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Civility Won’t Save the Republic, or You

Civility Won’t Save the Republic, or You

The Battle of Red Hen

Democrats and Republicans alike were climbing over each other to condemn Rep. Maxine Waters’ comments this week on harassing Trump administration officials. Rather than address the situation at hand, they’ve chosen to repeat the rote elements of a high school civics course. Be nice and play by the rules.

Democrats fretting about civility are clinging to a dead mother. Their opponents see them as vermin to be destroyed, and view “norms” as one more battlefield casualty on the way to their goals. Under the wrong circumstances, standing on civility can get you killed. These are the wrong circumstances.

Here’s the core of what Waters said:

For these members of his [Trump’s] Cabinet who remain and try to defend him, they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, to be able to stop at a gas station, to be able to shop at a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them until they tell the President: ‘No, I can’t hang with you,’

That sounds pretty confrontational if this is 1988 and we’re arguing over the appropriate level of taxes on capital gains for dividends, or which forms of steel should be included in a trade deal. This isn’t 1988 and your political opponents don’t give a damn about norms, decency, or even the rule of law. For an introduction to where you are right now, here’s an excerpt from an article that was making the rounds on Republican sites a week ago:

Close your eyes and imagine holding someone’s scalp in your hands. I don’t mean cradling his skull as you thousand-yard-stare at his lifeless face. I mean a real scalp, Indian-style, of some enemy you just killed on the battlefield; somebody you hated and who hated you back.

This grim work of masturbatory violence may be unusually macabre, but its theme has been standard fare on the right for more than a decade. It was written by former Republican Congressional candidate, Jesse Kelly. It was published in the supposedly thinky confines of The Federalist, in a piece titled “America is Over, but I Won’t See it Go Without an Epic Fight.” In it, he encourages conservatives to prepare for not only violence, but savagery, to meet their holy objectives.

You probably didn’t hear about that piece, because rhetoric in that vein has become so unremarkable on the right as to go unnoticed. While Nancy Pelosi clutches her pearls over a restaurant’s mistreatment of Trump’s Minister of Information, Republicans are debating the political merits of scalping. This isn’t new, and it didn’t begin with Donald Trump.

When McCain lost in 2008, there were no adults left in charge of the GOP and the “whacko-birds” ruled the roost. Neo-Confederates in the Tea Party unleashed a wave of violent, hostile rhetoric, slicing through the fragile cords of political civility. Norms that had restrained extremist abuses for generations were shredded. Most Democrats and Republicans have yet to acknowledge this post-Tea Party reality – that the Republican Party, led by its Dixiecrat wing, is close to achieving General Lee’s unfinished work.

During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party activists destroyed public forums, shouting down participants with incoherent rants gleaned from conspiracy websites. Republican leaders either stood aloof, or egged them on. Protestors showed up to the offices of Missouri Rep. Russ Carnahan with a coffin. Then a coffin was left in his yard. Death threats against Democrats were common. Florida Democrat Ginny Brown-Waite received this gem:

Just wanna let you know I have 27 people that are going to make sure that this bitch does not live to see her next term. Goodbye.

Democrat Jim Clyburn received a noose via fax, along with his death threats. The always classy Palin weighed in with a new slogan for the midterm elections, “Never Retreat, instead RELOAD.” Along with the cute catchphrase she published a list a target districts marked with crosshairs.

Under one of those crosshairs was Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona. A man shot up one of her constituent events, killing several bystanders and severely wounding Rep. Giffords. Palin and the Tea Party never flinched.

A Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada in 2010 promised to use “2nd Amendment remedies” to get rid of Senator Harry Reid. A Republican Congressman shouted down the President during the State of the Union.

In 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed rebellion against the federal government. Republicans supported him. Sean Hannity featured him repeatedly on his show. By the time Donald Trump showed up promising to pay the legal fees of his thugs, the country was numb to right wing political violence. When former Congressman and talk show entrepreneur Joe Walsh threatened an armed revolt against Obama it barely registered. It’s tough to keep track of all the death threats issued by Republican star Ted Nugent. It just didn’t matter.

Finally, the Republican Senate Majority Leader blocked the President from filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Without so much as a fig leaf of legitimate authority, his vigilante action changed the composition of the high court.

Amid so much violent rhetoric, a speech given in 2016 by Governor of Kentucky and Tea Party darling, Matt Bevin, slipped under the radar. Do not presume to address Rep. Waters’ comments without placing them in the context of Bevin’s warning. In a ranting, improvised speech he described what would be necessary for conservatives if they lost the 2016 election:

“Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and our indifference, have given away. Don’t let it happen.”

