Liz Cheney published an op-ed on Wednesday that, five years ago, would have contained little but banal truisms — “At the heart of our republic is a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power among political rivals in accordance with law … We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process,” etc.
But in the current moment, frighteningly enough, her argument has identified the central question in American politics: the survival of democracy against the threat posed by Donald Trump, who is “seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law.”
Precisely because Cheney’s reasoning is so simple, many people have failed to grasp how radical, brave, and essential her position is.
The primary argument in How Democracies Die, by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, is that the survival of a democratic regime against an authoritarian threat usually comes down to choices made by ideological allies of the authoritarian side. They can decide either to support an authoritarian party or leader that advances their policy agenda, or break from their natural allies and defend the system. According to their historical study of threats against democratic regimes, when the authoritarian candidate’s allies defect and join with their natural ideological opponents to save the system, democracies survive.
When they stay loyal to their normal partners, on the other hand, democracy perishes. (The term Ziblatt and Levitsky borrow for this fateful latter decision is “ideological collusion” — choosing to win by subverting democracy rather than saving the system by joining with their ideological opponents.)
Democracy is not an issue you can simply put aside, or even weigh alongside all the other issues. It’s a foundational issue — the one decision that has to be settled before any other political question can be considered.
That fate of American democracy is the biggest issue in American politics. The system survived Trump’s often clumsy efforts to subvert it. But the threat is far from over. A majority of Republican voters believe Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, and this belief has been the most important driver of their post-election behavior. Republican-controlled states are implementing voting restrictions to placate this lie; Republican officials who refused to go along with Trump’s autogolpe are being removed from their positions.
The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last recently argued that Trump’s election lie is the Republican autopsy. “Republicans are already well on their way to marshaling the political will to do whatever the law even theoretically might allow in pursuit of power,” he argued. In 2020, a handful of key Republican actors were unwilling to use the full extent of their power to overturn the result and either assign electoral votes to their party using their control of state government, or throw the contest to the House.
Trump is both extending his control over the party and ensuring that his anti-democratic ideology is no longer challenged. He is training his party to join him in subverting the next election.
Cheney’s Republican critics are mostly willing to let her continue to disagree with Trump’s lie. What they cannot abide is her vocalizing her belief. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), reportedly complained in a caucus meeting about her “defiant attitude” and failure to be a “team player.”
Eliana Johnson, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, perfectly explains the mainstream view within the party. The party’s operatives and politicians are “eager to put the divisions of the past four years behind them” and resent Cheney for “continuing to draw attention to an issue that divides Republicans, rather than training her fire on the Biden administration.”
What they want, in other words, is for Cheney to put aside her concern about the survival of democracy in America and instead focus on matters that unite the Republican party’s authoritarian and democratic wings. They’re demanding, in so many words, ideological collusion. She should cooperate with Trump for the benefit of their shared opposition to Biden’s agenda. Trump and his allies in the party and conservative media can continue propagating their big lie and organizing for the next assault on the system, and they can try to divert that energy to halt Biden’s plans to raise the capital gains tax, which after all, is the really important thing in their minds.
Cheney, of course, shares the party’s objectives on nearly every one of these issues. It is because she is such a partisan, conservative Republican that her dissent is so significant. There is no hidden agenda at work, no subtext of quiet sympathy for Biden’s policies. Cheney believes in right-wing policy and settling control of government at the ballot box.
The Republican Party is sliding into authoritarianism at a terrifyingly rapid clip. To stand by is to let it happen. Republicans who have reservations about this trend have tried quiet hand-wringing for five years. It hasn’t worked. Somebody has to fight back, and Cheney has volunteered for the role.