Looking back at the 2016 presidential election, it is often asked: what went wrong? We refer to the downward spiral of right-wing populism, severe partisanship, and erosion of liberal democratic norms as a direct effect of the election of President Trump. To an extent, such claims are not wrong. Donald Trump has checked off all four indicators of autocratic rule according to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s test in How Democracies Die. From referring to the media as an “enemy of the people” to referring to civil rights protestors as “thugs”, Trump has openly violated the liberal democratic norms that Americans hold dear in a manner arguably more brazen than any of his predecessors. But to say that Trump is the direct cause of the deep political divide the United States is currently facing and to say that it will all be over with his potential removal from office in November is nothing short of naive. The erosion of American democracy has been a long time coming.
In 1964 Barry Goldwater made a name for himself for being outspoken against the Civil Rights Act. Not too long after, the notorious Newt Gingrich rose to power in the 1970s, declaring that in order to win and remain in power Republicans ought to win at all costs. Under Gingrich’s vision, politics was no longer about fair play between parties in which the “best man wins”. It was Republicans will win—the best or not. The amalgamation of Goldwater and Gingrich’s influence thrusted two forces upon the Republican Party: 1) unwavering conservatism and 2) a ruthless political strategy, respectively. Goldwater, whether or not it was his intention, gave disgruntled white Americans the platform and power to hold their ground against the social change America was undergoing in the 1960s. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racists”. Although there were other anti-progressive politicians in Washington, Goldwater was notable for his influential status in the Republican party. He had connections in both local and federal politics and was highly consequential in shaping the party. Goldwater set the Republican party in the direction of staunch conservatism, and consequently those who felt jilted by the progressivism of the 1960s and 70s, mostly white Americans, ran with it. This coupled with the fact that Goldwater stood at a lame 7% of the black vote during his 1964 presidential run, solidified the Republican party’s co-optation of the stubborn old guard—those who took to the shield of conservatism to champion policies that prevented the socioeconomic growth and empowerment of less powerful demographics. As revealed by the New York Times, even Stuart Stevens, former lead strategist for President Bush, asserts in his upcoming book It Was All A Lie, that the modern Republican party is the party of “white grievance”. I cannot help but see Goldwater’s anti-civil rights tirade as the nascent “Make American Great Again”. With Goldwater providing the ammunition, Gingrich followed through with the trigger.
Levitsky and Ziblatt identify the rise of Gingrich as a turning point in Republican party politics. According to the authors, two key tenets of a stable democracy are mutual tolerance between political opponents and forbearance in adhering to the norms and institutions that define society. Gingrich did away with both. In 1978, he was quoted saying to a group of College Republicans, “you’re fighting a war. It is a war for power…this party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant quasi leaders…what’s the primary purpose of a political leader?…to build a majority”. A majority is power in politics. Under Gingrich, government was not about serving public will or well-being, it was reduced to a game of power plays. With Republicans now refusing to cooperate with Democrats simply because they were Democrats, it became much harder to achieve bipartisanship. For Gingrich, it was all about the next move, about defeating the Democrats. This naturally led to a breakdown of democratic norm adherence. Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index which assesses levels of freedom in countries around the world based on metrics including electoral processes, political participation, functioning of government, and civil liberties places the United States at a rating of 86 out of 100. Although this seems high, it is notably lower than other democracies such as the United Kingdom at 94, Taiwan at 93, and Finland at 100. For a country that prides itself as being “the leader of the free world”, such a rating is frankly disconcerting. The perception of politics as war has come at the expense of sustaining our democratic institutions and processes.
I’ve got to hand it to Gingrich and Goldwater—well played. They managed to secure a fiercely loyal voter base and fashion the system to their benefit all while keeping their erosion of American democracy under the radar. By no means am I arguing that all Republicans are destructors of democracy. Rather, I am drawing attention to a problematic aspect of the direction the modern Republican party has taken of which Gingrich and Goldwater are representative. Sure, there were a number of other broader societal-level social and political shifts that contributed to changes in the way parties and people approached politics on both sides but drawing attention to the need to reform the Republican party’s political strategy is not mutually exclusive to acknowledging other past wrong turns. We need to assess and remedy the negative impacts of the highly consequential movements that Gingrich and Goldwater each spearheaded in order to bring us closer to achieving our liberal democratic goals as a country.
