Has the Republican Party turned against democracy? It’s beginning to seem so, and if it has it’s the culmination of four decades of revolt against the country’s post-war social progress.
After WWII, the United States was in a triumphal mood. It, alongside its allies, had defeated threats to the global order by the Japanese in Asia and the Germans in Europe. The “greatest generation” had fought and won the “good war.”
American workers were living the American dream. There was a good union job available to all: good pay, good benefits, and lifelong security. And perhaps most important of all, workers could ensure even a better future for their kids. They could afford to pay for a college education, or if their child wasn’t academically inclined there was always a good union job down at the Ford plant and immediate entrance into the middle class.
But there were undercurrents of dissent. Major changes began to create a new social order. Blacks broke free of segregation, women demanded full equality, including dominion over their own bodies, and gays escaped the bonds of illegality. Young people rebelled against war and despoliation of the environment. The U.S. was part of what in Western society became dominant socially progressive societies, a relentless march toward greater toleration and greater inclusion.
American society loosened the bonds generally. Drinking, gambling and the use of drugs were all facilitated while the influence of religion, particularly Christianity, declined. Crime rose as the average age of the population declined. A variety of traditional mores were questioned.
To many conservatives, the gains of the formerly oppressed were losses, and what was progressive was regressive. Their society was losing its moral focus. It was being corrupted by liberals and elites.
This was compounded by America’s loss of manufacturing dominance as other industrial countries recovered from the war, globalization moved good jobs overseas and automation increasingly replaced workers with machines. The American dream, too, seemed to be slipping away as the industrial heartland turned into the rust belt. Many white Americans began to feel that the elites, the people responsible for the unwanted changes, the people who really ran society, were dismissing them.
Democracy seemed to be no longer working for them. Full of grievance, they perceived themselves to be losing culturally, economically and politically. And they, in their minds, were the real Americans, so if democracy wasn’t working for them then it wasn’t really democracy at all.
Faced with what was essentially a progressive revolution, they were ready for a revolution of their own, a counter-revolution.
The Republican Party obliged. The leading counter-revolutionary was Newt Gingrich, Republican member of the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1999, the last four years as speaker.
Gingrich brought a new style to American politics, in essence all-out war. Those norms that allowed civil behaviour between parties were to be ignored. Historically, some of the most important acts of Congress have been achieved by lawmakers who worked with members of both parties, but that was now to be discouraged. Congress was no longer to be a place to do the nation’s business but rather a place to attack Democrats. Under Gingrich, gridlock became a strategy.
Republicans have increasingly adopted Gingrich’s approach until the abandonment of democratic norms culminated in Donald Trump’s rejection of the most important democratic norm of all—the acceptance of electoral defeat. The party is a long way from the days when it elected Abraham Lincoln.
The counter-revolution has not been confined to politics. Republicans became determined to take over the Supreme Court and, led by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, they have succeeded. Of the nine judges, six are right wing. Three were appointed by Donald Trump.
The Court has been hugely useful. In 2010 it made the infamous Citizens United ruling which effectively reversed century-old election campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections with little public accountability. Dark money was unleashed on politics. The bonanza allowed Republicans to gain a lock on government in a number of states, a lock they have reinforced with shameless gerrymandering. They now busily change election rules to disadvantage traditional Democrat voters.
And the Court has begun to reverse the gains of the social revolution, ending women’s constitutional right to abortion a prime example. At least one judge has indicated they have more unfinished business in this area. All of this is built on a constitutional advantage for Republicans as I have discussed in an earlier post.
How far can this go, one wonders. What can possibly be next after the rejection of electoral results? Fascism? Or will the nation split into two countries, or four—the West Coast, the Midwest, the Northeast and the South. It is intriguing how many issues split along those lines, between blue states and red states, particularly with the red states moving ever harder right and blue states making efforts to expand the liberties under siege in red states. We may get a glimpse of the future in the coming November elections.
Yet there is promise the counter-revolution may be curbed. President Biden is making progress on a number of fronts including climate change. If he can reduce inequality and restore some confidence that the system works for the white working class he may mitigate their alienation from democracy.
And American society shows positive change in other ways as well with the recovery of labour unions and a growing concern about global warming. The U.S. has, after all, long been a resilient society.
But restoring the country to a progressive path will be a challenge. The extreme right has powerful friends, and is confident and full of energy. It is determined to impose on the nation what red states are imposing on their citizens. I am reminded of lines from W.B. Yeats poem “the Second Coming” which was so prophetic of 1930s Europe:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”
Not, one hopes, prophetic of 2030s U.S.A.