U.S. Democracy is Devouring Itself

The GOP is playing a new game and Democrats are still playing the old one


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After the attempted coup d’état on January 6, 2021, it’s no longer hyperbole to say that U.S. democracy is devouring itself. And while the online discourse likes to blame Donald Trump for our slide toward autocracy, he is merely a symptom that accelerated this disease.

Like any complex relationship, democracy takes work to be successful. And because democracy requires cooperation and trust, the social contract must be strong to reap the fruits of our labor. Citizens must have the cognitive and emotional capacity to sift through complicated information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline, and logic.

Otherwise, it’s easy to fall under the spell of wannabe despots who can offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.

Democracy also depends on functional and nimble institutions. Today, we have a policymaking process that does not adequately represent the interests of ordinary Americans, dysfunctional political practices that block bipartisanship and exacerbate divisions, and an electoral system that seems more dedicated to disenfranchising voters than ensuring their voices are heard. The electoral college and the Senate are profoundly anti-democratic institutions.

Our struggle to pass wildly popular infrastructure and voting rights legislation aptly demonstrates this dysfunction. Democrats are attempting to govern as if the old rules still apply but the time for any good-faith negotiation is over. The fascist GOP now has total control over their base. They don’t have to govern functionally anymore because they have brainwashed their voters to accept anything they say and do.

The GOP doesn’t play fair because they’ve discovered they can just rig the game at every stage.

Democrats’ attempts to bend over backward in the name of compromise and bipartisanship are fruitless and just end up exhausting them. It’s time for a new strategy entirely but they haven’t caught on yet.

The GOP is playing a new game and Democrats are still playing the old one.

And while Democrats are scratching their heads and chasing their tails, the seditionists are working to disenfranchise our votes, our voices, and democracy at warp speed.

Today’s anti-democratic leaders, like many of the fascists and authoritarians in the 20th century, are using the tools and institutions of the democratic state to consolidate power.

State legislators across the nation are abusing the existing tools of government to threaten free and fair elections. Several states have advanced legislation that would make voting harder and that would reduce the power of local or county boards. Californians thankfully staved off a recall disaster where a Trump surrogate could have seized the Governor’s mansion with less than 20 percent of the vote. The leading Republican challenger teed up a website before election day that cast doubt upon the results.

Authoritarians also seek to gain control of the courts and intimidate the free press.

Mitch McConnell has built a federal bench almost certain to benefit the seditionists in his anti-democratic and Machiavellian abuse of power – even as his actions are legal within the existing rules.

Press freedom improved slightly after President Joe Biden took office in 2021, but the period from May 2020 – May 2021 was a year of unprecedented violence against U.S. journalists. When Trump began to deride news outlets as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people,” he knew exactly what he was doing. “Fake news” sounds like a thoroughly American invention but it isn’t. The term was used in Russia and Ukraine for years before it was exported to the United States. Adolf Hitler used a similar term – lügenpresse, or “lying press.”

The seeds Trump sowed are harvesting. International press freedom organizations now classify the United States as “problematic” for journalists, citing an increasingly hostile media environment: “Never before have U.S. journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.”

"Eternity (autocratic) politicians first spread fake news themselves, then claim that all news is fake, and finally that only their spectacles are real.”

– Timothy Snyder

In politics, the conventional wisdom is that the party that controls the White House is doomed to lose congressional seats in every off-year election. Presidential victories are invariably followed by an outgoing tide that washes away the winning party’s congressional seats. We’re living in unprecedented times, so anything is possible but the razor-thin Democratic majority makes the GOP retaking control of at least one chamber even more likely.

Democracy itself is on the ballot in 2022 and 2024. January 6, 2021 set a grim tone – the House certification of electoral votes may no longer be considered a symbolic act. House Republicans are now firmly gripped by a deeply anti-democratic right-wing populism. These reactionaries are no longer constrained by norms or facts. If they control the House on January 6, 2025, and a Democrat wins the Electoral College vote, we should consider the possibility that Republicans could instead confirm their own pick for president.

There’s not much more time to waste.