Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Tyranny of the Minority and The Extremism of the Republican Party

Part One: The Tyranny of the Minority

Two government professors at Harvard have a new book out called The Tyranny of the Minority, which accurately warns that the Republican Party has been increasingly anti-democratic and right-wing, despite or because of losing the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. The book, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is a follow-up to their 2018 book, How Democracies Die. The PBS NewsHour broadcast a decent interview with the authors on 9/14/23. You can view or listen to the 7:25 video or audio at the link above, or read a full transcript, or play the YouTube version below:

Some key excerpts, starting with Ziblatt:

To be a party committed to democracy, you have to do three very simple things. Number one, you have to accept election losses, win or lose. Number two, you have to not use violence to gain or to hold onto power. And then, number three, most critically, in some sense, for mainstream political parties, is you have to distance yourself and be explicit and open about condemning anybody who's an ally of your party that commits any of those first two types of acts.

To be a party committed to democracy, in order for democracy to survive, the political parties in a political system have to ascribe to all three of those principles. This applies to parties of the right and of the left.

And I think what is so concerning, as Steve described, is that over the last four years, we have seen a process of decay within the Republican Party where all three of those principles are violated, but, in particular, most recently among mainstream members of the Senate.


So, semi-loyal democrats are tricky, because they look like regular politicians. They look like mainstream politicians. They are, in fact, mainstream politicians.

They are in the halls of Congress. They are wearing suits. They look and talk and act like regular small-D democrats. But the key difference is their willingness to tolerate, to condone, to justify, sometimes to protect antidemocratic extremists.

And we have seen throughout history that when mainstream politicians of the left or the right tolerate, condone, protect extremists on the right or the left, democracies get into trouble. And so who are we talking about in the Republican Party today? Mainstream Republican Party leaders, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, leading senators, leading governors.

Both this book and their previous one offer some welcome international context on democracies in other countries and compare them to the United States – challenges, failures and better systems. Ziblatt touches on this briefly in the interview:

One big difference between the United States and a country like Hungary or other countries where democratic backsliding has really established single-party rule, we have constraints and there's a strong opposition to these forces.

That's certainly the case at the national level. What's so striking, though, because we have a federal system, that there are states in the United States where there are assaults on voting rights taking place, where there's extreme levels of gerrymandering, so that it makes it possible for a party that doesn't win the most votes to actually win control of state legislatures, where courts are then packed at the local — at the state level as well.

So what we see across the United States is increasingly a divide between states where you continue to have voting rights and democracy and states where democracy is really under assault.

Ziblatt closes by listing some concrete steps and perhaps some hopeful notes:

Some of the things that we discussed in the book and we propose, we have a 15-point set of suggestions in our last chapter, including things such as eliminating the Electoral College — we're the only democracy in the world with an Electoral College — introducing term limits and retirement ages for the Supreme Court.

We're the only democracy in the world that doesn't have retirement ages or term limits for national judges. We also propose some reforms that don't require constitutional reforms, such as eliminating or at least weakening the filibuster, the filibuster in the United States, since we're the only democracy in the world that has such a strong tool of obstruction in one of our chambers of Congress.

This tool of obstruction blocks very often majority-supported policies, gun control, efforts to address climate change, the minimum wage. Things get held up in the national Congress, which frustrates citizens. So we think there needs to be a kind of a sweeping reform agenda.

And one of the things we have discovered looking at other democracies, I should add, is that, when constitutional reforms come, they tend to cluster together. Momentum is gained. People get – regain faith in their political system. And we think this is very much part of the American tradition.

Where we are operating today without this is outside of the American tradition. And this is something we need to get back to.

This is all on point, and it's heartening to see more people considered mainstream and respectable sound the alarm about U.S. conservatism and the Republican Party. The phrase "tyranny of the minority" is nothing new; Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Goldberg both wrote good pieces with that title in 2017, and similar critiques go back further. Liberals and progressives have been accurately pointing out these dangers for over two decades now at least, but we're often not heeded, which remains a big problem, but nonetheless any truth that breaks through is welcome.

For more on the book, The Harvard Gazette did an interview, Steven Levitsky gave a lectue at Brown University, and the New York Journal of Books and Vox both have reviews.

Part Two: The Extremism of the Republican Party

Most mainstream media outlets remain reluctant to call out the extremism of U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party, and by their reticence help normalize that extremism, however inadvertently. Politeness takes precedence over accuracy. The Republican Party has become increasingly conservative and increasingly right-wing, and as a result, in mainstream media labeling, the actual political positions held by political figures called "centrists" or "moderates" have moved further to the right as well. (Classic Overton window dynamics.)

The PBS NewsHour is a good program overall, but its team seems to have made an editorial decision that any conservative or Republican who isn't far right should be called a "moderate." I've noticed it for several years, and PBS is hardly alone in this approach. Although PBS' Laura Barrón-López is a pretty good reporter and interviewer, she did exactly this early in the interview featured above:

Do you see Senator Romney's retirement as a sign that, rather than weed out the extremists in their party, Republicans are weeding out moderate Republicans like Romney and Liz Cheney?

