By Brian Klaas
Dr. Brian Klaas is an Associate Professor in Global Politics at University College London and a columnist for The Washington Post. Klaas is also a frequent television commentator and political consultant. He was previously based at the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford.Klaas has advised governments, US political campaigns, NATO, the European Union, multi-billion dollar investors, international NGOs, and international politicians.
Democracy is fragile. It requires many key features to survive—and I fear that the US has now lost several of those features because of the GOP’s embrace of authoritarianism. Worse, these trends are accelerating, with no obvious brake in sight. So, what has been destroyed?
A shared sense of reality. Without it, compromise—a core function of democracy—becomes impossible. The more that GOP extremists push QAnon rhetoric and lies about elections and other debunked lunacy, how can you compromise? You don’t even inhabit the same political universe.
A commitment to democracy by all major parties. Without that, every election becomes a gamble that an authoritarian party will seize power. That’s where we’re at now, because the GOP has gone all-in on authoritarian lies and devotion to a cult-like autocratic figure.
Shared belief in electoral legitimacy. American vote tabulation is extremely accurate, but Republicans have lied about US elections on Trump’s instructions, which now means the very engine of democracy is not accepted by a large chunk of Americans. Is that sustainable?
Politicians being punished if they don’t solve problems. Again, no longer true. Republican voters are largely rewarding meme trolls and “owning the libs” with meaningless stunts of increasing extremism. There’s some of this for Democrats too, but it’s not nearly so extreme.
Fear of losing general elections. Most Congressional elections are uncompetitive due to gerrymandering and demographic sorting. Most members of Congress need only care about their primary, which means they have strong incentives for ratcheting extremism.
Punishment for politicians who are deranged extremist authoritarians. And yet, the third ranking House Republican just called Democrats “pedo grifters.” What used to be punished is now a way to breakout as a GOP star. It’s therefore going to get worse because voters reward it.
Sadly, this is self-perpetuating, because the worse Republicans behave, the more the GOP base voters are willing to excuse as they get used to it. The only punishments are reserved for those who cross Trump or accept the 2020 election as actual reality (see: Cheney, Liz).
We’re left with a GOP ecosystem that punishes people who focus on policy, compromise, and fight for democracy. It rewards people who stand out most as authoritarian extremists, which creates a ratcheting effect—which is why it keeps getting crazier. And there’s no brake!
There are solutions/reforms that would work. But sadly, all of them are realistically dead on arrival in Congress because of the current power balance (especially in the Senate). To summarize the obvious: American democracy is in serious trouble with no obvious end in sight.