On the same day that the press was eviscerating Sen. Clinton for daring to call Trump supporters ‘deplorables,’ a Governor was laying out his plans to murder you if Clinton won. For some reason, decent people have been unable to comprehend this development and adapt their political tactics. It is almost too late.

Civility is a contract in which the parties agree to bind their own behavior to a set of agreed norms. It fosters an atmosphere of trust within which the democratic process can play out. There is no civility without a partner. Republicans abandoned this contract long ago, weaponizing their opponents’ assumptions of civility into a form of leverage.

Democrats and their allies in the resistance have already lost much, but they enjoy some strategic advantages. Trump lost the 2016 election, earning roughly the same percentage of the vote as McCain or Dukakis. Trump himself is a loathsome human being with no coherent objectives beyond self-enrichment. Even in pursuit of his party’s central priorities he loses focus, commits needless errors, and undermines himself. His administration has struggled to attract collaborators, leaving large swathes of administration and executive branch positions unfilled.

While holding a majority among the electorate, anti-Trump forces enjoy an overwhelming superiority in the marketplace. In confrontation after confrontation, corporate and commercial America has lined up with the resistance against the White House. Trump’s supporters are not only few in number, they are tiny in their commercial, cultural, and capital impact. Trump lost every major urban area in the nation, including Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte. Trump even lost Salt Lake City. The overall GDP contribution of his support base is trivial. Republicans lack the legitimacy or raw strength to wield the power they have stolen.

In this moment, hold what you have. Commerce is king in the US, and the resistance dominates the marketplace. Use that leverage to stir a rebellion. There is still time to repudiate this monster through the political process, but only through a massive show of public will, a convincing warning of what we can deploy in a fight. Rep. Waters is absolutely right.

What the owners of the Red Hen did in refusing commerce to collaborators should be a model. It was peaceful. It was civil. It was just and it was fair. Make it hard for the neutral, the disengaged, or the cynical to align themselves with the Trump administration or the Republican Party. Deny them the ability to operate normally before their reach broadens. Make it difficult for them to function in any and every forum, and make it impossible for “nice” neutral people to support them without costs they are unwilling to sustain. It may not stop Republicans, but it will limit how much power they can accumulate ahead of a conflict.

Governor Bevin’s threats have been borne out by a president who threatens his opponents dehumanizes his favorite scapegoats. As a former Republican who watched these forces rise in my own party let me tell you from experience – the right will not allow a post-Trump era to dawn without being defeated by raw, superior power. These guys are not playing politics, they are on a mission from God, answering only to what they see as a higher, more important law. Demonstrating superior force publicly, peacefully, right now, could save a lot of lives. Wake up.


  1. Even as a Bernie supporter I was never part of the “Pelosi must go!” camp (Schumer is another matter :-). But now, I am.

    She apologized for Waters, and pooh-pooh’ed the implications of Ocasio-Cortez, a political neophyte, taking down an established incumbent. She is not a leader. She must go.

    Maxine Waters was also one of the Congressional Black Caucus members who, in 2000, refused to vote to certify the election results when the Supreme Court violated the constitution and installed the previous Republican popular vote loser, GWB, despite him losing the popular vote, and even the electoral vote (later vote counts revealed Gore won Florida; these counts were illegally stopped by the Supreme Court). Notably, not a single Democratic Senator signed their name onto that petition, which meant it couldn’t go forward.

    Chris is right: civility has been absent for a long, long time. Only Democrats don’t realize it. Anyone remember who said “bipartisanship is another name for date rape”? It was Dick Armey, Repub House Minority Leader, who said it over *20* years ago.

    I’m also reminded of something the author of the weeklysift mentioned WRT boycotts of North Carolina during the transgender bathroom controversy. Many people in NC pleaded liberals to not boycott their state since lots of towns and people in NC were against the bathroom bans and would be hurt by the boycott. But that’s kind of the point: lots of people are nominally against the ban, but don’t really care too much one way or the other until it hurts them in their wallet. The point of the boycott wasn’t so much to convince the hardcore nutjobs to change their mind (an impossible task). The point was to make the issue painful enough that our nominal supporters (liberals and moderates in NC) would wake TF up and take action. Which is what happened.

    As rabidly partisan as I am (I was a yellow dog democrat since before I could spell yellow, or probably dog for that matter 🙂 I’ve never let politics invade personal interactions. But Trump is different. Someone asked me, after the 2016 election, on a scale of 0-10, 0 being no change whatsoever, 10 being the collapse of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Dark Ages, where would I rate the election of Trump? I said 8. Civilization is a lot harder to sustain than Americans realize, given our short collective history. Inconvenience and incivility is the least form of punishment we can mete out for the people who are willing to stand by Trump’s side.

