How 'Extreme' Partisanship Threatens U.S. Democracy
Are the Jan. 6 hearings showing how democracies die?
Last week's Jan. 6 committee hearings featured ordinary state election officials who came under extraordinary pressure from former President Donald Trump and his allies to throw out the results of a free and fair election to keep him in power. One such official was Arizona Rep. Rusty Bowers, the state Republican House speaker. Bowers described a pressure campaign coming from Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, which he described as illegal and unconstitutional. Bowers testified to a conversation with Giuliani where he told him, "We've got lots of theories, we just don't have the evidence."
Bowers also described how Trump's lies threatened the safety of him and his family. He said he received over 20,000 emails and "tens of thousands'' of voice-mails. "Disturbing" protests outside his house became a "pattern in our lives," he said. His 42-year-old daughter, who was gravely ill at the time and died in late January 2021, became "upset" at what was happening outside their window. A man with a pistol came to his neighbor's house and verbally threatened the neighbor.
Despite resisting the pressure campaign and threats, Bowers said that he would still vote for Trump in 2024. “If he is the nominee, if he was up against Biden, I’d vote for him again,” he told the Associated Press. “Simply because what he did the first time, before COVID, was so good for the county. In my view it was great.”
Bowers isn't alone. Some of the most vocal critics of Trump's autocratic attempts to stay in power are Republicans, but have said that they would support him again if he runs for president. Their support is indicative of extreme partisanship -- that is, despite calling Trump's actions illegal and immoral, they'd still back him again. It's a threat to democracy. The Harvard political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Stephen Levitsky wrote in the 2018 book How Democracies Die, "The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization," which they warn "can kill democracies."
In February 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Trump "practically and morally responsible" for January 6 and said his actions before were a "disgraceful dereliction of duty." However, two weeks later he said he'd "absolutely" support him as the nominee. When pressed on the contradiction by Axios' Jonathan Swan, McConnell replied that he had an "obligation" to support his party's nominee. When Swan countered that Republican Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) had the same view of him on Jan. 6, but said she couldn't support him as the nominee, McConnell dodged.
Former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr pushed back against Trump's efforts to use the Justice Department to investigate claims of voter fraud and told the Jan. 6 Committee that he said Trump's notion of a stolen election "bullshit" and said the president was "detached from reality." However, Barr said he would vote for him again if he were the nominee. In an interview with NBC's Savannah Guthrie, Barr said the "progressive agenda" pushed by the Democratic party was the biggest threat to the country and it was "inconceivable" that he wouldn't vote for the Republican nominee. "So even if he lied about the election and threatened democracy, as you write in your book...better than a Democrat?” she pressed.
He replied, “It’s hard to project what the facts are going to turn out to be three years hence. But as of now, it’s hard for me to conceive that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee.”
Extreme partisanship can be the death knell for democracies. Fears of the opposing political side can blind politicians to the threats to democracy coming from the same political side. In interwar Europe, fears of socialism blinded many on the German center-right to the anti-democratic dangers of the Nazis, and in Italy and Romania of fascist parties. Or they only realized after it was too late. The German conservative nationalist politician Alfred Hugenberg said the day after Hitler was installed as chancellor, "I've just committed the greatest stupidity of my life; I have allied myself with the greatest demagogue in world history." Those democracies were much weaker than the United States, but the danger of excessive partisanship remains.
Ziblatt and Levitsky write that when a politician like Trump with autocratic and demagogic rhetoric rises to political prominence, "courageous party leadership means putting democracy and country before party and articulating to voters what is at stake." Most Republicans -- even those who stood up to Trump's efforts to remain in power -- aren't doing that. What will it take?
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