But the Trump era has demonstrated the shocking fragility of democracy and the finely balanced contingency of history. The shift of tens of thousands of votes in key states could have reelected a president impatient with constitutional limits and learning to manipulate the levers of despotic control. For years, President Trump had been testing the weak spots in the balance of powers and grooming his mob as a tool of political intimidation. As long as elected Republicans were lowering taxes and racking up judicial confirmations, they offered almost no resistance to his creeping authoritarianism. It is an alarmingly open question whether the American political system would have survived a second Trump term.
Or consider if the 2020 election had been far closer — more on the order of the 2000 election. What if Republican state election officials had repeated the lie of a stolen election rather than refuted it? What if Republican state legislatures — under threat by an empowered MAGA mob — had sent alternative slates to the electoral college? The chaos would have seeped deeply into our system.
On the evidence of the past several months, the appropriate metaphor for democracy may be a bright flame that depends, moment by moment, on new fuel of legitimacy and public purpose.
In his book “Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton made the point that you can’t paint a fence post white once and think the job is done. “If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again.” No great human institution can simply endure. It must be continually re-founded through the reassertion of its core ideals. And why is this? Because, Chesterton argued, human beings are “naturally backsliders” and human virtue, if left alone, will “rust or rot.”
In the United States, our core political commitment is to a system of self-government based on the rule of law and the protection of the rights of political minorities. This is a different view of politics than many Americans now hold. They think the main purpose of politics is to vanquish some grave evil or defeat ruthless enemies. This is a temptation on left and right, but it has metastasized on the right. Many right-wing populists believe that they are fighting conspiratorial globalists, or child molesters, or oppressive secularists, or “woke” elitists, or the “deep state.” If this is their defining purpose, then constitutional processes are actually obstacles to effective action. A strongman would be more efficient.
This conception of politics is badly and dangerously mistaken. The primary purpose of the American form of government is not to defeat evil; it is to allow people of diverse views and backgrounds to live in peace with one another and find common purpose. That practical arrangement is also a moral commitment. We have a patriotic passion for constitutional procedure — to honor the principle of equal rights and to prevent the exercise of abusive power.
Too many political leaders — most notably in the Republican Party — have allowed these ideals to rust and rot. They have accommodated illiberalism out of selfish interest or abject fear. And this failure has associated people and causes they care about with some of the worst human beings in America. The refusal to defend procedural democracy has put economic conservatives in the same political movement as neo-Confederate thugs. It has placed pro-life Catholics and evangelicals under the same political banner as QAnon and the Proud Boys. Can traditional conservatives not see the massive reputational damage to their deepest beliefs?
For the sake of their party, their ideology and their country, it is essential for elected Republicans to publicly and dramatically distance themselves from authoritarian populism. This means repudiating the lie of a stolen election. This means supporting the Senate conviction of a justly impeached president and ensuring he can never run for office again. This means giving our new president room to govern in the midst of a deadly health crisis.
For Republicans, a fresh start is made possible only by a renewed commitment to democratic ideals.