I'd let this go if other reporters didn't use similar, misleading terminology so consistently. This approach is an ongoing problem in U.S. political coverage – normalizing conservative and Republican extremism, and not just by hacks, but even by people who presumably are trying to provide good reporting. It would be accurate to call Romney more moderate than other members of his party on at least some issues, and Liz Cheney did comport herself well during the January 6th committee hearings. It is fair to say they're being weeded out. But both Romney and Cheney are conservative, in many ways extremely so, with some horrible positions, which not incidentally are common in the Republican Party. As of a 2021 analysis by FiveThirtyEight, Romney voted with the Donald Trump agenda 75.0% of the time (which was less than many of his Republican colleagues) and Cheney voted with the Trump agenda 92.9% of the time.

Romney does deserve some credit for voting to convict Trump in both his impeachment trials (even if his vote "no" that Trump didn't obstruct Congress remains ridiculous), and Romney did put common sense and by his own account conscience above significant political and social pressure. It's technically true but a bit misleading, however, to say that Romney is "the first senator who has ever voted to remove a president of his own party"; Richard Nixon would have been both impeached and convicted by members of his party as well, but he resigned before it could happen. (The House impeaches, and the Senate convicts.) Liz Cheney, meanwhile, voted to impeach Trump in 2021 for the January 6th insurrection, but voted against impeaching him in 2020 for "withholding military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extract dirt on rivals including Joe Biden," and said in 2022 she does not regret that vote. Her defense that the "evidence that was put on didn’t make the case" strains credulity, given the evidence presented. The Republican votes in favor of Trump in both cases were pure political loyalty and sheer political corruption.

It's worth considering Cheney and Romney's histories in a little more depth. It is nice that Liz Cheney respects election results, low bar though that may be, but she's always been pretty authoritarian herself. Liz Cheney has supported torture, opposed due process, and opposed investigating and holding accountable the Bush administration torture team, notably including her own father, Dick Cheney. This 2010 post covers some of that territory and includes a roundup of links on a disgusting attack ad run by Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol's Orwellian-named group, "Keep America Safe." This 2009 post focuses more on Dick Cheney trying to whitewash his torture record, but also touches on Liz Cheney's efforts to cover for him and the corporate media enabling it. There's also Liz Cheney in 2009 echoing her father's attacks on then-President Barack Obama for proposing to shut down Guantanamo, and arguing for torture to Anderson Cooper, including brazenly lying to his face about the key findings of the Schlesinger report on torture, and shamelessly accusing Obama of covering up the truth of the torture program (she and her cohorts prefer the Orwellian term "enhanced interrogation techniques"). In no world are supporting torture and defending torturers "moderate" positions.

Liz Cheney also can be fairly called a plutocrat, like most of her Republican colleagues, having voted for the Trump tax cuts in 2017, which like the Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, were (to quote a 2022 post):

. . . plutocratic, funneling even more money to the wealthiest Americans to please rich donors. Contrary to Republican claims, the corporate tax cuts did not trickle down and the tax plan did not pay for itself; they just gave rich people more money.

As the Council on Foreign Relations summarized in 2022, "income and wealth inequality is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, and it is rising." That post, and the website Inequality.org, have some helpful charts. (My most in-depth post on income and wealth inequality was this 2010 one, with several other posts in the category.) Given how extreme income and wealth inequality already is in the United States, especially compared to other developed countries, and the increasing economic pressures on the majority of Americans, I consider it unconscionable (or just evil) to actively work to support more inequality, favoring the rich and powerful. That unconscionable mindset is unfortunately a common one among conservative politicians, but I don't think it can fairly be called "moderate." (I'll add that many political figures labeled "centrist" by the mainstream media are really conservatives in their actual positions, or at the very least establishmentarians.)

Romney was not in the Senate for the Trump tax cut vote, but states on his Senate website that he would have supported it – while simultaneously claiming he "fought against both tax cuts for the wealthy and tax hikes on the middle class"! Romney is counting on readers not knowing his record or details of the law, and not spotting the direct contradiction (or simply believes in his powers of bullshitting). Romney, like many conservatives, isn't merely plutocratic but downright neofeudalistic – when he ran for president in the 2012 election, he adopted his running mate Paul Ryan's extreme policies to give a massive tax cut to the rich but also to gut the social safety net, including ending Medicare as it existed. Romney didn't get the flack an honest assessment of his policies should have received, because voters "simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing." (Much more analysis and links in the stealthy extremist section of this 2012 post.) The same dynamics often play out for conservative political positions – mainstream media outlets seem reluctant to describe them accurately in terms of their likely effects or their extremism, which gives cover for their mostly Republican proponents.

