A sense of alarmed fatalism is starting to take hold among pundits and political scientists. It’s not hard to see why: The future of American democracy looks exceedingly grim under threat from a far-right authoritarian movement—and it’s not clear that any particular electoral or legislative response by Democrats can fix it. In short, it will take an unprecedented all-of-society approach to bring together many competing interest groups—from leaders of the business community to marginalized workers and everyone in between—to stop the MAGA train in its tracks.
A dark consensus is forming around a few increasingly incontrovertible realities:
1) The American electorate seems to have an unalterable tendency toward thermostatic behavior. In layman’s terms, the electorate grows cranky and dissatisfied for reasons often out of government’s direct control (gas prices, a pandemic, economic fluctuations, and so on), and the party out of power gains an advantage accordingly. Voters of the dominant party become complacent even as the opposition grows angrier and more determined. Some people thought that a polarized electorate might negate this effect. The last few election cycles, however, have demonstrated the impermanence of once-solid electoral coalitions. At the same time, we are a closely divided country, and there are still far more than enough “swing” voters to move the pendulum. To be sure, an extremely popular president in a historical aberration, like George W. Bush in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks, can evade the pattern—but not for long.
2) America has a dangerously archaic and outdated two-party presidential system that fails to account for modern political realities. The Founders were brilliant in many ways, but they also got a lot wrong about how power works in democracies. Duverger’s law exists, preventing the rise of third parties. Reforms like ranked-choice voting can help mitigate the stark dichotomy, but only slightly. The president is also extremely powerful compared to most parliamentary systems, and recent history has shown that the mechanisms of accountability, such as impeachment and conviction, against a lawless president are nearly worthless if his own partisans refuse to take action.
3) The Republican Party has become an antimajoritarian, antidemocracy organization driven to extreme tactics. This is mostly based out of fear of permanently losing America’s culture war. The GOP only has a few actual policy ideas beyond owning the libs and causing blue America as much pain as possible, all while giving goodies to its donors and base. And it is willing to overthrow democracy to hold on to power. Extreme gerrymandering in statehouses and the U.S. House of Representatives, plus disproportional representation favoring conservative rural whites in the Senate and Electoral College, is stacking the deck in favor of a radical minority—and Republicans have grown brazen about simply stealing elections for themselves even if those advantages prove insufficient.
4) Democratic politicians have limited options right now regarding what to do about it. A few schools of thought have emerged. “Popularists” think Democrats should try to devolve educational polarization by sacrificing social liberalism, sidelining activists, and emphasizing kitchen table economic messages; “deliverists” postulate that delivering on big public benefits will persuade voters and convince them that Democrats keep their promises. Neither strategy seems likely to change the outcome of more than a few races, at best, even if their underlying theories are correct. Democracy advocates are focused on big legislation to preserve democracy and rebalance representation, but no one can figure out how to bring conservative Democratic politicians like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on board for even minor changes. Either way, it still wouldn’t prevent Democrats from losing elections fairly and organically in the normal thermostatic way.
So, the key challenge is this: Democrats would need to win every single election from here to prevent the destruction of democracy, while Republicans only need to win one. And the American system is set up so that Republicans will win sooner or later, whether fairly or by cheating. What to do?
Democracy’s defenders have an advantage: They do, in fact, represent the majority of America and are also the main drivers of the country’s culture and economy. Blue counties produce more than 70 percent of America’s GDP. U.S. cities—overwhelmingly blue—are responsible for the vast majority of the country’s cultural and economic output. Blue states are overwhelmingly donors to the states that despise them and seek to disenfranchise them. The nation’s most successful companies are typically located in ultra-liberal areas. And the country is becoming more diverse and more urban every day. Americans under 40 are overwhelmingly progressive. This is the present and future of America.
Successful fascist movements and authoritarian coups generally require not only a fervent base of cruel, fundamentalist backers. They also need the support, cooperation, and acquiescence of social elites. Most of all, they need the public to roll over and go along with it.
If the Republican Party decides to declare victory by selecting conservative electors even when they lose, change the rules to ensure that they never lose again per the Hungarian model, and allow a Republican president unchecked dictatorial powers—all of which are not only possible but, in fact, likely outcomes within just the next few years—it will actually be doing so from a position of weakness.
Real, normative America is urban and liberal; 83 percent of Americans now live in cities, and that number is growing. The oldest Millennials are now 40 years old and not getting any more conservative; Gen Zers are just as progressive, if not more so; and those two generations are about to dominate the electorate. Big Business clearly knows where the majority of its customers are, to the point where the conservative movement—until recently long allied with Big Business—now portrays itself as the victim of “woke” corporate elites.
There are many disadvantages for Democrats in increasingly becoming a party of the educated professional middle class. But one key advantage should be that, in the event of an attempted hostile takeover by a theocratic, anti-cosmopolitan fascist movement, a nonviolent civil resistance and general refusal to cooperate among military, business, and civil elites—plus mass civil disobedience by blue America writ large—should be able to stop it.
Of course, in the meantime, Democrats should do everything in their power to pass bills that improve Americans’ lives, drag Manchin and Sinema to do whatever is possible to shore up majoritarian democracy, and run the best, most popular and effective campaigns possible. But those things alone cannot stem the tide against a determined fascist party in a thermostatic two-party system.
Blue America needs to start thinking about and planning for what “Break glass in case of emergency” measures look like—because it’s more likely a matter of when, not if. It not only can happen here; it probably will happen here. Conservatives are guaranteed to make every attempt to turn America into the next Russia or Hungary. It will take coordinated, overlapping solidarity among both regular people and elites across various institutions to stop it.