America Must Act Now to Avoid Deterioration Into Tyranny in the Future.
For American democracy, the year 2022 has not started well. MLK Day has passed, and despite Democratic leaders’ best efforts, including President Biden’s, to pass federal legislation to protect voting rights, they have yet to deliver: while Republicans remain united in obstruction, Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to chase the chimera of “bipartisanship.” Given the likelihood that Democrats will lose either the House or the Senate in this year’s midterm elections, it may soon be impossible to reverse America’s authoritarian trend.
I realize if this sounds exaggerated. Trump was defeated in the election, and his coup attempt failed; Joe Biden is president, and Democrats control Congress. What could possibly go wrong? Republicans, on the other hand, have increased their assault on the political system since the 2020 election, particularly at the state and local levels. They are unified behind Trump, and they have decided that if democracy and Republican control cannot coexist, democracy must be abandoned.
Republicans in states where they are in power are dead set on establishing one-party control. The game plan 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’re flanking these measures by criminalising protest in order to prevent civil society mobilization. These attempts are not subtle, and Republicans are almost doubt encouraged by the fact that the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority is firmly on their side.
What are the Republicans’ justifications for their anti-democracy crusade? They saw themselves as the lone defenders of “true America,” defending it against the evil forces of leftism and “wokeism” that have allegedly taken over the Democratic Party. That proposition implies that Democratic government, whether or not it has the backing of a majority of the voters, is fundamentally illegitimate: the Democratic party is a radically “un-American” enemy, not just a political adversary.
Trump is a product, not a cause, of the reactionary anti-democratic trend. For a long time, the Republican Party has been on an anti-democratic path. The Republican Party has been almost entirely focused on the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives who define “true America” as a largely white, Christian, patriarchal nation for decades. To them, America is supposed to be a country where white Christian men rule. Since at least the 1950s, modern US conservatism has been motivated by the objective of preserving that white Christian nationalist notion of “true America” as a political enterprise; since the 1970s, when conservatives came to dominate the party, it has been the Republicans’ overriding priority.
Republicans no longer have majority support for this political vision, thanks to political, cultural, and, most significantly, demographic shifts – certainly not at the federal level, and even in many “red” states, their position is becoming increasingly precarious. Yes, democracy is in great danger because regressive forces are on the offensive, but this is the paradox at the heart of the current political crisis. They are attacking, though, not out of a sense of strength, but because their backs are against the wall. And they’re reacting to a real situation. America has progressed toward the promise of multiracial, pluralistic democracy by becoming less white, less Christian, and more liberal.
Republicans understand this better than anyone else. They would have to either broaden their emphasis beyond the interests and sensibilities of white conservatives, which they are unwilling to do or cede power, which they reject, in a functional democratic society. They’ve chosen a different route, ready to do whatever it takes to keep their power and conventional hierarchies intact.
Is it possible that it will happen here? Without effective federal legislation to defend and reform democracy, the United States will quickly devolve into a dysfunctional pseudo-democratic system at the national level, with democracy in half of the states and authoritarian one-party rule in the other. America would cease to be a democracy as a whole.
If that sounds far-fetched, keep in mind that it would be a return to what was the norm until recently in many areas. Before the 1960s civil rights laws, America was fairly democratic only if you were a white Christian guy – and something else totally if you weren’t. The post-civil-war Reconstruction period was an outlier, which further adds to the argument: America’s first attempt at multiracial democracy was rapidly suffocated by white reactionary violence and ostensibly “race-neutral” laws. In a major chunk of the country, Jim Crow apartheid became a reality: an authoritarian regime in which southern Democrats‘ power was never questioned, allowing these Dixiecrats to entrench white supremacy while also shaping and obstructing national policy.
Will the United States ever become a functional multiracial, pluralistic democracy – or will the years from the mid-1960s to the early 2020s be remembered as a relatively short-lived and ultimately failed experiment before a more limited, white man’s democracy was restored? It is critical that we recognize the enormity of the stakes in the current battle over voting rights legislation. This is a world-historic struggle, not only for America: we are seeing a comparable conflict define the political, social, and cultural landscape in many Western democracies.
Thomas Zimmer is a historian and DAAD visiting professor at Georgetown University, where he studies the history of democracy in the United States and its discontents.