    1. Sadly, I agree with you, WX. Watching that House Judiciary meeting this past week was like looking into the soul of a very evil person. It really struck home with me that these MoC would go so far, in public, to denigrate a career, high-ranking fellow Republican in order to salvage a president who is despicable but is giving them everything they ever dreamed of having. It was sobering and frankly disgusting to me to witness what these Republicans said and did in a gross abuse of their positions.

  2. The last few months I’ve been reading histories of slavery in America. Right now I’m reading “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist. With this history on my mind, I’m feeling that this period is very similar to the later Antebellum period, specifically the 1840’s and 1850’s. The nation is moving towards a different paradigm, the old customs and power bases including political affiliations are dying, and social customs are changing. The elite in the old paradigm are fighting to maintain their power base; they are using every weapon at their disposal. They are doubling down on demagoguery and other tactics (read Republican Party, although the Democratic Party is also changing). I only hope that the nation can avoid the tragedy of widespread violence. However, the chief demagogue keeps exacerbating the situation. The effects of this can be seen in the TownHall article to which Bart Pearston linked.

    As Chris has written many times the future is being defined in the metropolitan areas. As he wrote in the main post:

    “Trump’s supporters are not only few in number, they are tiny in their commercial, cultural, and capital impact. Trump lost every major urban area in the nation, including Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte. Trump even lost Salt Lake City. The overall GDP contribution of his support base is trivial. Republicans lack the legitimacy or raw strength to wield the power they have stolen.”

    The future will be multicultural, multiethnic and multisectarian. The homogenous America of the mid-20th Century is gone and will never come back. Even Trump, the “very stable genius”, will not be able to change that. Unfortunately, those areas the persist in fighting that are handicapping themselves. An example is the American South. If it had been willing to accept the future, it would not have been the American backwater for over a century and the Civil War would not have occurred.

  3. Watching Rod Rosenstein being hammered and harrangued in the House Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday was the most frightening, repulsive display of legislative over reach I have ever seen. Jim Jordan and Trey Gowdy and several others on the committee were vile and arrogant, and horribly disrespectful. Rosenstein, a Trump appointee, a fellow Republican, the Deputy Attorney General of the DOJ was badgered and insulted for no other purpose really than to force him into telling this committe “no” so they can impeach him, this has been my “red line” with the Republican Party. It is known that his staff are providing the information requested thus far by the committee…there was no need for the tactics they displayed, except for public humiliation and drama. The overreach is politically calculated to embarass and expose privileged investigation information being coordinated by Mueller with the pure intent to protect Trump and to gain access to information that never in the history of American jurisprudence has been accessible to any congressional committee. The damage that is being done to America’s intelligence operation and more emphatically to our independent justice system is incredible.

    There have been too many words, actions and orders promulgated under this president and excused and condoned and ignored by this Republican Party for me to name. But what Congress is doing to Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller by extension – who are both doing the jobs they were assigned to do by their superiors – is the absolute worst offense I have witnessed yet. And, I know it will only get worse.

    I am officially deeply scared for our Democracy. I have been worried before, now I am scared. This Republican Party has become a vigilante group led by a despot. And, as for big business, I don’t count on them either. They got theirs and they will get the other changes they need and they will side with whoever they perceive as the winner…which is pretty clearly not Democrats right now . These companies may support social issues championed by liberals but they will sell their souls to ensure big dividends and capital gains and protect their 21% tax cut. There is really only one slender hope, and that is that the people of America will turn out and speak out. But, I am not even sure of this. Regular people are so disheartened and overwhelmed it’s difficult to inspire them to vote.

    Yesterday’s committee attacks on Rosenstein (and to a lessor extent FBI Director Wray) has staggered me for what it shows Republicans are capable of doing to protect their seats of power and the horrible person who is making it all possible.

    1. Those corporations that have “sided” with liberals against Trump? He is fixing that. He announced today that he intends to reduce the corporate tax to 20% and (because mid terms are coming) will make the middle class tax breaks permanent. America is already running a trillion dollar deficit – how are these additional cuts going to be paid for? I’ll bet every program that helps the poor or serves a liberal issue will be on the chopping block. Today it was announced that there will be more cuts to the ACA navigators…and that’s just the beginning…No, I won’t count on big business to check DJT…if it is to happen, it is going to only come by voting these people out of office. Damn I’m disgusted with the whole lot of them!

      1. If Dems fail to retake Congress (ideally both houses) in mid terms, this budget proposal will become law. Who would stop it? It’s discouraging and maddening. All we can do is work our buns off to GOTV and hope enough Americans share our concerns.

    2. “Regular people are so disheartened and overwhelmed it’s difficult to inspire them to vote.”