Frankly, I don’t think Goldwater or Gingrich fully anticipated the extent to which their actions would transform the Republican party. That Goldwater opposed civil rights and other consequential federal-level progressive reforms on the basis of them infringing on liberty (specifically that of the states) allowed followers to conflate a federally-sanctioned progressive reform with a loss of liberty – playing off an idealised American value. This led to ruthless leaders like Gingrich being able to frame their anti-equality platform as pro-liberty in order to preserve the status quo of power. Thus, while unplanned, the alignment of Goldwater’s ideological conservatism and Gingrich’s warfare politics entering the Republican party at the same time and following revolutionary social upheaval in the 1960s created the perfect breeding ground for “white grievance” to dig its heels deep in the Republican party.
One example of this phenomenon playing out is the case of voter-ID laws. Modern Republican leaders, like the notorious Kris Kobach, have espoused false claims about rampant in-person voter fraud to build support for unnecessary voting restrictions. By framing the issue as a threat to the sanctity of American elections, American liberty, Republican party leaders have many Americans fooled into believing that the true aim of such policies is righteous freedom. Instead, all these policies have really achieved is institutionalising discrimination on the basis of identity into American societal structure to the benefit of white people, particularly men.
It is no surprise that Trump has resonated with so many Americans—he is the product of the seeds planted by Goldwater and Gingrich in the quest for political dominance. As Stevens noted, “Trump isn’t an aberration of the Republican Party; he is the Republican Party in a purified form”. In fear of losing power, the likes of Goldwater and Gingrich have threatened America’s ability to achieve its democratic goals. Trump is the unbridled essence of the movements Goldwater and Gingrich initiated.
So, where do we go from here? Reforming the system will be neither a quick nor easy endeavour. Even if Trump is voted out of office in 2020, the racism, bigotry, and polarisation that he represents will not disappear unless parties undergo deep self-reflection on both sides. Democrats are not without error either. They, too, have now grown to see Republicans as enemies, giving into the idea of politics as warfare which prevents the existence of mutual respect and productive debate between parties.
America was never particularly great at fulfilling the norms it set out to achieve. The founders called for Lockean rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to be afforded universally, yet in reality only granted them to wealthy white men. People of colour, women, and other marginalised groups are still underrepresented in virtually all realms of power, and are not faced with equal opportunity to achieving them even today. Prior to the 20th century a vast number of Americans were not even enfranchised, let alone represented in government. Thus, as a result of more people being co-opted into the democratic process, parties have only really started to differ more substantially in their ideologies as of late (and even then they are still quite broad coalitions). I hold that one of the reasons politics seems so polarised is that identity politics are more pronounced—and rightly so. By discussing the unique role one’s identity plays in their political experience and relationship with society it allows us to develop more inclusive and nuanced policy—addressing issues that go unnoticed and/or unaddressed in governments made up of solely homogenous identities. With the era of change brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, previously neglected groups were finally beginning to get recognition, which truly tested how strong our norms of forbearance were. That they broke down so badly post-Civil Rights Movement, I would argue, indicates that they weren’t all that strong to begin with. Such norms were easier to comply with pre-Civil Rights movement because identity politics were less at play (between white men, the visible differences were fewer and for the most part their lived experiences as Americans were relatable). Once tested, the pillars of mutual forbearance and tolerance fell apart.
Thus, rather than rebuilding American democracy, I would argue that we have to build it. This starts with us recognising where we went wrong (hint: Gingrich and Goldwater) and pinpointing what the necessary condition is to remedy that. As I see it, it is truly coming to terms with the positive role of identity politics and ending the perception that politics is a quest for power and dominance. The direction taken by the modern Republican party is a poor reaction to those Lockean values getting closer to being fulfilled with the expansion of civil rights in the 1960s. The Republican party needs to stop revolving itself around and legitimising white grievance. If the forces that permitted Trump’s election—hardline conservatism due to an unwillingness to share political power with newly empowered identities—are not overturned, we risk the election of a similarly problematic leader in the future. Only by seeing the co-optation of varying identities into the political system as a universal gain rather than a loss of power, can the Republican party and by extension American democracy be reformed.