Opinion: The Republican Party and the Descent Into Illiberalism

Republican Party
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U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and former House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming are both members of the Republican Party, but they are in two different places. Both have the same problem of dealing with former President Trump and his false claims about the 2020 presidential election, which led to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his political supporters on Jan. 6.

Because of Cheney’s persistent attacks on Trump’s false claims about the election and support of a commission investigating what happened on Jan. 6, and McCarthy needing Trump’s support to win the 2022 midterm elections, she has been stripped of her leadership position, with her successor being Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York.

In today’s Republican Party, support of Donald Trump and his policies are absolute. Any deviation from this will be punished by party officials and voters alike. Republican-controlled state legislatures are passing laws restricting access to voting, continuing a trend that began a decade ago. These three things (Cheney’s ouster from House GOP leadership, challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and fealty to Trump) points to a major problem in American politics today: The Republican Party’s descent into illiberalism.

For a long time, I was a registered Republican. I voted for Republican candidates, interned in the office of a Republican U.S. senator, and worked on four campaigns of Republican candidates for office. I had a belief in a strong yet limited government, sound fiscal policy, a deep commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, and internationalism abroad.

I saw the Democratic Party as the opposition but committed to the institutions of our democratic republic. Few people ever wanted to see the lunatic fringe occupy the center space in the party, and party stalwarts from William F. Buckley to Bob Dole served as gatekeepers against those of this ilk. Gatekeepers are only as strong as those who serve in this role, and when they are no longer able to perform this essential function, the lunatics take over.

The 6th of January 2021 will be a date which will live on in the infamous annals of not just American history, but Republican Party history. The world witnessed an unprecedented attack by an estimated 8,000 people on the U.S. Capitol, with five people dying in the assault. As of this writing, hundreds have been arrested all over the country, with more investigations and arrests pending.

The insurrectionists are Republican voters who voted for Donald Trump, angry that the results of the 2020 presidential election were being certified by Congress. In their assault on the democratic process, these insurrectionists duly announced themselves as enemies of democracy, and are willing to use violence to achieve their ends. This act of sedition was egged on by the President of the United States and his supporters in both houses of Congress who objected to certifying the results of the election.

America’s institutions of democracy are under unprecedented attack from within. From a decline in civic education to active attempts to deliberately suppress the vote, what we feared and fought against in other nations has come to our shores.

Over the last few decades, the attacks on our system of governance have come from one place: The Republican Party. The party of Lincoln has become the party of minority rule and grabbing power by any means. If voters and the Democratic Party don’t stand up for the right to vote, the rule of law, and respecting our institutional norms, our democracy dies.

Symptoms of decline

According to a 2016 study released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, we have a generation of young adults and students who aren’t able to name all three branches of the federal government. The study states that only 26% of Americans can name all three branches.

Another symptom of decline in civic education in America is an overemphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) learning over civic education learning in schools. Since the launching of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, this more than 60-year-old push has created a generation of students and adults who have improved their knowledge in the hard sciences, but lack the basic knowledge of government, and the social capital of collaboration, cooperation, and learning how to deal with different points of view.

In an article published by the Brookings Institution, Rebecca Winthrop, who is the co-director of the Center for Education, argues that a marriage of STEM and civic education is necessary for students going forward. Citing the concerns of business leaders and leading educators, Winthrop states that the most highly prized skills aren’t in the hard sciences. The skills that are in demand for them are the soft skills and a civic education grounded in the development of these soft skills will go a long way in a changing society and world.

One major reason why the American democratic experiment proved to be so durable despite civil war, civil unrest, and two major world wars is our strong commitment to educating people on our civil institutions. Our public schools, chambers of commerce, Kiwanis clubs, and our political parties were (and in many instances remain) instrumental in civic education.

