In retrospect, the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 looks like a political catastrophe foretold: President Donald Trump’s devotees announced well in advance what they were going to do, and then they did it. Explanations of how things got that far tend to focus on people—be it Trump himself, with his ability to inspire cultish devotion, or Twitter and Facebook mobs summoned from the netherworlds of the Internet. But little attention has been paid to the role of a very old-fashioned institution: the political party.
The elephant in the room is the Republican Party. It gave up on the basic idea that in a democracy, parties try to gain majority support through an attractive program. Within its own ranks, it left no space for debate. Instead of a laboratory for designing policies to address actual problems, the party served as a cult of personality around Trump. The only real agenda of its leader was to wage a culture war on behalf of “real” Americans against those who supposedly posed an existential threat to them, from immigrants to so-called globalists.
A year after January 6, little has changed. Today, the Trumpists are doubling down on voter suppression and subverting elections whose outcomes are not to their liking. As the alarms flash red, it is time to take inspiration from other democracies that have built safeguards into their political systems by regulating their parties. For as long as one party in a two-party system is no longer playing by the most basic rules of the democratic game, the American republic remains at risk.
THE CULT OF TRUMP
According to the conventional wisdom that reigned for much of the past century, a two-party system automatically constituted a bulwark against political extremism: those aspiring to win at the ballot box had to create a broad ideological tent and opt for moderation to capture centrist voters. The defeats of radicals such as Barry Goldwater (who accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1964 by announcing, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) seemed to only reinforce the inherent superiority of American democracy. This system was said to ensure not only stability but also accountability. Because one party, as opposed to a large coalition, was responsible for governing, if what the incumbents did proved unpopular with most people, a majority would throw the bums out and give the other side a chance.
The past few decades—not just the Trump years—have shown that the reality can be rather different and that the institutional guarantees of democracy are far weaker than experts imagined. Some of the structural problems go back to the very beginning. The founders did not create the two-party system; in fact, they wanted to avoid what they derided as “factions.” But they wrote a constitution that ensured that not all votes would count equally. Rural areas are massively overrepresented, with the result that Republicans can easily gain majorities in the Senate even if far fewer people vote for them. Thanks to the peculiarities of the Electoral College, they can win the presidency on the basis of only minority support in the country as a whole. Add to that relentless gerrymandering, which creates ideological playgrounds for extremists, and a self-enclosed right-wing media world whose main purpose is political self-validation, and the overall consequence is something the founders feared as much as the tyranny of the majority: a tyranny of a minority that believes itself to be the only true Americans.