      That is the problem. The only thing that will cause an overwhelming turnout is when things get so bad for the regular people, that they feel they must vote and throw the bums out. That is the reason that major changes in the US only occur during an existential crisis. I am talking of the magnitude of the Great Depression / WWII or the Civil War. I’m very scared that we are nearing one now. There are numerous similarities to the present. The R’s are attempting to prevent an overwhelming turnout. They know the history, too.

  4. “Close your eyes and imagine holding someone’s scalp in your hands. I don’t mean cradling his skull as you thousand-yard-stare at his lifeless face. I mean a real scalp, Indian-style, of some enemy you just killed on the battlefield; somebody you hated and who hated you back.”

    Here’s how is it with me- I loathe everything these people stand for, but I have no burning desire to kill them. I wish to completely shun them, and even more so to thwart them from being able to treat the “other” (fill in appropriate race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.) like inferiors. Of course to them, that intention is probably worse than wanting to murder them.

    1. Political correctness is not civility. It’s mostly quite the opposite; it exists to shut down debate on topics that don’t merit it. It notably does not extend to anyone (even a minority) who disagrees with the Left, and it doesn’t extend to any (individual) members of demographic blocs which on the whole disagree with the Left.
      There is only one time I can think of in which they coincided, and that was the Deplorables comment. And I pushed back on that, because surveys said that what Clinton said was true – about half of the Republican base is morally worthless and irredeemable.

      Great article by the way Chris. Very chilling. It’s for the best to be reminded of this stuff; thanks for delving into red media so we can hear about it.
      I used to read National Review as a way of trying to understand conservatives; I ended up quitting because I would just seethe with anger every time. The description you gave of The Federalist – “supposedly thinky confines” – meets that magazine as well.

  5. Two of church members in my church are retired military officers. Both were in special forces and saw much combat. Both are pretty progressive. It is a mistake to think progressives are weak and unwilling to fight. The South once made that mistake before. It did not go well for them.

    1. EJ

      I am constantly inspired by the willingness of American progressives to fight. The problem is going to be ensuring that you fight as one movement, rather than being picked off one by one.

      Your church veterans are doubtless brave and skilled killers. That isn’t the question that matters. The question is, will they be willing to organise with Black Lives Matter protesters, undocumented Americans, anarchists and communists engaged in anti-fascist action, native American tribal activists, and other such groups? Will they take orders from them? Will they take up arms to fight for others when the fascists have come for the others but not yet for them?

      If so, please suggest to them that activism among military veterans would be incredibly valuable. They will have contacts and credibility there which few other progressives will have; and it’s a constituency which skews strongly pro-Trump. Even if they can’t talk other veterans into progressivism, they might be able to talk them into not taking up arms for fascism; and that might be really important if the violence gets worse.

      1. Honestly if you want to know who’ll win an armed, violent second American Civil War, it’s whomever Virginia sides with.

        That state has pretty much all the modern weapons and security companies.

        If it sided with the government, the war would be a pretty one-sided fight. In addition to the fact that the US government would have the trained military and security forces, the top technology, much of the data, and the last two decades of warfare has been room-by-room anti-terrorism raiding in both urban and secluded rural environments. No citizen’s militia stands a chance, something the gun-pumping metal penis sect has never understood.

        But if Virginia sides with the team not currently in government, those businesses could choke off sales of equipment to government and the US government would ironically have to turn to other countries to buy lesser quality equipment. The battlefield would become more equal and success would depend on how quick the non-government team’s learning curve is.

        Virginia is largely blue but has a significant Republican presence. Those weapons and security companies seem more likely to side with ‘law and order’ and ‘stability’ which would likely give them a pro-current administration lean. But it would largely depend on who attacks whom first, and how. And I’m sure Silicon Valley has some sway/ some ears in Virginia.

        Alternative Histories and Alternative Futurisms are supposed to be fun experiences when you don’t seriously consider them to be a possibility.

      2. Aaron-
        They only reason all those companies are in Virginia is to be close to DC, which is where their contracts are from. They have no love for Virginia (or really the country, for that matter; that’s the problem with mercenaries). They have love for the almighty Dollar. And given that we have more of those, I think securing their loyalties wouldn’t be a problem.

    2. Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas and later Governor, warned against secession: “[The Northerners] are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction…they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

      1. “I think what Aaron is referencing is a civil revolt. Who would the generals side with?”
        Colonel Wilkerson on the Bill Maher Show this past Friday was asked and answered that very question Mary…

    3. “You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with.”

      — Gen. William T. Sherman, a southerner trying to warn his people against the coming folly of their hubris

      1. Colonel Wilkerson shared that he was asked that very question from a current sitting Senator and he shared that he wasn’t sure how troops would respond if there was civil violence (implying he thought they would/might fight anti Trump citizens or not defend anti Trump civilians). It was chilling and ended the show on a sour note.

