Now or Never to Stop US Descent to Authoritarian RuleRoundup
tags: democracy, voting rights, authoritarianism
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
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.