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In retrospect, the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 looks like a political catastrophe foretold: President Donald Trump’s devotees announced well in advance what they were going to do, and then they did it. Explanations of how things got that far tend to focus on people—be it Trump himself, with his ability to inspire cultish devotion, or Twitter and Facebook mobs summoned from the netherworlds of the Internet. But little attention has been paid to the role of a very old-fashioned institution: the political party.
The elephant in the room is the Republican Party. It gave up on the basic idea that in a democracy, parties try to gain majority support through an attractive program. Within its own ranks, it left no space for debate. Instead of a laboratory for designing policies to address actual problems, the party served as a cult of personality around Trump. The only real agenda of its leader was to wage a culture war on behalf of “real” Americans against those who supposedly posed an existential threat to them, from immigrants to so-called globalists.
A year after January 6, little has changed. Today, the Trumpists are doubling down on voter suppression and subverting elections whose outcomes are not to their liking. As the alarms flash red, it is time to take inspiration from other democracies that have built safeguards into their political systems by regulating their parties. For as long as one party in a two-party system is no longer playing by the most basic rules of the democratic game, the American republic remains at risk.
According to the conventional wisdom that reigned for much of the past century, a two-party system automatically constituted a bulwark against political extremism: those aspiring to win at the ballot box had to create a broad ideological tent and opt for moderation to capture centrist voters. The defeats of radicals such as Barry Goldwater (who accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1964 by announcing, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) seemed to only reinforce the inherent superiority of American democracy. This system was said to ensure not only stability but also accountability. Because one party, as opposed to a large coalition, was responsible for governing, if what the incumbents did proved unpopular with most people, a majority would throw the bums out and give the other side a chance.
The past few decades—not just the Trump years—have shown that the reality can be rather different and that the institutional guarantees of democracy are far weaker than experts imagined. Some of the structural problems go back to the very beginning. The founders did not create the two-party system; in fact, they wanted to avoid what they derided as “factions.” But they wrote a constitution that ensured that not all votes would count equally. Rural areas are massively overrepresented, with the result that Republicans can easily gain majorities in the Senate even if far fewer people vote for them. Thanks to the peculiarities of the Electoral College, they can win the presidency on the basis of only minority support in the country as a whole. Add to that relentless gerrymandering, which creates ideological playgrounds for extremists, and a self-enclosed right-wing media world whose main purpose is political self-validation, and the overall consequence is something the founders feared as much as the tyranny of the majority: a tyranny of a minority that believes itself to be the only true Americans.
The GOP today is a hollow shell. One of its major shortcomings is its lack of what political scientists call “intraparty democracy”—the degree to which a party allows for deliberation about policy, chooses leaders in a democratic manner, and holds them accountable. Intraparty democracy sounds like the kind of pious demand that gives democratic theorists a bad name among hard-nosed politicians. (It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s supposed quip, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.”) But parties that operate democratically on the inside are more likely to both generate innovative policies and foster tolerant, democratic attitudes among their members. True, people associate politically because they believe in particular principles and not because they want to be infinitely tolerant. But principles do not implement themselves, nor do they magically generate actual political strategies. One needs to argue over these things, which means that ideally, one gets used to the idea that those who disagree might be right. As a consequence, those who lose a fight can adopt a stance of loyal opposition inside an organization based on shared principles.
There is something inherently problematic about parties that have only one member. In the Netherlands, for example, Geert Wilders’s right-wing populist party has just one member: Wilders himself, with the party’s deputies in Parliament being representatives and not actual party members. Parties that are internally autocratic are also likely to act in authoritarian ways once they get hold of the levers of power. It is hardly an accident that far-right authoritarian populists—including Viktor Orban of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey—also lead their parties in a highly dictatorial manner. Rather than party fragmentation being a danger to democracy, what can more positively be described as “internal pluralism” is a precondition for its health.
The Republicans’ current program is both unpopular and intellectually bankrupt.
That is why some democracies, such as Spain and Germany, even prescribe intraparty democracy in their constitutions. Statutes spell out details such as how frequently internal elections must be held. These laws also specify substantive grounds for prohibiting parties. Spain banned a Basque party in 2003 for its tacit support of terrorism. Germany’s constitutional court cut off a neo-Nazi party from public financing in 2017 because its aims were deemed hostile to the German constitution.
Trump managed to transform the Republican Party into a personality cult. Anything like critical loyalty to the party but not the person, let alone outright opposition, has been rendered impossible. One simply cannot be a Republican in good standing and a powerful critic of the former president. The result? There were no genuine restraints on Trump in the run-up to January 6. Although Trump’s long-standing enablers, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, had acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory by December 2020, no one of prominence dared to forcefully call for an end to the “stop the steal” farce. The few dissenters have been banished to the political wilderness or kicked out of the party altogether. After Liz Cheney, Wyoming’s sole member of the House of Representatives, voted to impeach Trump for his role in the January 6 attack, the state’s Republican Party decided to no longer recognize her as a Republican.