  6. I wanted to link today’s The Interpreter column, but it’s not yet online — possibly tomorrow. So I then thought about copying key elements, but the fact is that there’s nothing that can be left out. So I’m going to break my own desire to properly link and credit things and just copy the whole article over.

    It is entitled “When is American democracy no longer democratic?”

    > Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, a Cornell University political scientist named Tom Pepinsky posted an item on his personal blog titled, “This Is the Best Time Ever to Study Political Science.” In it, he listed 10 questions that scholars had been afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study. The first two were:

    1. Is the Trump administration’s immigration executive order constitutional?

    2. Is the United States a democracy? How do we know?

    This week, the Supreme Court offered its own answer for the first, ruling the travel ban permissible on national security grounds, despite Mr. Trump’s frequent statements that the ban was intended to target Muslims for their religion.

    But, also this week, the court heightened debate over the second question when Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement.

    Mr. Kennedy, a conservative-leaning swing voter, will most likely be replaced by a conservative stalwart, cementing conservative control of the court. The oldest remaining justices are both liberals.

    By the end of Mr. Trump’s current term, it is easy to imagine conservatives holding six out of nine seats, maybe even seven of nine. All this despite the fact that Republicans have won the popular vote in only one of the last seven presidential elections.

    Is that democratic? Adding to the discomfort, Senate Republicans have said they will push to replace Mr. Kennedy within the next few months. But when Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, those same Republicans blocked President Barack Obama from filling the seat for a full year, allowing Mr. Trump to put a conservative in what would have otherwise been a liberal seat.

    The second half of Mr. Pepinsky’s second question — how do we know if and when the United States ceases to be a full democracy? — is growing more salient. Not in the sense that we’re imminently crossing that line, but in the sense that scholars are suddenly aware that we don’t know where the line is located or how rapidly we might be approaching it.


    It’s been said that the purest litmus test for democracy is whether citizens can expect to force a change of government by voting. In that sense, the United States is surely still a democracy.

    But while many Americans think of democracy as a binary — you’re free or you’re not — scholars think of it as existing on a spectrum. Finland and Zambia, two democracies, are not equally democratic, just as Thailand and North Korea are not equally authoritarian.

    Most scholars have seen the United States as backsliding. Policies to restrict voting, for instance, have reduced the country’s level of democracy, though it remains relatively high. Quantifying democracy is imperfect, but a metric known as V-Dem, considered the best, tracks a complex set of variables from civil liberties to political party cohesion to political corruption. And it shows a clear dip:

    There is a school of thought that some of the United States’ most undemocratic features can’t be attributed to any particular leader because they are built into the American system itself.

    “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” a 2006 book by the University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson, assembled a case against the founding document. It imposed, he wrote, “almost insurmountable barriers in the way of any acceptable notion of democracy.”

    There is America’s near-imperial presidency, an office so powerful that countries that have imported the American system — many of them in Latin America — are likelier to experience a coup or authoritarian takeover than are other kinds of democracies.

    There are other anti-democratic touches, such as lifetime appointments for judicial officials. The American founding fathers, after all, were experimenting with a radically new form of government, and feared giving the citizens too much direct power. Later democracies have learned to allocate voters more oversight.

    But the most glaringly undemocratic aspect of the Constitution may be how it treats representation. The principle of one citizen, one vote — seemingly essential for democracy — is given curiously low priority in the American system.

    The Senate, according representation by state rather than by population, deliberately overrepresents some voters. Today, that grants considerable extra power to rural voters and underweights urban ones. An astonishing 25 percent of Senate seats are controlled by only 5 percent of voters.
    Presidential elections, routed through the Electoral College, distort representation in a litany of ways. Rural voters are again granted more power than their urban peers. A state that favors a presidential candidate by one vote is treated the same as a state that favors her by one million and one, effectively disenfranchising those million incremental voters.
    “If you look at the Constitution, you see that it was drafted by people who were not little-‘d’ democrats,” Mr. Levinson told the New Yorker in 2013.

    Many of these Constitutional oddities arise from 18th-century political compromises and horse-trades, some of them to accommodate slave states. Later, as the United States expanded westward, the boundaries of new states were carved up in such a way that further distorted representation, granting some regions more electoral power than others.

    For a long time, these undemocratic compromises worked against one another. Rural Americans in one part of the country, for instance, voted differently from rural Americans in another part of the country, so that their advantages more or less canceled one another out.

    Then, in the modern era, something happened to make these undemocratic compromises dramatically more consequential. All of the groups of voters whose votes counted more all became, for one reason or another, strongly Republican. And the voters whose votes counted less became strongly Democratic.

