, then “we’re in deep, deep trouble because nothing can happen in this country in consequence without consensus — without consensus. That’s how this system was built.”
Biden has no plausible answer to the problem that the conservative movement poses. But it’s not clear that anyone else does either. Some segments of the left preach economic populism as a panacea for polarization: Provide working-class voters with a robust, social-democratic alternative to cultural conservatism, and the Democratic Party just might regain its New Deal–era dominance. I favor this strategy on its substantive merits. And it may well be the best hope our Republic’s got. But there is little empirical evidence to support a “just world” theory of American politics in which Democrats are reliably rewarded for taking on plutocratic power or reliably punished for appeasing it. Economically progressive Democratic House candidates have not consistently outperformed centrists in purple districts. And Bernie Sanders is not significantly more popular with white, non-college-educated voters than Joe Biden is.
Meanwhile, the New Deal era of Democratic dominance wasn’t born of progressive reforms alone. Rather, it rested on the improbable (and ultimately, untenable) alliance of the solid South with northern African-Americans, trade unions, and progressive intellectuals. As the political scientist Jonathan Rodden shows in his book Why Cities Lose, urban voters have always been the backbone of progressivism in the U.S. Which means that progressives have always been at a bit of a structural disadvantage in Congress. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the former Confederacy’s vestigial attachment to the Donkey Party mitigated this liability. But once the South could no longer have its white supremacy and Democratic identity too, the Senate’s biases began to reassert themselves and relative parity between the two major parties resumed.
Finally, even in the New Deal era, major progressive reforms tended to trigger reactionary backlashes, as when a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans took control of Congress in the 1938 midterm elections. Progressives often warn that if Biden fails to embrace economic reforms commensurate with the scale of America’s present crises, he will only clear the way for another, more competent (and thus more dangerous) Trumpist president. And this warning is quite plausible. But it’s not obvious that Biden (or, in another timeline, Bernie Sanders) could avert such a successor by charting a more progressive course. The relationship between the material consequences of public policy — and the political allegiances of U.S. voters — has become so attenuated 177,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths and mass unemployment have been insufficient to put a dent in Donald Trump’s approval rating, which now stands roughly where it did in the fall of 2019. What’s more, thanks to his advantage in the Electoral College, Trump retains a better than one-in-four chance of winning November’s election, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, mass dying and deprivation notwithstanding. If 42 percent of Americans approve of a Republican president under these conditions, it is at the very least not obvious that a Democratic Party that actually delivered for working people would be rewarded with support broad enough to break the conservative movement. (This said, the evidence that implementing broadly redistributive policies wins you votes is much stronger than the evidence that merely advocating for such policies does.)
The slow-motion constitutional crisis will continue until morale improves.
To be sure, most progressives pair their calls for social-democratic policies with advocacy for structural reforms aimed at making America’s political institutions more responsive to popular majorities. And there is no question that institutional reform would make it more difficult for the conservative movement to win power while coddling its extremists. But eliminating the partisan bias of the Senate would require adding upwards of seven new, Democratic-leaning U.S. states. It is difficult to imagine Joe Biden and Joe Manchin signing off on such a policy and much less that the conservative movement would accommodate such a powerful validation of its paranoid fears without mounting massive (armed) resistance.
And such resistance would be somewhat understandable. I don’t think conservatives are entirely wrong to think that the Democratic Party’s proposals for democracy expansion are rooted in motives roughly as partisan as those that drive the GOP to restrict the franchise. Which is to say: If progressives did not believe that democratizing America’s electoral institutions would redound to their movement’s benefit, I don’t think we would make that objective a priority. Where majoritarianism and progressive values come into conflict — as they once did on the issues of integration, reproductive autonomy, and LGBT rights — progressives have generally been happy to have the judiciary remove those questions from the realm of democratic contestation.
The fact that Donald Trump’s GOP lacks a strong democratic mandate is highly contingent. Had America diversified at a slightly slower rate over the past half-century, the white majority that supports our president would still constitute a national majority. If, in such a context, the ideal of popular sovereignty — and the objective of disempowering a racist, kleptocratic, fatally incompetent personality cult — came into conflict, would progressives really value the democratic will over protecting the undocumented? If there was evidence that curtailing early voting by just a few days would make Trump less likely to win reelection, would progressives condone such a measure? If not, why not? Why should maximizing the expression of a “popular will” (shaped, as it is, by the corporate media’s hateful propaganda) take precedence over preventing an incompetent demagogue from getting people killed?
These questions are moot. But I think such thought experiments help to make both the conservative movement’s burgeoning authoritarianism, and our republic’s broader crisis, more intelligible: When competing parties subscribe to antithetical conceptions of national identity and good governance, they will only share a mutual commitment to democratic principles for as long as they both consider those principles compatible with long-term ideological victory.
And in America’s system of divided powers, we don’t just need both parties to remain committed to the most minimal of democratic principles — such as honoring the results of elections. Rather, we need them to facilitate responsible, effective governance, even when doing so will potentially redound to the political benefit of the opposition party’s president. This is an extraordinary requirement. And it’s one that has broken our constitutional framework in most of the countries that have adopted it.
The RNC makes it clear that our Republic could suffer the same fate. Biden’s prophecy of bipartisanship’s messianic return is not the answer to the problem the American right now poses. But what that answer looks like — or, more precisely, how progressives can build a movement powerful enough to implement the answers that work on paper — is hard to see.
Let’s just hope someone, somewhere, has an epiphany.