The swing toward Republicans in this falls electionsincluding the victory of Glenn Youngkin in Virginias gubernatorial contesthas only deepened the sense of existential dread among liberals and progressives about what will happen to American democracy and the world if a Trump-led Republican Party wins back Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. We are used to the alternation in power of two normal parties in the United States, but the Republicans today are not a normal party, and these are not normal times.
Republican leaders in both national and state politics have made it clear they will not be bound by normal electoral rules. Trumps lies about the 2020 election, the acquiescence in those lies by other Republican leaders, the Republican efforts in the states to suppress Democratic votes and seize control of the counting of ballots, the disclosures about how seriously Trump was pursuing the elections overturn up to and during the January 6th insurrectionall these tell the same story. It is as though Republicans were now planning openly and shamelessly a murder that their partys leader had failed to carry out successfully the first time.
We are already in a constitutional crisis, the neoconservative and Never Trumper Robert Kagan observed in The Washington Post in September. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. The opportunity for Congress to protect the electoral process and voting rights is slipping away in the name of preserving the filibuster, as though that were a sacred institution. A Trump victory, Kagan wrote, is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.
Beyond that risk lies a second source of existential dread: the threat of climate change and the realization that the United States and other countries have only a limited time to institute the reforms necessary to avert catastrophically higher temperatures. Democrats have had to roll back their ambitions because they depend on the vote of one coal-country senator, Joe Manchin. As disappointing as that has been, a return to power by a Republican Party given over wholly to fossil fuel interests and climate denialism would be an unmitigated, tipping-point disaster for the entire world.
Republican leaders in both national and state politics have made it clear they will not be bound by normal electoral rules.
As the crises of democracy and climate unfold, we are inevitably going to depend on what center-right legislators, center-right judges, center-right bureaucrats (such as election officials), and center-right voters decide to do. They can do what so many Republican politicians have done and go along with Trump and his base, or they can do what key Republican election officials and judges did in 2020 by resisting Trumps demands and upholding the rules on which democracy depends.
The center-right is not what it used to be. The more liberal Rockefeller Republicans, even the Gerald Ford moderates that the party used to include, are nearly all gone from Congress and national politics. The center-right today consists mainly of the minority of conservatives who prize constitutional democracy and science above fealty to Trump and Fox News. The decline of the center-right in the United States is part of a wider pattern: As far-right parties have risen in Europe, center-right parties have generally lost support. When George W. Bush was president in the early 2000s, a number of commentators, including the popular historian (and Biden friend) Jon Meacham, described the United States as a center-right country. Gallup continues to characterize the dominant pattern of American public opinion as center-right. But since the Bush years, the center-right has suffered an especially devastating reverse: By losing control of the Republican Party, it has lost its political home and consequently most of its political power.
Keep this site free and open for all to read...
That loss has left Never Trumpers debating where to take whatever influence they have. Kagan calls on Romney & Co. to fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic. But there is no sign of that happening; Mitt Romney himself has been unwilling to support even the slimmed-down voting rights legislation that Manchin proposed. Two self-styled rational conservatives, Miles Taylor and Christine Todd Whitman, call for anti-Trump Republicans to vote for Democrats in the 2022 congressional elections to block Republicans from taking over the House of Representatives. (Taylor served as chief of staff at Homeland Security under Trump and in 2018 wrote the famous Anonymous New York Times op-ed, I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration. Whitman is the former governor of New Jersey.)
Taylor and Whitman are part of a group of 150 former high Republican officialsthe renewers, they call themselveswho are actively backing some Democrats like Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona and have threatened to form a third party. Taylor acknowledges that a third party would have limited support. In a recent Politics and Polls podcast with the forlorn title Where Can the Center Right Find a Home? he argues that to affect election outcomes the renewers would need only to siphon off enough conservative votes to prevent Republicans from winning in swing districts.
If Democrats are to defeat Trumpism, they cant do it only with measures that currently meet center-right approval.
But his strategy has another side. By supporting moderate Democrats, Taylor and other Never Trumpers hope to rein in the Democratic Party. And therein lies the problem.