    This gave Republicans significant advantages in races for the White House and the Senate. They didn’t need majorities to win anymore, but Democrats did, which is an odd policy to arrive at for a democracy.
    Even the House of Representatives has become less representative, and in ways that boost the votes of people who tend to support Republicans.
    Urban Congressional districts tend to cover areas that are overwhelmingly Democratic. But rural districts, because they are more spread out, often cover an area that is only narrowly Republican. Like with the Electoral College, this combination of geography and winner-take-all elections makes Republican votes count more than Democratic votes.

    The problem is exacerbated by gerrymandering, of which both parties are guilty but which has been pursued more vigorously by Republicans. Today, a common shorthand is that Democrats must win 55 percent of the national vote in order to hold 50 of the House of Representatives. Another way of saying this is that every Democratic vote counts as 0.95 votes and every Republican vote counts as 1.05.


    In journalism, it is considered uncouth, even unethical, to place sweeping blame on one political party or the other. One of our jobs is to dispassionately cover elections. How could we credibly claim to do so if we have already rendered judgment on an entire party?

    Political scientists are not so constrained. And those who study democracy have warned in recent years that the Republican party — aside from how one feels about the party’s policies or elected officials — has grown unusually willing to break with unwritten but important democratic norms.

    “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in a 2012 op-ed column for The Washington Post.
    Polarization had made the party more ideologically extreme, they wrote, which emboldened Republican lawmakers who were willing to break democratic norms in order to oppose President Obama:

    “The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.”

    This warning has since become a reality. An April 2018 article in the Columbia Law Review found that, “Since at least the mid-1990s, Republican office­holders have been more likely than their Democratic counterparts to push the constitutional envelope, straining unwritten norms of gov­ernance or disrupting established constitutional understandings.”

    These sorts of tactics require leaders, like Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who are willing to bend the rules for partisan gain. But there is also a structural explanation. Such norm-breaking is typically committed by groups that expect their power to decline, and so come to see extreme action as necessary to forestall defeat. Republican leaders, reliant on white voters whose share of the population is shrinking, have warned for years that their days in power are numbered.

    Breaking norms has proven effective. The decision to block Mr. Obama from appointing Mr. Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court may have steamrolled democratic norms, but it will shift American jurisprudence toward Republican interests for a generation.

    Scholars call such tactics “democratic hardball” or “constitutional hardball.” The tactics (usually) abide by the written rules of a democracy, but exploit gaps in those rules — which often exist where unwritten norms were assumed to prevail — to win maximum partisan advantage. Because those unwritten norms are considered essential for any democracy to function, such activity can be dangerous.

    Democratic norms exist for a reason. Breaking them might yield short-term gain for the breaker, but can hurt everyone in the long term. Should future Senates put partisan interest before their unwritten duty to keep the Supreme Court filled, it’s not hard to imagine the high court operating semi-permanently on a deficit.

    Perhaps worse, one party’s breaches put the other party at a disadvantage. That’s bad for democracy in the sense that it effectively excludes people who voted for the party that follows the rules. Democratic interests will be less represented at the Supreme Court for decades.
    But it’s also bad for democracy in the sense that it puts the other party in an impossible position. It can accept its defeat. Or it can bend the rules itself, knowing this risks an anti-democratic arms race.

    “Ramping up constitutional hardball, then, is a dangerous game to play over any extended period of time,” wrote the authors of the Columbia Law Review article. “Especially if it does not produce immediate payoffs, it might also undermine the constitutional system and leave everyone worse off.”

    In a recent book on how democracies erode or even collapse from within, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warned that democratic hardball can escalate out of control, destroying democracy itself.

    “Look at any failing democracy and you will find constitutional hardball,” the authors wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed essay.

    Argentina and Venezuela, once both healthy democracies, began sliding into authoritarianism when their politics descended into tit-for-tat norm-breaking. In both cases, the first major norm-breaking fight was over the country’s Supreme Court. Much as in the United States.


    Responding to Mr. Kennedy’s retirement announcement, the Democratic political operative Ron Klain predicted a wave of angry Democratic voters.
    “The aggrieved are the ones who are influenced by the Court when they vote. Until now, that has been the right,” he wrote on Twitter, citing cases on abortion and health care that had upset conservative priorities. “Starting now, that will be the left.”

    Maybe. But there is one difference. The current court has focused particular attention on issues related to voter rights, on which it has issued a series of strikingly conservative decisions.

    This month, the court upheld Ohio’s decision to aggressively purge its voter rolls, which is expected to disproportionately affect minorities. In another, the Court said that Texas could keep Congressional districts that a lower court had deemed racially discriminatory.

