The threats to US democracy

The President is an agent of international communism. Elites are surrendering American sovereignty to the United Nations. Foreign troops are massing in Mexico, and the Georgia swamps, prior to a takeover of the US.

Those rumours sound contemporary but they are not. They were circulating in the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower, a military hero (and Republican) was the President, and persisted well into the 1960s when American democracy suffered one of its greatest trials. The 1960s were marked by three terrible assassinations (the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King), riots in major cities and huge political division.

A look back to the 1950s and 1960s can tell us quite a lot about the parlous state of American democracy today. The era demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to spread conspiracy theories, and foment social division, in a pre-internet age. It showed that democracy falters if one group believes rule by the other side to be “illegitimate”. And it revealed the problems that occur when a majority is asked (against its will) to cede ground to a persecuted minority.

As Rick Perlstein argues in his book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”, the 1950s and 1960s created the preconditions for the current political climate. Goldwater went down to calamitous defeat in the 1964 election, causing some to write off the prospects for libertarian Conservatism. But, as Perlstein points out, Goldwater had created an army which would go on to win many battles in the following 50 years.

Ronald Reagan emerged as a political figure in the course of the Goldwater campaign; Richard Nixon realised the potential for a “southern strategy” in which the Republicans could win states that had voted Democrat since the Civil War; Goldwater’s capture of the Republican party was portrayed as a triumph over the “elites” that might otherwise have nominated the wealthy liberal, Nelson Rockefeller.

Trump’s precursors

Donald Trump’s appeal draws, in part, on the anti-establishment ethos that fuelled the Goldwater campaign. But it also echoes two other characters from the era. The first was Joe McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, who made repeated allegations that the government was riddled with Communist spies. Like Trump, McCarthy made little attempt to back his allegations with fact. Those who doubted the truth of his statements were accused of being part of the conspiracy.

The second figure was George Wallace, a governor of Alabama, who was one of the leading opponents of the civil rights movement, believing in “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Initially a Democrat, Wallace ran for President as a third party candidate in 1968, winning the electoral college votes of five southern states.

Wallace’s success demonstrated two things. The first was that the Democratic coalition, built by Franklin Roosevelt, was doomed to fracture. It was impossible to keep working class whites, southerners and Afrcian-Americans within the same group. The second was that there was a huge potential for electoral success in populism, defined as conservatism on social and cultural issues and a more interventionist economic approach (Wallace offered tax breaks to lure companies to Alabama).

So Trump combines the anti-establishment ethos of Goldwater, the paranoid world view of McCarthy and the campaigning style of Wallace. And he also tried to exploit the same “law and order” issue that carried Nixon to power in 1968.

Taking away control

The 1960s also saw another trend that presaged the rise of Trump. Political establishments lost control of their parties. In 1952, the Republican establishment had inserted Dwight Eisenhower as the party’s candidate in place of the conservative favourite, Robert Taft. In 1964, Goldwater’s team proved expert at manipulating the process to ensure their candidate was not cheated. Gradually, the choice of candidate became determined more by voters through primaries than by the party leadership. That enabled the outsider Jimmy Carter to become the Democrat candidate in 1976.

It took time for the full impact of this shift to become apparent. Over time, the grass roots imposed greater ideological purity on the parties. Liberal Republicans from the northeast were defeated or forced out of the party; the same was true of conservative, southern Democrats. Members of Congress now face a bigger threat from their own side than from their opponents; in every election since 1964, their re-election rate has been 85% or above. So they need to appeal to their base. In turn, this means that it is much harder for political parties to do deals “across the aisle”.

In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich embraced partisanship as a political strategy. If the Republicans blocked all policy changes, voters would get angry with Congress for its lack of achievement. They would turn to the party that embraced smaller government — the Republicans. This partisanship meant, for example, that not a single House Republican voted for Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 — at a time when the US economy was in desperate straits.

Two tribes

In one sense, the Republican strategy has been successful; politicians have become more unpopular than ever. In 2013, I published a book called “The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy” which feared that a combination of voter hostility and apathy would allow extremists to seize power through the ballot box. They would then be extremely hard to dislodge.

