The answer to this question could well determine the future of American democracy. In a brilliant scholarly work, “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy,” Harvard’s Daniel Ziblatt revealed the key to why, in the early 20th century, Britain stayed a democracy and Germany veered into fascism: The conservative party in the United Kingdom was able to discipline its extremists. For years before World War I, British conservatives faced a threat from anti-democratic elements of their party, particularly radicals in Northern Ireland. The Tory Party, strong and hierarchical, was eventually able to tamp down these factions and stabilize British democracy.
In Germany, by contrast, the main conservative party, the DNVP, was weak and disorganized, dependent on outside groups for help. This provided an opening for the nationalist Alfred Hugenberg, an early incarnation of Rupert Murdoch, who used his media empire and business connections to seize control of the party and try to drive it to the right. The infighting sapped the strength of the party, and many of its voters began to flock to far-right alternatives such as the Nazi Party. Hugenberg allied with Hitler, thinking that this would be a way to decidedly take control of the conservative movement. The rest is history.
I am not making a comparison between extreme Republicans and the Nazis. I am making the argument that when parties lose the ability to police their extremists, bad things happen not just to the party but also to democracy. Already, much of today’s Republican Party has been permeated by extremism. According to a recent American Enterprise Institute survey, 56 percent of Republicans believe “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Thirty-nine percent backed an even stronger statement: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.” These are not views compatible with democracy.
The Republican Party has lost control of the forces it has long encouraged. An early moment of reckoning took place in the 1980s, according to David Frum’s prescient book “Dead Right.” As conservatives saw it, they had finally taken charge for the first time since FDR’s reign in the 1930s. Now they could repeal the New Deal and the Great Society. As they quickly realized, however, the public was utterly opposed to doing so. Ever since then, Republicans have gotten comfortable lying to their voters.
Over time, the party was taken over by the increasingly frustrated mob. Consider the difference between the government shutdowns of the mid-1990s and of 2013. The former were centrally planned and directed by the House Republican leader, Newt Gingrich (Ga.). The latter was demanded by the tea party, and though House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) acquiesced, he was eventually pushed out of office by those same radicals.
In 2016, the Republican Party could not come together to defeat and purge Trump. The party hierarchy had lost its clout. Besides, other presidential hopefuls such as Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) wanted to court Trump’s base, not alienate it. A few leaders, such as Mitt Romney, condemned Trump, but it was all too little, too late.
U.S. political parties have become dangerously weak. Once, they picked the presidential candidates to present to the public. Now, primary voters — often more radical than party leaders — have usurped that key function. Once, the parties firmly controlled campaign funds. Today, thanks to various Supreme Court rulings, outside groups have much more cash and influence than they used to.
So the odds are against the Republican Party disciplining its most radical elements. Some hope that electoral losses might force those actions. But remember that while 2020 was a bad year for Trump, it wasn’t such a bad year for other Republicans. The party narrowly lost control of Congress, but it did well in state houses across the country, sometimes with the help of voter suppression and gerrymandering.
Europe’s parties have not been captured by radical forces because they have stronger internal structures, but they are also weakening. Everywhere, the media has splintered and been decentralized, making it harder to purge extreme voices. We are moving into a world where democracies have fewer and fewer gatekeepers. Without realizing it, we are embarked on a new and dangerous experiment in governance.