    “Our democracy rests on the ability of all individuals, regardless of race, income, or status, to exercise their right to vote,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissents to both decisions.

    This court hasn’t challenged the idea that most everyone should be able to vote, but it has dismantled many of the protections meant to ensure that right. Most controversially, in 2013, it invalidated key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, arguing that they were no longer necessary.

    The result has been rising barriers around the ballot box. These tend to disproportionately affect minorities and other Democratic constituencies. And they are most likely to be implemented by Republican-controlled statehouses, often justified as necessary to protect against voter fraud that has been repeatedly shown to be virtually nonexistent.

    Whatever the intent of the justices, the intent of these state lawmakers certainly appears to be democratic hardball.

    The tricky thing about democratic hardball is that appearance can matter as much or more than reality. The conservative justices may see themselves as dispassionately interpreting the Constitution.

    But if the effect is to empower voter restrictions that grant Republicans yet another structural advantage, this could bring perceptions of unfairness into a full-blown legitimacy crisis.

    “Democratic voters are going to put pressure on Democratic politicians to engage in hardball, to fight like Republicans,” Mr. Levitsky, the democracy scholar, said on a recent podcast.

    He worried in particular about Americans’ perceptions of democratic legitimacy should Democrats win a majority of votes in the coming midterm elections, but capture neither the House nor the Senate — a scenario he called “very, very plausible.”

    Sheri Berman, a Barnard College political scientist who studies the rise of fascism in inter-war Europe, warned us during the 2016 presidential campaign that, should popular faith in democracy collapse, the system itself could follow.

    “What’s really dangerous here is taking people who are already disaffected or alienated,” she said, “and making them believe that democratic institutions either don’t work or only work for people in power.”

    That is one possible outcome. Another is that the American system simply continues to build structural advantages for the Republican party, insulating it from public opinion and creating the conditions for long-term minority rule.

    “America is going to change fundamentally over the next 20 years in ways that are not consistent with public preferences,” Don Moynihan, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, wrote on Twitter, referring to the Supreme Court’s rightward tilt even as public opinion on many issues before the court swings left.

    That is democracy as defined by the rules of the American system. But it is less easy to say whether or not it is democratic.

    Quote of the Day: On ‘Civility’ in Politics

    We have found much of the national debate over “civility” — prompted by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeting that a restaurant had declined to serve her — pretty tedious. But leave it to Lilliana Mason, a social scientist at the University of Maryland who has written extensively on political identity, to apply actual research to the topic — and yield some fascinating points, which we’ve abridged from her excellent Twitter thread:

    “There needs to be an honest conversation about asymmetric expectations of civility.”

    “Missing out on your pasta course (but receiving your cheese plate for free) is not similar to party-wide chants supporting the imprisonment of political opponents or making laws that humiliate millions of LGBTQ citizens.”

    “What we (political scientists) know is that self-identified conservatives tend to hold generally left-leaning policy positions. Self-identified liberals are also left-leaning.”

    “On a scale of 0 (all left-leaning positions) to 1 (all right-leaning), the most leftist liberal scores 0.08, and the most right-wing liberal scores 0.33. The most leftist conservative scores 0.29, most right-wing scores 0.75.”
    “So there are very few, if any, liberals who hold positions from the right (greater than 0.5) end of the spectrum. There are a significant number of self-identified conservatives who hold attitudes on the left end of the issue spectrum.”

    “What this means is that policy-centric campaigning will only work for Democrats. The GOP needs to use more identity- and threat-based appeals.”

    “This is backed up by my research with Julie Wronski demonstrating that the GOP is more powerfully fueled by (white, Evangelical) identity politics than Democrats are fueled by their own groups’ identities.”

    “So, there is empirical evidence that the GOP is better incentivized to use rhetoric based on identity threat. They are therefore more prone to using inflammatory language, and more threatened by challenges to their supremacy.”

    “This puts Democrats in the position of needing to respect the feelings of their opponents, while those opponents are motivated largely by the power of outrage. It’s not an even fight. So it is important to avoid equalizing civility claims.”

    “It is also important for the media to understand that they are being forced into this reduced frame in which Republicans’ feelings must be protected because they are more sensitive to identity threat than are Democrats.”

    “I realize that this sounds completely opposite the common narrative, but empirical, scientific research supports this narrative. Science itself might be polarizing, but this is the best I can do to explain.”

    1. My two major takeaways:

      1) With the recent Cake Shop decision, the Supreme Court proved that the conservative judges were going to judge liberals by their words and intents. With the Muslim Ban decision, the Supreme Court proved that the conservative judges were going to judge conservatives only by narrowly defined rule of law.