Why did Republican Party elites prove so willing to fall in line with Trump? Their opportunism is surely related to the GOP’s long-standing inability to formulate a genuine party program. At its convention in August 2020, in fact, Republicans refused to issue a new platform, instead simply affirming their fealty to the president. The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have called the Republicans’ current program “plutocratic populism.” It is both unpopular and intellectually bankrupt: beyond tax cuts for the wealthiest, there simply is no there there. As Hacker and Pierson have pointed out, this approach, combined with the structural factors favoring a tyranny of the minority, can certainly yield election victories. Citizens can be distracted by endless culture wars or by the outright incitement of hatred against liberals and Black and brown minorities in defense of a supposed white Christian heartland. But at the end of the day, plutocratic populism does not amount to a coherent program that can be confidently defended in public.
Again, as high-minded as democratic theorists’ demands for coherent party programs can sound, their absence clearly contributed to January 6. Proper political parties can cope with losing elections, because they have principled commitments and long timelines for their implementation. A personality cult, by contrast, must inevitably reckon with the lifespan of the cult leader. A man in his seventies who has no apparent goals apart from social dominance and self-enrichment thinks about an election loss differently than does a party with successive leaders looking to realize the party’s core beliefs over long stretches of time.
What to do? The first thing is to recognize the gravity of the challenge. In countries where courts can prohibit antidemocratic parties—such as Spain and Germany—the Republican Party would probably have been banned by now, since many of its leading figures have refused to condemn the violence of January 6. Setting aside the question of whether such a ban would be legal, the idea of political intolerance for the sake of defending democracy is hardly alien to the United States: the 1954 Communist Control Act sought to outlaw the Communist Party of the United States on the grounds that it aimed to “overthrow the government.” One can question whether McCarthyism provides a good template for protecting a system of self-government, but what is beyond debate is that banning one party in a two-party system might possibly start a civil war.
That does not justify defeatism. The Select Committee investigating January 6 can achieve maximum clarity about the events of that day and bring maximum pressure on those even indirectly responsible. The Justice Department should not just go after the foot soldiers of the insurrection but also uncover the conspiracies and support that came from the very top and prosecute accordingly. At a less official level, many actors who still treat the GOP as if it were a normal democratic party—in particular, journalists striving for the kind of balance appropriate to a traditional democratic two-party system—should shift their lens and do more to hold its leaders to account. That doesn’t mean that every Republican policy must be framed as undemocratic, but it does mean forcing the party’s figures to come clean on their relationship to Trump. How January 6 is described by them is as good a litmus test as any. If a Republican describes the events of that day as a peaceful patriotic protest, then journalists should make that known and point out that politicians spouting such falsehoods today are likely to undermine democracy further tomorrow.
Less obvious, the regrouping of antidemocratic movements at the local level needs to be watched closely. The Proud Boys, for example, have shifted their focus to town councils and school boards. In democracies that allow for the banning of political parties, it is widely recognized that even if extremist groups might not elect leaders to the national government, they can still sow hatred and instigate violence at the local level. Invoking a law passed by Congress in 1871 to combat the Ku Klux Klan, Karl Racine, the attorney general of Washington, D.C., has wisely decided to file a civil lawsuit against the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. The 14th Amendment bars those who swore an oath to the Constitution and yet “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding office again. This clause can and should be used against the politicians responsible for January 6.
Politicians who undermine or destroy democracy ought to be disqualified from office.
If Trumpism is a cult, some of the lessons of how people exit cults—or admit to themselves that the leaders in which they had unconditional trust deceived them—are also relevant. More thought should be put into the issue of how to provide safe spaces for Trump’s followers to admit to themselves and others that they have been duped, be it about contributions that just ended up enriching the president and his cronies or about COVID-19 denial that ended up killing their friends and family. In practice, that means neighborhood get-togethers in which people can speak to those they trust, as opposed to toxic spats on Twitter and Facebook. This is not to say that every Republican voter is a therapy case to be cured by Democratic deprogrammers. Still, people who feel so existentially threatened that they are ready to take up arms—as a significant number of Republicans do—have more in common with sympathizers of terrorist organizations than with committed partisans in a functioning democracy.
If a politically quieter, saner moment were ever to arrive, the United States could finally tackle pressing structural issues, as well. Gerrymandering is not prescribed by the Constitution, nor are single-member districts. Even short of abolishing the Electoral College—or at least possibly lessening the minority-rule problem by making Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states—there are ways to provide incentives for all parties to aim at winning majorities. The United States should experiment with ranked-choice voting in multimember districts, and it should shift comprehensively to having independent commissions, rather than state legislatures, determine the shape of such districts. Nobody can force Republicans to have a genuine party program, but one can provide plenty of incentives for them to appeal to the majority.
Lastly, there is a more direct approach that should be tried: politicians who conspire to undermine or outright destroy democracy ought to be disqualified from holding office, be it through impeachment or conviction in the courts. The best candidate for this treatment is the man most responsible for January 6: Donald Trump.
Partisanship and the Decline of American Governance