Some of this has come to pass; we can see in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, for example, how elected leaders have used their power to suppress opposition in the courts and in the press. As for Trump, I thought he was “too ridiculous” to be elected so no marks for prescience there. But once in power, he did indeed attack the press, dismiss government officials who tried to check his power and would have clung on to office, despite losing the vote, if he had been allowed to. And it was far closer than it should have been; more than half of all House Republicans voted to reject a free and fair electoral vote.

The Republican approach, while “populist”, has not been all that popular. In the 21st century, George W Bush (in 2004) was the only Republican Presidential candidate to win the popular vote. But the Republicans have managed to concentrate their vote in the smaller and rural states so that they have a built-in advantage in the electoral college and the Senate.

Like the Democrats, the Republicans have ended up representing a strange coalition of pro-business groups, evangelical Christians and white nationalists. Business is willing to swallow the protectionist stuff if it gets its tax cuts; the evangelicals are willing to accept Trump’s boorish behaviour if they get judges who may restrict abortion; the nationalists like a candidate who speaks their language.

Again, the success of this approach has been mixed. Clearly , Trump developed an enormously loyal base who turned out in record numbers in November. By the same token, his antagonistic rhetoric prompted an even greater turnout by Democrats. Biden received 81m votes, seven million more than Trump.

The tribal approach has led to what a previous post cast as “shibboleth politics” in which debate is just the ritual exchange of slogans and one can identify someone’s tribe by the language they use.

Back to the 1960s

There were two “tribal” issues in the 1960s. One was the Vietnam War, which was initially waged by a Democrat President but which eventually turned many Democrat voters against it. The second was civil rights. Until Lyndon Johnson, Presidents had done little to live up to the declaration of independence’s statement that “all men are created equal”. It was not just that voters turned a blind eye to segregation in the south, which required African-Americans to sit in separate seats on public transport or drink from separate fountains, and denied them the right to vote. In the north, African-Americans were largely shut out of many trades; Brooklyn’s plumbers’ union had only three black members out of several thousand. The famous Levittown housing development on Long Island excluded African-American tenants.

Under a majoritarian system, minority rights can only be protected by the courts (and abuses of their rights tend to be revealed by a free press). This was not the case in the southern states in the 1960s; three Klansmen in Mississippi, who admitted planting bombs, received only suspended sentences because the judge ruled that they had been provoked by “unhygienic” outsiders of “low morality”. There was little incentive for mainstream politicians to address these injustices. Indeed, it is rather surprising that Lyndon Johnson, who was a long way from being a saint, decided to do so. He “lost the south” for the Democrats and many working class voters eventually switched to backing Ronald Reagan.

In the summer, when the Black Lives Matter movement was leading to widespread demonstrations, it was possible to imagine that Trump could ride a similar white backlash to victory. He clearly hoped so. That he didn’t indicates that white voters were more aware of the injustices faced by African-Americans than their counterparts in the 1960s.

But if that is the good news, then everything else is bad. For a democracy to function, peaceful transfers of power are essential. That requires the losers to accept the result. Trump has insured that his supporters do not do so, even in states where the votes were managed by Republican officials, and even when courts have found no evidence of fraud.

The 1960 election was marked by allegations of electoral fraud, many of which were taken to court (without success). Richard Nixon grumbled about the outcome but did not call on his supporters to march on Washington. The famous 2000 election, with its hanging chads, went all the way to the Supreme Court but when he lost, Al Gore graciously conceded. In contrast, Trump has turned into “the Incredible Sulk”, smashing everything he can in his attempts to resist defeat.

It is now clear that many Republican voters do not believe it is possible for Democrats to win an economy fairly. They do not trust opinion polls and may not answer them. They are willing to use violence and intimidation in their cause, and many of them are heavily armed. The institutional supports for US democracy held in the 1960s, and they just held in 2020. But if Trump, or someone like him, runs in 2024, it is hard to be so confident.

Those of us who have warned about Trump’s behaviour have been accused of “Trump derangement syndrome” over the past four years. But his repeated breaking of democratic norms have reached a new height. When he used rhetoric such as “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”, when he called on his followers to march on Congress, when his adviser, Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat”, he was echoing the tactics of authoritarians through the ages. Remember the “march on Rome” of 1922? If anything, the anti-Trump warnings were not strong enough.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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