      This means that the Supreme Court has essentially signed off on the Republican decision to never hold 45 accountable, which means we’re done with stage 2 of his Presidency (stage one was learning how to manage and wrangle the ropes of office; stage 2 was setting policy and pushing it against the edges of rule of law to see if it can work).

      Stage 3 will be full commitment to rolling out everything on the wishlist, and it’s set to begin after the midterms.

      2) If Democrats win a significant popular vote margin, say 53-55%, and don’t win the House much less the Senate, liberal’s faith in democracy will plummet and they’ll no longer act like the course of history can be steered by votes. This + the Supreme Court’s stacking is exactly how major democracies have failed.

      Meanwhile, regardless of how, if the Republicans retain majorities in both houses they’ll know they can do whatever they want unempeded for the foreseeable future, and will act accordingly.

      So that’s that. Our democracy has five months left to prove itself functional and valid.

      This leads me to one of the most surprisingly underreported of 45’s recent and regular nonsense statements. When he said “There’ll be a Red Wave, not a Blue Wave”. It’s exactly the sort of the thing that would normally divide people over a) conservatives agreeing and cheering, b) half of liberals saying he’s just lying and full of shit and not worth talking about and c) lefter liberals saying he’s signalling and stating that he’s already rigged or is working on the rigging of the next election. For some reason that debate didn’t take off.

      But if there is a Red Wave, that will be surprising to regular politics watchers. So it’ll be a pretty strong signal, in my mind, that there are just too many ‘surprises’ happening based on people’s general expectations.

      Up to this point I’ve largely assumed the Democrats will gain a narrow majority in the House and largely turn out even, or maybe lose a couple of seats, in the Senate. But now that’s the bare minimum essential result for our survival. I’m pretty anxious.

      1. Great thoughts, Aaron. On the midterms, it seems to me Democrats have two major challenges. The first is the neglect of the local and state party apparatus over the past 10 years. It’s getting better but it may not help them in November.

        A second and more glaring problem IMO is the complete lack of consistency and opposition leadership coming from Democrats in Congress. The base is calling itself “The Resistance” and is clear that things are not normal (& quite possibly dangerous), while the leadership seems more interested in muddling through and “civility.” Particularly in the Senate, Chuck Schumer has been a disaster in leading the caucus.

        It’s as if Republicans are out lighting fires and Congressional Democrats are content to play the fiddle and watch things burn.

    2. “There are other anti-democratic touches, such as lifetime appointments for judicial officials. The American founding fathers, after all, were experimenting with a radically new form of government, and feared giving the citizens too much direct power. Later democracies have learned to allocate voters more oversight.”

      Not just “Later democracies” earlier ones as well
      The founding fathers rebelled against one democracy – one that worked quite well
      And then they had to make up their own version deliberately ignoring various features that worked well in Britain but that would have restricted the powers of the rich

  7. Can’t stop myself from posting.

    Question for you Chris, and all other historians.
    What percentage of a population has to buy into a leader’s “I should be president for life” views to actually create a dictatorship? I recognize certain elements are common in all coups, like control over “law enforcement” and the military, but what is the percentage of the population?

    How many Germans had to support Hitler and his party to create 1936 Germany?
    Is it 5%, 10%, 40%?

    What is the minimum percentage of Americans needed for the puppet tyrant to actually toss away elections? I am sure he has already far exceeded the threshold, but what is that threshold?

    1. EJ

      It’s an interesting question.

      In my opinion, the actual number you should be looking at isn’t the proportion who are willing to support the leader, but the number willing to die to stop him. Germany’s first serious fascist takeover attempt, under Kapp in 1920, was defeated because there were tens of millions willing to engage in a general strike, including street fighting against the police and army, to stop them. Hitler’s secret to success wasn’t having more supporters: it was having more people willing to say “this isn’t so bad, really.”

      1. I went to the “Families Belong Together” rally in Houston yesterday. This is not exactly sticking my neck out, as Houston is friendly turf here. Nor do I think that it makes as much of an impact as block-walking and signing up voters. But EJ has made a very wise point about complacency. That shrieking void in the White House will retreat to his safe space of golf courses and rallies as so to not look at the anger his cruelty has aroused, but it should be very apparent to every member of Congress and every state official running for re-election. I also hope it sends a message to those Americans who are wavering or too scared to speak out.

      2. I also attended, Fly. One day we will get to meet oneanother…we travel in several “same” circles. I wanted to show my solidarity in opposition to the practice of separating families. I then boogied back up to Conroe to work the polls for a friend seeking a seat on the council. She lost but it was important to stand with her at the polls. She is a black woman who has contributed much to the area which is, of course, majority white. It would have been nice to see her elected and some diversity (race and gender) on this council.

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