Our Constitutional Moment
This is one of those rare moments in U.S. history when a momentous question faces the nation, one which requires the attention of nearly every citizen.
Should the United States continue as a liberal constitutional democracy? Until recently, this was never in doubt. Now it is.
The breakdown of democracy is a gradual process in which the once unimaginable and unacceptable become normalized. Will America become a failed democracy?
- Today, in broad daylight, amidst a flurry of disinformation, lies, voting rights restrictions, and proposed partisan control over elections, a large number of state and federal elected officials no longer support the basic tenets of democracy. These actions have influenced a great many of their followers to do the same, posing a profound threat to our country.
- A startling number of Americans seem content to embrace autocracy – a polite word for authoritarian, dictatorial rule – if subverting democracy is the only way for their side to hold power. As a result, one of the nation’s two major parties is now only semi-loyal to democracy while increasingly accepting and tolerating the threats of political violence. Once, illiberal and reactionary were words used to describe authoritarian politics abroad; now these words speak to American democracy at risk.
Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1
Our political troubles are being caused by the approximately 35% of the nation that makes up 70% of the Republican Party. An intense, illiberal minority can cause terrible trouble, but they are also outnumbered by the majority. Saving Democracy is organized to counter what W.B. Yeats warned of in The Second Coming:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
For most of our history, the U.S. did not have political parties at the extremes. In other nations, the far-left and far-right have always been significant political players. Not so in the United States.
Before 2010: Liberals vs. Conservatives
From George Washington to John McCain, liberals and conservatives have fought over public policy but shared similar values. We argued about taxes and public policy, but NOT about our commitment to liberty, equality, democracy, and the rule of law as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
After 2010: Liberals, Conservatives, and Far-Right Reactionaries
Conservative vs Far-Right Reactionaries
- Conservatives believe in and defend the Constitution; far-right reactionaries do not.
- Conservatives defend free and fair elections; far-right reactionaries do not.
- Conservatives reject autocracy; far-right reactionaries do not.
If true conservatives defend the Constitution, support free and fair elections, believe in government, and desire racial equality and inclusion of all, far-right reactionaries, also known as illiberals and the far-right, march in the opposite direction. The most radical reactionaries are eager to destroy constitutional democracy.
Far-right illiberals are far more committed to the pursuit of power than following the democratic rules of the game. In America, we settle our differences peacefully at the ballot box; reactionaries have other ideas. Many illiberals speak and act in a manner that can only be described as authoritarian.
In the media, it has become commonplace to speak of an illiberal danger on both the right and the left. Beware of this dangerous false equivalence. While some left-wing progressives insist on political correctness in speech, calls for “wokeness” in no way compare to the authoritarian threat to the American political system posed by the far-right.
It is up to us in our time to choose and to choose wisely between the hard but necessary task of preserving peace and freedom, and the temptation to ignore our duty and blindly hope for the best while the enemies of freedom grow stronger day-by-day.
Ronald Reagan, March 1983
Disloyal And “Semi-Loyal” Americans
Our Dilemma: Not every Republican is a MAGA extremist; many Republicans remain traditional conservatives. Yet nearly every elected Republican is advancing the MAGA agenda by being unwilling to speak up against the election deniers. This poses an existential threat to democracy and our freedoms.
The Loyal – Patriotism is a form of loyalty. Before 2010, everyone in the United States, except a 2-3% fringe, was pro-democracy. The overwhelming majority of Americans were loyal to America’s democratic constitutional order where individual rights are protected and peaceful elections are the way we settle our differences. It was who we were; it was a given. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans remain loyal to democracy and the Constitution.
The Disloyal – These are true authoritarians, individuals that Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the “breakers.” This small but powerful minority would overturn democracy, if they got the chance.
- The far-right militia such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who practice fascist violence and are truly bad.
- Those in the political elite, including former President Trump, his close associates, and the more radical elected members of the GOP. A shocking 147 lawmakers, led by 8 Senators and the House Minority Leader, voted on Jan. 6, 2021, after the assault on the Capitol, to overturn 2020 election results they knew to be valid. More than political rhetoric, this vote to reject a free and fair presidential election revealed flagrant disloyalty to the Constitution and the flag and a willingness to cross the Rubicon.
- A July 4, 2022, New Yorker article about Viktor Orban’s illiberal Hungary carried the title, “Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future?”
The Semi-Loyal – Politicians and citizens who privately bemoan the authoritarian behavior of President Trump and the far-right, but whose actions and words erode democratic norms and encourage the disloyal.
- In his classic, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Yale political scientist Juan Linz identified semi-loyal behavior as the KEY culprit leading to democratic collapse. Linz defined semi-loyal behavior as “a willingness to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse, or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate patterns of politics in a democracy.”
- In the months following Jan. 6, a staggering 86% of all Republicans in Congress displayed semi-loyal behavior by making statements that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Biden’s presidential victory. Analyzing public statements made by all 261 elected Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate in the months following the violent assault on the nation’s Capitol, the Republican Accountability Project, a group of conservatives critical of Trump, found that 224 of the 261 had cast doubt on Biden’s legitimacy as president.
- Among citizens, semi-loyal behavior is fueled by negative partisanship. Currently, many voters, especially the most partisan, cast their ballot based more on their dislike of the other side than their support for their party’s candidate. Many Republicans recognize the reactionary turn of the Republican Party and the danger posed by Trump. But because of their distrust of and disgust for liberals and Democrats, they are willing to sacrifice free and fair democratic competition in order for their side to win.
The Attack on Voting
Coordinated Voter Suppression and Elimination
Anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party have embarked on a coordinated voter suppression program across dozens of states with the goal of reducing Democratic Party turnout in the coming elections. Historians and political scientists know that political parties often try to manipulate redistricting and voter registration rules to benefit their party. In small doses, such efforts are part of normal politics.
The current voter suppression and voter elimination campaign being conducted by pro-Trump Republicans is anti-democratic and wrong. Echoing the vicious disfranchisement of Black and poor white voters that ushered in the Jim Crow era in the Old South, it is based on Trump’s Big Lie about 2020 election fraud, proven to be baseless by countless authorities and courts, including Trump’s Department of Justice. A blatant attempt to enable minority rule by the GOP, and install Republicans who have lost elections in office, it must be stopped.
Country Ahead of Party
Saving Democracy responds to the reality of negative partisanship and the voter suppression drive by the far-right by appealing to no party preference (NPP) independents, moderate Republicans, and infrequent voters to vote and to put country ahead of party in coming elections. Saving Democracy courts the Country Over Party vote where it is possible to find and encourage it.
My fellow Americans, we stand at the edge of an abyss and we must pull back.
Rep. Liz Cheney, June 2022