The Battle for Democracy
Josh Marshall and Zachary Roth hit on something important in their posts about the lack of shared principles between the two parties in the U.S. One of the greatest fairy tales in American politics, practically an article of civic faith, is that “we all want the same things.” No, we really, really don’t. This is a story we tell ourselves to paper over the very deep and abiding differences that from time to time in our history have threatened to tear the nation apart. And I believe we’re approaching another one of these moments in the years to come.
Their assessment that the contemporary right does not believe in basic democratic principles is correct, but it severely understates the case. It’s not just that today’s right doesn’t believe in democracy. They consider representative government of any kind to be dangerous — something to be opposed and dismantled to the maximum extent that they can get away with. And they’ve been getting away with quite a bit these days: from gerrymandering to voter suppression to anti-majoritarian obstruction to stealing elections and public offices and more.
You can find evidence of the right’s anti-democratic views in the historical writings of conservatives, as Corey Robin has done. Or you can find evidence of it in the news, as Marshall and Roth done. But you also can find an abundance of evidence of the right’s hostility to representative governance their psychology. The fact that various anti-democratic measures align with the GOP’s electoral interests obscures the extent to which these measures are also driven by two distinct psychologies on the right — right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation — that hold popular participation and political pluralism in contempt.
Right wing authoritarians — whose worldview is rooted in fear and danger — reject social and political pluralism, crave strongman leadership and are intolerant of dissent. Social dominators — who hold a competitive, anti-egalitarian worldview — want to be the strongmen that authoritarians crave and seek to constitute themselves as a more or less permanent aristocracy of power, wealth and privilege (in this era of history, organized around the corporate capitalist system). In short, the American right fears, hates and opposes representative government, as a matter of self-interest, ideology, psychology and survival.
I can understand why journalists and political authors would have serious reservations about making such a sweeping set of claims. But as someone who takes political psychology seriously and who has been sounding the alarm about this for years, it is refreshing to see journalists finally beginning to come to terms with the nature of the threat the right poses to the American experiment. This is a problem that has been brewing since long before Trump arrived on the scene and is sure to outlast him.
Thankfully, our own history shows that the best way to combat the dark impulses toward despotism is with more democracy. In this era, that means things like fair elections, automatic registration, greater ballot access, competitive districts, abolishing the Electoral College, more sensible campaign finance laws, primary reform, and so on and so forth. It’s no secret that Democratic and progressive activists are getting fed up with trying to win in a fundamentally rigged system. And Democratic leaders, who in recent decades have relied on anti-Republican backlash to gain a fleeting hold on power, have self-interested reasons to get out in front on these issues: they will be empowered by taking up this fight and making it central to the party’s platform, vision and governing agenda. They’re already taking it up in piecemeal form.
Here’s the bottom line. Both parties are facing rapidly escalating pressure, as a function of their political self-interest and their psychology/ideology, to change our political system in ways that are likely to permanently alter the balance of power in American politics. The center cannot hold.