If Democrats are to defeat Trumpism, they cant do it only with measures that currently meet center-right approval. They need to deliver on a program that makes a genuine difference in economic security for working people. After failing to stop Trumpism within the Republican Party, the center-right would only compound its mistakes by imposing restraints on the Democratic Party that will prevent it from defeating Trumpism. David Frum wrote recently in The Atlantic that as former Republicans and conservatives break from old groups, they turn newly suspicious eyes on old certainties. The old certainties they need to re-examine go beyond what Frum had in mind. If Democrats are to work with the center-right on anything beyond the bare minimum of defending constitutional democracy, center-right leaders need to reassess their view of the role and scope of affirmative government. There is a historical precedent: the reassessment that the center-right made in the mid-20th century when it accepted progressive taxation and the modern welfare state.
IN THE UNITED STATES, we tend to think of our politics as wholly distinct from the patterns in other Western democracies. There certainly have been differences, such as the consistent failure of socialist movements and parties throughout American history. The challenge posed by socialism in Europe did affect conservative parties there, beginning in the late 1800s when conservative leaders in Germany and other countries sought to co-opt the appeal of socialists and labor unions by adopting social insurance and other welfare-state measures, well before the United States did. But there are also important parallels between European and American politics that illuminate the history of the center-right.
Keep this site free and open for all to read...
As political scientists Noam Gidron and Daniel Ziblatt note, the core dilemma of center-right parties under universal suffrage is that although their founding constituencies lie in the upper class, they have to compete for other votes: Center-right parties could not survive as merely the political front-men of economically powerful employer associations, so they included cross-class appeals to national identity, religion, and other issues that reached beyond their founding core. Those corresponding second dimension issues in the United States have included race.
But the center-right elites who use nationalism, religion, and race to broaden their support risk losing control to far-right factions and parties that make more forthright and extreme appeals on that basis. So long as the center-right elites control cohesive party organizations and media, they may be able to contain and marginalize the radical right. This was what they were able to do following World War II, in the aftermath of fascisms defeat, when they embraced a more conciliatory and reformist politics. In the postwar period, Gidron and Ziblatt write, cohesive center-right parties facilitated major historical political compromises, playing a significant role in the consolidation of democracy and welfare states.
That tradition gave us a working democratic politics and the shared prosperity of postwar societies. It is the tradition to which the center-right could return in the recognition that the politics of austerity and reverence for markets in recent decades has turned out to be just as politically destabilizing as laissez-faire was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Industrial capitalism then required institutions such as social insurance; postindustrial capitalism now requires a new wave of adjustments reflecting changes in the economy, work, and the family, and the new understanding of global climate. The historic choice facing the center-right is whether to join Trump in playing up nativist and racist impulses or to enter into a coalition with Democrats in trying to alleviate the stresses now faced by working- and middle-class people and addressing the threats posed by climate change to our way of life.
In Virginia and elsewhere, Republicans did not pay a price for their partys extremism and violation of democratic norms.
Im not expecting a sudden transformation, but it shouldnt really require one. Much of what needs doing in the United States is already standard fare for center-right governments in Europe. Consider the family agenda that Democrats have been pursuing, including such policies as child tax credits (known elsewhere as child allowances or family allowances) and subsidies for child care and elder care. The costs of raising children, and of caregiving generally, have escalated in an era when both parents work. If the center-right wants to renew American society, why not acknowledge these realities and help families cope with the stresses they face in raising the next generation? Likewise for climate reform. The needed changes could fit comfortably within a conservative rhetoric of social protection.
But unhappily, that course seems much less likely than the one charted by Youngkin, who was able to have it both ways in Virginia. By maintaining some distance from Trump while using coded racial appeals, Youngkin was able both to turn out Trumps base and to win back Republicans and independents who defected in recent elections to Democrats. In Whats Wrong With Glenn Youngkin? Jonathan V. Last, editor of the center-right site The Bulwark, identifies what marked Youngkin as still being part of the sickness that has infected the Republican party. Throughout the campaign, Last points out, Youngkin refused to admit the irrefutable facts about the 2020 electionnamely, that Biden won, and won fairlyand if in 2024 Biden were to win Virginia by a mere 500 votes, Youngkin might not stand up to demands that he refuse to certify, find 501 votes, work with the legislature to appoint an alternate slate of electors, etc.
This was the true disappointment in the 2021 elections: In Virginia and elsewhere, Republicans did not pay a price for their partys extremism and violation of democratic norms. If Republicans can continue to avoid paying that price in the next national electionsif voters see a shift toward a Trump-led Republican Party as normal rotation in officethe American experiment will be at the brink of catastrophic failure.