The biggest question in American politics right now
After 18 months of multiple impeachments, a pandemic, a social uprising unlike anything seen in the past 50 years, a historic turnout for a presidential election, and a sitting president advocating extralegal action to overturn the certified election results, and a political party that now views that disgraced president as its de facto leader, you can forgive many Americans for suffering a severe case of nerves about the current health of U.S. democracy.
Is the nervousness justified? The behavior of congressional Republicans has not calmed people all that much. Last week, Republicans rejected the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) thought the findings would hurt the GOP in the midterms. This comes after McConnell said last month that the GOP was “100 percent [focused] on stopping this new administration.”
There are three interlinked questions at play here. First, will the GOP win more power in the midterms and 2024 election? Second, if the GOP does gain more power, will Republicans use it to thwart a legitimate victory by Democrats? Third, if they do that, what happens?
The obvious answers to all three questions are disconcerting. Democrats’ control of Congress rests on razor-thin margins. Looking ahead to 2022, it makes sense to believe that Republicans will gain control of one if not both legislative chambers. The 2020 election was good for Republicans in state legislatures, and redistricting should enable them to gerrymander a few more seats in their favor. That plus the traditional bounce that the party out of power receives in the midterms should be enough.
Already, Republicans in red states are acting to restrict the vote and empower GOP-controlled legislatures to supersede an adverse electoral outcome. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein notes “activists are expressing concern that neither the administration nor Democratic congressional leaders are raising sufficient alarms about the threats to voting rights proliferating in red states, or developing a strategy to pass the national election standards that these groups consider the party’s best chance to counter those threats.”
It’s not only activists. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser quotes political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” as saying, “Turns out, things are much worse than we expected” and that the current situation is “much more worrisome.” A Republican Party that behaves in this anti-democratic manner but still gains seats in the midterms would certainly be emboldened to curb democratic rights even further.
As for whether Americans would tolerate such a thwarting of democracy, my mind keeps drifting back to something Tom Pepinsky wrote in early 2017:The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get in to good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections.
This is Malaysia, and many countries like it …It turns out that most people express democratic values, but living in a complicated world in which people care more about more things than just their form of government — feeding their families, educating their children, professional success — it is easy to see that given an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics may become a low priority. The answer to the question “will ‘the people’ tolerate authoritarian rule?” is yes, absolutely.
So this all sounds dire. But will it come to this? Both Brownstein and Glasser report that the Biden White House thinks that the best way to handle the GOP’s across-the-board obstructionism is to work on Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), pass what needs to be passed, focus on the issues voters care about, and not get goaded into polarizing fights.
This could work. Biden’s agenda is pretty popular, and his own approval rating has been rock-steady in recent months. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that the standard midterm penalty might not apply to the Democrats in 2022. An end to the pandemic and a bounce-back economy would help Biden. As Nate Silver pointed out late last week, there are multiple causal mechanisms through which the current GOP is hurting its chances relative to baseline expectations. It is even possible, as CNN’s Harry Enten points out, that Biden has won back the Latino vote that everyone was freaking out about last November.
If this proves wrong and Republicans gain power and then thwart Biden’s reelection, could Pepinsky be proven correct? It’s certainly possible, but the country has changed in the four years since Pepinsky wrote that essay. It turns out that in the United States a party led by a demagogue inspires more counter-mobilization than anyone thought. Four years of Donald Trump have taught most of those who opposed him not to take anything for granted in politics.
I do worry that anti-democratic Republicans will jerry-rig the system to preserve their power. If I’m being honest, however, what worries me more is how the #MAGA crowd will react if these tactics do not work. What happens if they realize that all their efforts to win power wind up with them having less of it? A recent PRRI poll showed that 28 percent of Republicans polled agree that because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence. Gun purchases are surging. And hardcore #MAGA types are calling for a military coup.
In other words, the next few years will be precarious no matter how Americans vote.