Where American Democracy Is Now

Broken egg and yolk.

Thanksgiving this year included a sigh of relief that America had managed to hold a more or less normal midterm election in which the anticipated red tsunami did not materialize and voters apparently decided, Solomonically, to split the baby in two rather than award it to either political claimant. It doesn’t settle the matter any more than Solomon’s idea would have in resolving the maternal dispute brought before him in The Book of Kings. The Democrats hung onto control of the Senate, but lost the House of Representatives, which will make the passage of legislation in the incoming Congress all the more difficult, if possible in most cases at all. The Republicans have signaled that they intend to spend their energy in paralyzing the Biden administration with a blizzard of investigations ranging from what happened at the Kabul airport in August 2021 to the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. That means the lame duck Congress will have to put two years’ worth of work into two weeks if it expects anything to get done about debt ceilings, disappointed Dreamers, or same-sex marriage partners.

This isn’t news. Gridlock has been the name of the game in Washington since Bill Clinton’s ineptitude cost Democrats their semi-automatic control of Congress in 1994. Apart from cutting taxes for the rich, leaving regulated industries to the tender mercies of the market, and packing the courts with clones of Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Republicans have had no public agenda other than to stymie their opposition at every possible turn. Nor have they made any secret of this. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the then (and now) minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, declared as his prime objective the failure of the Obama administration. The same guns are trained on Joe Biden.

Political parties do oppose each other, but when one of them works essentially to render the government inoperable whenever it is out of power, it is no longer part of a constitutional system. Since government is an unavoidable nuisance—how else would the rich stay rich, or politicians enjoy the crumbs from their table?—the logical recourse is to assert that elections are rigged by definition, and when a Republican wins one it is only because the attempt to steal it has failed. This was precisely the claim Donald Trump made about the very election he won in 2016, and so, naturally, about the one he lost four years later. There could thus be no peaceful transfer of power, the supposed hallmark of a democracy, because it could not be legitimately passed from Trump to an elected Democratic successor.

What Trump meant, of course, was that he personally could not lose an election, because losing was the one thing our national narcissist could never acknowledge. So he paraded his lawyers through sixty courts to challenge the electoral results, and when that failed assembled an armed mob to halt their certification by Congress, thereby seeking to overthrow the government he still led.

The certification was in progress when Trump’s mob breached the Capitol, and even after it resumed, 147 Republican representatives joined in baseless challenges to it—in other words, joined the insurrection from the very floor from on which they had cowered for their lives only hours before. In doing so they embraced the autocratic principle that a people might not choose their leader, and thereby ceased to represent either a party or their country.

One of the most vociferous election deniers, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, subsequently declared that the Republican Party was “dead,” and must be replaced. One must agree with his conclusion, if not with his argument. There is only one party now in the elected branches of government. For the rest, there is only a rogue entity that is ready to seize and maintain power by any means necessary. This is not a former party seized by a demagogue. It is a cabal, thirsty for power by whatever at all costs, which has itself shaped the demagogue who leads it.

The present election shows that the country has not yet absorbed this lesson. Most voters still vote the party ticket they are accustomed to, whether by family tradition, regional residence, or sheer reflex. Independents, too, still incline toward one party or the other, although they shop their choice. It is only a minority that realizes the Republican Party to be, in Senator Hawley’s words, “dead,” not because it has betrayed its principles but because it has long ceased to affirm any but one: victory.

Our third, unelected, and virtually unaccountable branch of government, the judiciary, has been in Republican hands for half a century. It is not merely that six of the nine current Supreme Court justices are a crew of reaction, but that the entire federal bench has been assiduously stocked with such types of late. Donald Trump made 226 bench appointments in his four-year term, all of them vetted by the national right-wing judicial lobby, the Federalist Society. They will be assiduously rewriting the Constitution for decades to come to favor the rich, confound the poor, and weaken the common rights of all.

Since the Nixon era, this has been a deliberate strategy of Republican administrations. But the Supreme Court as an institution, having arrogated to itself the so-called power of judicial supremacy—the usurped authority to strike down or rewrite state and federal laws at pleasure—has been a near-constant impediment to democracy, from the Dred Scott decision that plunged us into the Civil War to the Lochner case that imposed a thirty-year veto on workers’ rights to Bush v. Gore, in which the Court unlawfully awarded the American presidency itself to George W. Bush, thereby presenting us with two twenty-year wars and the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.

The Republican Party is not reformable in its present situation, nor can one imagine one in which it would be; as Donald Trump remarked in a moment of candor, it would never win a general election without voter suppression and corporate financing, both gifts of the Supreme Court. Liz Cheney, the daughter of an unindicted war criminal, has been its only audible voice of conscience, for which sin she is being drummed out of it.

A broken political party is not the only thing wrong with American public life today, but it is its worst current instrument of mischief. It is broken not merely by policy or corruption or because it makes cause with elitism, racism, social oppression, and climate denialism. It is broken because it has broken faith with the fundamental principles and conditions of democratic self-governance. That is the one thing beyond forgiveness, or repair.

About Robert Zaller 89 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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