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Watching democracy die, part 1

The American experiment is more fragile than you think, and it’s not just about Trump

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As it turns out, it was a bad week to be reading a book called “How Democracies Die.”

The 2018 tome, by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, presents case studies of how democratic governments throughout history have fallen to authoritarian regimes as a warning that the 230-year-old American experiment is more fragile than we think.

To my mind, two recent events reinforced the book’s premise. But more than that, they made me wonder if we’ve not just reached the precipice but, in fact, already jumped.

Before we get there, we need to fully understand what that premise is. And, try as I might, 305 pages on two centuries of political history proved impossible to effectively summarize in a paragraph or two. So instead, I’m splitting this column into two parts. This week, we’ll look at how we got here. Next week, we’ll explore the two stories that have left me uneasy about the fate of our democracy.

Ready? Here we go.

A simplified version of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s premise goes something like this: There’s nothing magical about the U.S. Constitution. Other countries have copied it, sometimes word for word, and collapsed. Indeed, in its early days, when political factions arose that were deeply distrustful of each other, the U.S. almost did, too. What held us together was a set of informal norms, an unspoken agreement that the two political parties would share power and the branches of government wouldn’t exploit the Constitution’s ambiguities to their own ends.

That worked (for the white ruling class, anyway) until the Civil War, and again after Reconstruction. Parties competed for power, but they weren’t ideologically coherent. Democrats included Southern white supremacists as well as New Deal progressives. Republicans included Northern liberals as well as Midwestern conservatives. Evangelical voters split between parties.

Parties squabbled over taxes and spending, but rarely anything fundamental. Congress was collegial. Filibusters were almost unheard of, judicial appointments rarely blocked. And voters often split their tickets.

Then came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which, over the next generation, drove Southern whites to the GOP and racial liberals to the Democrats; a subsequent wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia made the Republicans even more reliant on white votes. Around the same time came Roe v. Wade and other culture wars, and the religious right became a central part of the Republican majority.

Politics was now linked to worldview, not banal issues like taxes. It didn’t take long for the Party of Lincoln to become a white, evangelical, increasingly conservative movement radicalized by the reinforcing methamphetamine of Fox News and talk radio.

Top all of that off with “status anxiety” — an idea first described in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter, in which a once-dominant group is losing its majority status, leading to an “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic” style of politics — and what’s transpired over the 30 years has been predictable.

Led by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, Republicans played hardball against Bill Clinton, eventually impeaching him over a relatively minor offense when other investigations proved fruitless. When George W. Bush won a disputed election, they eschewed bipartisanship and abandoned oversight of disastrous wars; Senate Democrats began retaliating by jamming Bush’s judicial appointments.

American politics has always had its kooks, both left and right. But they’d always been kept to the fringes. Until, that is, Barack Obama came to power, and the Republicans fully embraced the Tea Party. The inmates took over the asylum, and the GOP was all too happy to try to delegitimize its opponent: He was a Marxist, a Muslim, a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-American, maybe not even an American at all.

Obama, of course, was none of those things. He was a centrist Democrat who inherited a financial crisis. But the Republicans who were in power, listening to their base, refused any attempt to address the recession. Then they tried to block health care reform — and everything else. They held up judges. They tolerated no compromise among their ranks. They shut down the government and nearly led the country into a default.

And they discovered that being the Party of No was politically effective.

Again, the Democrats retaliated, breaking their own norms. Throughout his second term, Obama governed largely by executive order; Democrats eliminated the Senate filibuster for most judicial appointments.

Then, in February 2016, Antonin Scalia died, and the escalation continued. Mitch McConnell decided that the Senate wouldn’t allow Obama to fill his seat on the Supreme Court, the first time since Reconstruction that a president had been denied the chance to fill such a vacancy.

This was, in effect, a declaration that norms were irrelevant and winning was everything. The opposing party wasn’t just a rival; it was an enemy. The ends justified the means, and maintaining power was all that mattered.

That attitude was on display last week in Oregon, where the state’s Republican senators fled, some to the protection of armed militia, to deny the Democratic majority a quorum to pass a cap-and-trade bill; more on that in part 2.

Then came Donald Trump, a man with no use for norms or even the rule of law. Even with evidence of corruption and obstruction of justice well surpassing that which toppled Richard Nixon, McConnell’s Senate — and for the first two years of Trump’s administration, the GOP-led House — has refused to conduct meaningful oversight.

Instead, McConnell ditched the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees — another norm gone — to confirm two right-wing justices who last week gave Republican legislatures carte blanche to keep gerrymandering themselves into power; more on that in part 2, as well.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt put it: “The mounting assault on norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance — mostly, though not entirely by Republicans — has eroded the soft guardrails that long protected us from the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies in other parts of the world.”

As we’ll see, the journey from “eroded” to “extinguished” might not be that far off.

(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY Week, in Durham, North Carolina.)

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