As with almost every Republican presidential nominee since Nixon, Romney used racist dogwhistles. In August 2012, he boasted that "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," feeding into the racist, bullshit "birther" conspiracies about Barack Obama. He also ran a number of ads with racist dogwhistles about welfare and Medicare, continuing, as Chauncey DeVega pointed out, "the Southern Strategy, and the politics of white racial resentment." Similar dynamics were at play with Romney's infamous remarks in 2012 that 47 percent of Americans would back Obama "no matter what" because they "believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them," and who "pay no income tax." Romney's claims were at best grossly misleading, and taken in larger context were outright false (as I covered in more depth in one section of a broader 2014 post, which did also cover Romney's multiple, contradictory revisions about his remarks).

Donald Trump lies almost constantly, and may be unbeatable in that category. But during his presidential campaign in 2011–2012, Mitt Romney told at least 917 falsehoods that Steve Benen diligently chronicled and fact-checked, and many were substantial lies at that. This wasn't a new trait, either; Romney was lying and bullshitting at least as far back as his 2007–2008 presidential run. (I have posts from 2007 on some Romney "hogwash" and the sophistry of his anti-JFK speech.)

Mitt Romney has often acted as other people are beneath him and lack the capacity to see through obvious bullshit, as when he argued opposite positions to different audiences in subsequent weeks. (The same trend comes up in Steve Benen's exhaustive series.) The most infamous example is probably from 2011, when at the Iowa State Fair Romney argued against increasing taxes on corporations by condescendingly telling a man that "Corporations are people, my friend." When the crowd responded by yelling out the obvious point, "No, they're not!" Romney replied with a straw man, "Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?" Besides these arguments being ridiculous on the merits, it's interesting that Romney believed they would be effective politically. Faced with a crowd who wanted to protect the social safety net, raise taxes on the rich and corporations, and presumably overturn the Citizens United decision – all for the benefit of the vast majority of Americans – Romney essentially argued that corporate profits benefit stockholders (who are, technically, "people") and thus critiques of economic inequality and unequal power were invalid. Romney did express (smugly) what and who he actually values in society, as he did with his 47 percent remarks, and also betrayed an entitled, privileged narcissism that seems extremely prone to bullshitting audiences he holds in slight to significant contempt. Although Trump remains much worse in this arena, Romney shares some of Trump's worst traits.

For much more on Romney, see Jon Perr's comprehensive 7/4/22 post, "Mitt Romney Is in Denial," which superbly shows how Romney is no elder statesman, and is in fact a raging hypocrite who shares much of the blame for the current problems in American politics, which Romney instead tries to blame on 'both sides.'

So it's fine to give Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney credit for their pro-democracy moments. And it's sadly probably accurate that Romney's replacement will be worse, and his departure means that congressional Republicans as a whole will become more extreme. But let's not ignore Romney and Cheney's records and other positions. Every time conservatives and Republicans get worse, there's a tendency to look back at some earlier time with rose-colored glasses and laud an earlier generation of conservatives and Republicans, who might have a bit better in some respects, but were honestly still pretty awful. It's both possible and necessary to acknowledge both realities.

And how awful are their fellow conservatives and Republicans? The vast majority of congressional Republicans voted to defend Trump's attempted coup on January 6th, 2021 and have fought against any accountability for Trump and his cohorts. Most of the Republican presidential candidates (or vice-presidential candidates) would support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he were a convicted felon. Republican legislators in at least 11 states have been working to make it harder to vote. Conservatism has always had an antidemocratic strain, but the Republican Party has become increasingly, overtly anti-democratic and extreme.

Conservatives and Republicans are fighting hard against LGBT rights. They're also fighting against accurate discussions of racial issues and history, with a particularly egregious Florida teaching standard claiming that slavery benefited some black people (a view that Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has promoted several times). Republicans are still both trying to gut the social safety net and lying about it. And as has been observed before, the Republican Party is really the only major political party in a developed nation that both denies climate change and opposes universal health care. Unfortunately, conservatives and Republicans have chosen to be bad on almost every issue. (A 2018 post surveys their policies in the most depth.)

As of the writing of this post, Congress has narrowly averted yet another Republican-led attempt to shut down the government. As the BBC points out, this doesn't happen in other developed countries. And as many folks have pointed out, the shutdowns are Republican attempts to enforce agendas that they cannot achieve democratically. (Conservative and Republican policies tend to be both bad on the merits and unpopular.)

Media coverage has occasionally correctly blamed the Republican Party for this latest shutdown attempt, but as Dan Froomkin, Ian Milhiser and James Fallows via driftglass have pointed out, there's still a strong media tendency to blame 'both sides.' This is inaccurate, irresponsible and dangerous. (It's also nothing new. I haven't covered every shutdown attempt in depth, but covered the same dynamics in 2011's "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice" and " 'Serious' Culpability on the Debt Ceiling Hostage Situation" and 2012's "Why We Can't Have Nice Things." See also the more general false equivalencies category.)

Defeating the tyranny of the minority depends on conscientious lawmakers, civil servants, activists and citizens. But it also depends on more accurate and honest reporting. Extremism should not be normalized, blame and credit should be justly and proportionally assigned, and anti-democratic rhetoric and actions must be called out.