Can Democracy Survive the Demise of the GOP?

Republicans refuse to adapt to a changing America and are threatening to take the country down with them.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the observation that: “The only constant in life is change.” In the 21st century, the pace of change has accelerated and, as activist and educator Tim Wise pointed out back in 2009, one of its manifestations created a “perfect storm for white anxiety.”

The “perfect storm” Wise refers to includes (1) the demographics of whites becoming a plurality and no longer a majority by 2040, (2) the election of the country’s first African American president, (3) the fact that, for the first time in 75 years, white people experienced double-digit unemployment, and (4) the “cross-pollination” of racial diversity in our entertainment culture. 

Over the last few years, prophetic voices have warned us about what would happen in response to that kind of change. In 2014, blogger Doug Muder made the prescient comparison between what had become known as the Tea Party and the Confederacy. Documenting how the Civil War didn’t end when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he identified the Confederate mindset.

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

The party that has relied on winning with a white majority is increasingly finding itself at odds with our democratic processes. Muder’s warning was repeated by David Frum in “Trumpocracy” where he wrote that “if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”

In The Great Suppression, journalist Zachary Roth outlined the steps Republicans took when they realized that their party could no longer claim to represent the majority.

Today’s conservatives have no such confidence that the people are on their side. In fact, they are beginning to perceive that they’re in the minority – perhaps more glaringly than ever before. And yet this realization has brought with it another more hopeful one: being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.

Following their defeat in the 2008 election, the GOP increasingly relied on anti-democratic strategies such as voter suppression, gerrymandering, preemption, and judicial engagement.  They have now escalated into being a party that will do anything to hang on to power. 

As an example, Majority Leader McConnell didn’t cross the Rubicon when he proposed jamming through Trump’s Supreme Court nominee weeks before an election (or even during a lame-duck session). That happened back when he refused to even hold hearings, much less a vote, on a Democratic president’s nominee almost a year prior to an election. 

McConnell’s abandonment of precedents must be put into the context of his reveling in being the “grim reaper” who refuses to consider any major legislation in the Senate after passing tax cuts for the wealthy in 2017. His only goal has been to confirm the extremist judges that Trump has nominated to the federal courts. As I’ve previously explained, McConnell knows that his party is in decline and has been willing to castrate Congress in order to allow judges—who serve lifetime appointments—to legislate from the bench.

Over the last four years, Republicans have demonstrated how far they’ll go to stand with a criminal president. That could reach its peak when all of Trump’s lies about fraud associated with mail-in ballots become his pathway to stealing the election. Just recently he told the crowd at a campaign rally that, “We’re gonna have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you’ve never seen. Now we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so we can actually have an evening where we know who wins, OK? Not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later.” That’s the plan—simply disenfranchise the millions of people who vote by mail during a pandemic. Will Republicans stand by while Trump uses the courts McConnell has stacked to steal the election? We’ve seen nothing to indicate that they wouldn’t. 

Since the mid-nineteenth century, politics in the U.S. has been dominated by two parties: Republicans and Democrats. While we have many examples of how those parties fought back from minority status, we have no history to inform us about what happens when one of them retreats from seeking a majority and thus begins to die. 

Fighting back has always meant building a coalition large enough to win elections. The reason the Republican Party faces its demise is that, ever since Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012, it has rejected any attempt to reach out to a changing America. Instead, Republicans have relied on firing up their existing base. As Lindsey Graham once said, the GOP’s problem is that “we’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the longer term.”

We don’t know what happens when an American political party dies. But what we’re seeing from Republicans is an attempt to take democracy down with them. 

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.