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Analysis | Can MAGA Republicans Learn to Love Democracy Again?

Remark

“Our country is at a crossroads today,” Steven Levitsky told the crowd gathered for the Democracy Summit at Howard University. “America will either be a multiracial democracy in the 21st century or it will not be a democracy.”

That Levitsky highlighted such a grim crossroads in a speech a week after the midterm elections is a clear sign that the Harvard professor and co-author of “How Democracies Die” is not yet celebrating a democratic resurgence in the US. But after nearly a decade of worrying about America’s democratic backslide, I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic, if only in the brief interregnum between the midterms and the start of the House Benghazi hearings on Hunter Biden.

The republic certainly has a little more breathing room after the November 8 results. Even as the GOP won a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, swing-state voters blocked an array of cranks, demagogues, and authoritarians from positions of political power. Defeated Republican candidates usually conceded defeat, as do candidates in Democratic systems.

The results led many to conclude that GOP extremism came at a high cost. As Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell put it, “We underperformed among the independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party and leadership roles is that they are involved in chaos, negativity, outrageous attacks – and the frightened independent and moderate Republicans. voters.”

For the foreseeable future, the hinge on which democracy in the US revolves will remain the Republican Party. You can understand why a scholar of democracy would be uncomfortable with that. The GOP placed a demagogue in the White House in 2017 and then largely acquiesced when he instigated a violent attempt to overthrow his democratically elected successor. Republicans nominated hundreds of anti-democratic candidates and conspiracy theorists for political office in this month’s election.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” noted on Twitter, denying the results of an election “is a form of corruption. It’s an entire party colluding in deceit, it’s institutionalized lying of the type in which authoritarians specialize.”

Donald Trump’s call to the beer putsch crowd was never subtle, and Nazis, Klansmen, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and others rallied behind his call. But a paradox of Trumpism is that Trump’s demagogic showmanship brought millions of alienated white people not onto the streets, but into the electoral system. Trump won nearly 63 million votes in 2016. He won more than 74 million in 2020. Millions of new voters exercised their democratic rights to support an end to democracy.

Is it possible that now that they are in voters’ Democratic tent, these and other Trump supporters can be persuaded to join the Democratic treaty – even at the cost of accepting the multiracial democracy they fear ? If the Republican elites can reaffirm their own commitment to democracy, couldn’t they also help channel the anger of Trump supporters in a more constructive way for both the party and the nation?

“Yes, I think that’s a possibility,” Levitsky emailed me. “How real is hard to say. An alternative scenario is that those alienated whites will drift back from politics after Trump. Another, which I suspect may be most likely in the near term, is that the combination of (1) those alienated whites in the GOP tent and (2) primaries will mean that Republican politicians will continue to compete for MAGA- votes and will therefore continue to compete for MAGA votes. reproduce extremism.”

The radicalization of millions of MAGA voters is the loaded weapon on the American table. “They think we’re sliding into some kind of awakened socialist Armageddon,” Levitsky said. Can they be talked down by responsible Republican elites? Yes. But it won’t be easy or instant – and the temptation to appeal to their fears will remain, at least for a while.”

The elite’s reaction to the announcement of Trump’s presidential campaign has been decidedly cold. Rupert Murdoch’s influential propaganda ventures appear to have turned against Trump for now. And while few Republicans dared criticize Trump, even fewer flocked to Mar-a-Lago to flatter him. Yet there is no reason to believe that the Republican elites eager to be done with Trump are necessarily happy to be done with the Democratic attacks of Trumpism.

Democracy in the 21st century may depend on figuring out what incentives can induce Republican elites to rejoin the Democratic team. The concept of “honor,” which Representative Liz Cheney cited as a motivating factor in her opposition to Trumpism, clearly has limited appeal. A rare never-Trumper, Cheney was stripped of her GOP leadership position before suffering a landslide defeat in a Republican primary. Her replacement, Representative Elise Stefanik, is dishonorable but keeps her political ambitions intact.

Only Republican elites can enlist the MAGA base to push for democracy. So the question is how to move elites to commit first. Corporations, many of which straddle ideological (and preferential) allegiances to Republicans and the marketing commitments engendered by a multiracial, pro-democracy consumer base, are a potential source of leverage. Consumer brands have so far paid little or no price for supporting anti-democratic politics. Raising that price would also increase the price for a party that depends on corporate support.

The Trump-era development of a self-consciously pro-Democratic constituency is creating a foundation for influence in corporate America and beyond. “The more optimistic story I would tell is that the rise of Trump has greatly increased awareness of the democratic limitations of the US system of government,” emailed Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth. “Progress seems a little less unlikely than a few years ago, especially at the state level. But the odds are still against major reforms and I fear things have to get worse before they can get better.”

America’s constitutional system alone cannot protect democracy from an anti-democratic insurgency that equates multiracial rule with conservative white aging. A massive pro-democracy constituency is needed to beat off the uprising. Increasing that constituency, especially among Republicans, is the critical task ahead.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Americans care about democracy, just not enough to save it: Julianna Goldman

• Only Republicans can save American democracy: Jonathan Bernstein

• Destroying American democracy is a two-party effort: Niall Ferguson

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who reports on American politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, communications consultant and political media strategist.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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