David Leonhardt’s centrist nostalgia won’t save democracy

Wednesday’s passage of the Presidential Election Reform Act in the House of Representatives highlighted the curious fact that the only Republicans willing to take a stand to protect American democracy are those who have no political future in their party. The law seeks to close the constitutional loophole that Donald Trump tried to use on Jan. 6 to allow Congress to override the Electoral College. In theory, it should be a reform with broad bipartisan support, as a repeat of the attempted insurrection would lead to a constitutional crisis.

The law, co-authored by Reps. Liz Cheney and Zoe Lofgren, was bipartisan by only the slimmest margin. Cheney was joined by eight other Republicans who voted for him along with 220 Democrats. As The Washington Post reports, “None of these nine Republican lawmakers will be members of Congress next year, either because they lost their primaries or because they chose to retire.”

In other words, support for the bill among Republicans came from a small minority faction within the party, a tiny group that has already been effectively purged. The vote on the law is just the latest evidence that the Republican Party mainstream has fully embraced Trumpism and turned its back on democracy.

The current threat to democracy is pressing enough that even mainstream media that have long emphasized their neutrality toward both parties have been forced to acknowledge the asymmetric danger of the GOP. Saturday, New York Times Senior reporter David Leonhardt published a substantial and lengthy article on “the two threats to American democracy”. The first threat, according to Leonhardt, is “a growing movement within one of the two main parties in the country – the Republican Party – to refuse to accept defeat in an election”. The second threat, argues the journalist, is more “chronic” and structural: “The power to define government policy is increasingly disconnected from public opinion”.

Because of its clarity on the first threat, Leonhardt’s chronicle is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on the fragility of American democracy. It’s crucial that centrist voices like Leonhardt be explicit about the growing consensus within the Republican Party that the election can be voided. Leonhardt argues persuasively that the antidemocratic turn in recent politics can be attributed to white Americans worried about demographic shifts, coupled with the ease with which the countermajoritarian mechanisms of the political system (the Senate, Electoral College, Court supreme) can be operated by a political party that embraces minority rule.

The story of American politics in the 21st century is that geographic sorting (densely populated urban centers becoming more Democratic, rural America becoming more Republican) has made an already countermajoritarian system even less responsive to the popular will. And Republicans not only embraced the undemocratic features of the system, but also made them more extreme via gerrymandering and rollback of the franchise.

Yet Leonhardt’s analysis is hampered by the lingering centrist vice of nostalgia, the desire to idealize a mythical past when a pro-democracy consensus enjoyed unchallenged acceptance. He keeps pointing out that the current situation is “unprecedented,” when in fact conspiratorial authoritarianism has an all too strong history in the United States. Without understanding the deep historical roots of Trumpism and how democratic rights were successfully restricted for many decades in the past, it is impossible to recognize the complete danger of the new authoritarian threat.

Leonhardt writes that Trump’s “embracing” of election lies “was radically different from the approach of former leaders of both parties. In the 1960s, Reagan and Barry Goldwater finally isolated the John Birch Society conspirators. The word “eventually” carries a heavy load in this sentence. In fact, Reagan and Goldwater rose to power through their ability to mobilize members of the John Birch Society, whom they rebuffed only when it became politically expedient to do so. In Goldwater’s case, his final turn against the Birchers did not come until after he became a presidential candidate. A candidate for governor of California in 1966, Reagan ably welcomed the support of the Birch Society, while suggesting that the problem with the group was that it was infiltrated by a small minority of extremists (rather than being extremist in its core). Leonhardt assumes that the lines separating mainstream conservatism from conspiratorial extremism are clear and impermeable. But the best recent scholarship on the American right, including the work of Nicole Hemmer of Vanderbilt University and Edward H. Miller of Northeastern University, points out that mainstream conservatism and the hard right have long had porous borders, with elected GOP politicians since at least the start of the New Deal laundering ideas taken from authoritarian and racist arsonists.

Despite all his forebodings, Leonhardt offers a fundamentally optimistic view of American history. His rationalized Whig narrative caused the United States to become increasingly democratic, until the recent emergence of Trumpism. Leonhardt argues,

Throughout history, the US government has tended to become more democratic, through women’s suffrage, civil rights laws, directly elected senators and more. Exceptions, such as the post-Reconstruction period, when southern blacks lost their rights, were rare. The current period is so striking in part because it is one of those exceptions.

The word “rare” stuck in my throat, as the post-Reconstruction period of the loss of black rights in the South ran from the late 1870s through the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s. It’s nearly a century of a large group of people living under an apartheid regime, hardly something that can be glossed over as an unfortunate exception to a happy rule.

To confirm my skepticism, I contacted retired Columbia professor Eric Foner, the leading living expert on reconstruction. Foner emailed me saying that “to call the reversal of Reconstruction and other undemocratic processes ‘rare’ in the history of the United States is misleading”. He added: “There have always been Americans, often very powerful, who think too many people are voting.”

Aside from Reconstruction, there have been many periods of democratic backsliding in America, with African Americans, women, working class, immigrants, and Indigenous peoples often facing backlash. The early 19th century is often celebrated as a period of democratic expansion, culminating in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. But as historian Daniel Walker Howe noted in his book What God Has Done: The Transformation of America, 1815-1948this democratic revolution benefited white men as the economic barrier to voting was removed, but saw other groups actively disenfranchised.

According to Howe,

The less the right to vote depended on economic criteria such as land ownership or the payment of taxes, the more clearly it depended on race and sex. The few women in New Jersey who had once exercised the right to vote had been disenfranchised in 1807. Now a movement has arisen to roll back the emancipation of black men, to clearly identify suffrage with white manhood. Black men lost the right to vote in Connecticut in 1818, Rhode Island in 1822, North Carolina in 1835, and Pennsylvania in 1838. When New York removed its property qualifications for white voters in 1821, she kept one for blacks. Of the states admitted after 1819, all but Maine disenfranchised African Americans. The United States was on the way to becoming a “white republic”.

This history offers crucial lessons of caution: political rights are never guaranteed, always contested. They can be lost for generations. The countermajoritarian structure of the US Constitution often works in favor of antidemocratic forces, such as when the Supreme Court backed Jim Crow for decades. American political elites often push for these democratic reversals. The only way these undemocratic waves have been thwarted has been through mass movements: abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement. The historical record is clear: democracy can never be taken for granted. It’s always a fight. Relying on the benevolence of conservative elites is child’s play.

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