However, the decline in participation of both well-educated and not so well-educated citizens in our civic institutions, as well as cutting funding for civics lessons in our schools damages our understanding of how our democracy works among much of the voting electorate. Distrust in government and additional institutions creeps into this vacuum, creating a sense in the minds of many that our political and civic leadership doesn’t listen to us anymore. When people lose faith and trust in democratic institutions, the seeds of authoritarianism are sown.

How the Republican Party plays a role in this

The Republican Party is no longer a center-right party dedicated to federalism and safeguarding individual liberty in a balanced way. The Grand Old Party has morphed into an ethnocentric, nationalist party that rewards its wealthy donors, weakens the social safety net, while weakening enforcement of civil rights laws. The brazenness of the lawsuits launched by the Donald Trump campaign, and the former president personally lobbying Republican state legislators to take over the electoral college certification process and give the votes over to him (thereby overturning the will of the voters in states which voted for Joe Biden), should alarm us as a nation.

This isn’t the only problem that the Republican Party created over the last two decades. From shutting the government down to rejecting judges nominated by Democratic presidents, they have not only rejected effective government, but they have also rejected all that they stood for in elections past. In short, they have become an authoritarian party, as this article by Vox.com’s Zach Beauchamp argues.

Mr. Beauchamp cites a study written by Pippa Norris of Harvard University, who used a scale created by the Global Party Survey of political parties in advanced democracies measuring the commitment to democratic principles and protection of minority rights. The scale shows that they are extremely far to the right, close to the political parties of authoritarian leaders in Hungary (Viktor Orban) and Turkey (Tayyip Erdogan).

The Biden-Harris administration faces a challenge not just of governance, but a vast right-wing media ecosystem distributing misinformation and conspiracy theories. Truth is disregarded, dissent is punished, and demonization is encouraged.

If one takes the time to read the Federalist Papers (Federalist #10 in particular), you can tell that the Founding Fathers had a fear of faction (namely the rise of political parties whose sole purpose is to gain power). Given the recent events in the Republican Party, it appears that their fears are prescient.

Political parties are in the business of winning elections and enacting policies they support into law. In our constitutional democracy, parties are the guardians of democratic norms and processes. But what if one party continues to honor the rights, norms, and observances of democracy while the other abandons it, and takes up undemocratic means to achieve and keep power?

What can be done to protect our democracy?

For the last few years, a project called Our Common Purpose, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, went around the country speaking to voters, elected officeholders, and people involved in civic life. They have come up with many solutions which will do much to upgrade and improve democracy in America. I’ve highlighted a few solutions they recommend.

#1: Make it Easier for people to register to vote: Voting in our democracy is essential to representative government. Our Common Purpose recommends that state and local governments should “preregister” 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and lessen burdens on when and where people can vote. For the last 10 years, Republicans in state legislatures all over the country closed or moved polling stations, increased burdens on ex-offenders registering to vote, and opposed early voting. These attacks on the franchise have done much to dissuade people from voting and should be stopped.

#2: Make voting mandatory for citizens: This is an important obligation for citizens of the United States. When people vote, institutions become more responsive. When people vote, fewer people will feel that their vote is pointless.

#3: Increase and improve civic education at the K-12 level: When I was young, I saw on ABC a cartoon called “Schoolhouse Rock.” This cartoon did much to educate me and many other school-age children about the Constitution, and how laws are created and passed in Congress. This was reinforced by classes on the Constitution in middle school and in high school.

While the above measures championed by Our Common Purpose are much needed, the big challenge we face is a political party that has decided to jettison democratic norms and rules and embrace a naked grab of power and restriction of power for others. We have a remarkably high percentage of Republican voters who deem the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as illegitimate.

This has a large influence on the statements of Republican congressional members who are reluctant to acknowledge their win. Until we have a robust civic education, devise effective ways to combat disinformation, and expand and reform access to the voting franchise, the Republican Party’s turn toward authoritarianism and white nationalism will worsen and make it exceedingly difficult to govern the nation.

SERGE THOMAS

The writer lives in Silver Spring.