The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why some Americans want to destroy democracy in order to save it

(Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post)

Most of us grew up hearing that America is “the oldest democracy in the world,” an island of stability in a world of disorder. Other, less civilized countries endure coups and sham elections, suffer through dictatorship and dream that one day their systems might resemble ours. We might have our contentious moments, but through it all, the near-perfection of American democracy endures.

But we no longer seem to believe it. A new Yahoo News-YouGov poll asked people whether America is becoming a more or less democratic country, and 58 percent — including 60 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans — said it is becoming less democratic.

Even more alarming, 55 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans said it was likely that “America will cease to be a democracy in the future.”

Underneath that agreement, Democrats and Republicans think about both the threat and the solution in opposite ways. And in the near term at least, Republicans — who want to actively accelerate the destruction of American democracy (even if they describe what they’re doing as just the opposite) — have the upper hand.

There are obvious limits to what such a poll can tell us. We don’t know what every respondent thinks when they hear the word “democracy,” and there will always be people ready to say everything is going to hell. But at the very least, the results suggest a deep well of pessimism about our political future.

I’ve seen it lately among my liberal friends, and perhaps you have, too. Even the ones whose work involves trying to improve the world are feeling something close to despair. What they see is a system that was already undemocratic, built on structures and practices such as the appalling inequality of the U.S. Senate (where 600,000 Wyoming residents have the same two votes as 40 million Californians), the filibuster, and gerrymandering, and is now under siege by a party that is eagerly nominating deranged conspiracy theorists and radical extremists to run that very system.

When liberals say they fear democracy will cease to exist, they’re responding to overwhelming evidence that the Republican Party, the beneficiary of all those advantages that enable its minority rule, has utterly abandoned any commitment to democracy, if Republicans ever had one to begin with.

Under the leadership of possibly the most corrupt president in American history — still their god-king no matter how high his misdeeds pile up — Republicans justify a violent attempt to overturn a presidential election, spin insane fictions of voter fraud conspiracies, pass law after law to make voting harder, and cheer the use of state power to target their enemies.

Worst of all from the perspective of liberals, it seems to be working. A strategy of chaos, it turns out, is easier to implement than a strategy meant to shore up vulnerable institutions.

Democrats work diligently to devise procedures to make partisan mischief less effective and assiduously fact-check every preposterous GOP claim. And they worry it all might be for naught.

As for Republicans, when they say “democracy” might cease to exist, what do they mean? It’s hard to discern much beyond the idea that if Democrats win an election and try to implement the policies they got elected on, then democracy has been destroyed.

Remember that when Barack Obama was president, Republicans cried endlessly that every policy decision he made was “tyranny,” driven by his secret desire to destroy the country. The fact that his eight years as an ordinary center-left Democratic president didn’t actually destroy the country did not change their minds. The “tyranny,” as far as they were concerned, came from the simple fact that Democrats were in charge.

When they say they fear for democracy’s survival, what they’re afraid of is the idea that we might continue to have a competitive system, in which elections are contested, sometimes Democrats win, and when they do, they get to implement their policies.

One struggles to discern how much of this is sincere and how much is just a useful fiction. But my guess is that for the Republican elite it’s an act, and for their base it’s genuinely felt.

The rhetorical legal scam of “originalism” taught Republicans an important lesson: The more radical you want to be, the more useful it is to pretend your agenda is the truest manifestation of the divine will of the Framers. Grab a quote from the Federalist Papers or a letter James Madison wrote to his tailor, then brandish it as proof that the only course faithful to the Constitution is to destroy collective bargaining, flood the streets with military-style weapons, allow billionaires to buy elections, or whatever else it is that conservatives want to do.

If your agenda is the only living expression of the country’s sainted Founders and sacred texts, then any political victory by your opponents must by definition be a blow against the country and democracy itself.

While Republican leaders know it’s a con, the rank and file bought into it. And today they’ve convinced themselves that “democracy” means having elections overseen not by nonpartisan, independent civil servants but by the most partisan, conspiracy-addled right-wing extremists. Only that will ensure that Republicans always win, and only a system where Republicans always win is truly democratic.

And if Republicans get their way, the liberals who fear democracy’s end will turn out to be right.