You can always tell a Harvard man, it is said, but you can’t tell him much. Messrs. Levitsky and Ziblatt are both full professors at Harvard’s Department of Government, and the coauthors of a compelling comparative study, How Democracies Die. In yesterday’s New York Times, they wrote,
Why is the Republican Party playing dirty? Republican leaders are not driven by an intrinsic or ideological contempt for democracy. They are driven by fear.
Democracy requires that parties know how to lose. Politicians who fail to win elections must be willing to accept defeat, go home, and get ready to play again the next day. This norm of gracious losing is essential to a healthy democracy.
But for parties to accept losing, two conditions must hold. First, they must feel secure that losing today will not bring ruinous consequences; and second, they must believe they have a reasonable chance of winning again in the future. When party leaders fear that they cannot win future elections, or that defeat poses an existential threat to themselves or their constituents, the stakes rise. Their time horizons shorten. They throw tomorrow to the wind and seek to win at any cost today. In short, desperation leads politicians to play dirty.
Take German conservatives before World War I. …
Republicans appear to be in the grip of a similar panic today. Their medium-term electoral prospects are dim. For one, they remain an overwhelmingly white Christian party in an increasingly diverse society. ,,,
The problem runs deeper than electoral math, however. Much of the Republican base views defeat as catastrophic. White Christians are losing more than an electoral majority; their once-dominant status in American society is eroding. Half a century ago, white Protestant men occupied nearly all our country’s high-status positions: They made up nearly all the elected officials, business leaders and media figures. Those days are over, but the loss of a group’s social status can feel deeply threatening. Many rank-and-file Republicans believe that the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. Slogans like “take our country back” and “make America great again” reflect this sense of peril. …
American democracy faces a Catch-22: Republicans won’t abandon their white identity bunker strategy until they lose, but at the same time that strategy has made them so averse to losing they are willing to bend the rules to avoid this fate. There is no easy exit. Republican leaders must either stand up to their base and broaden their appeal or they must suffer an electoral thrashing so severe that they are compelled to do so.
Liberal democracy has historically required at least two competing parties committed to playing the democratic game, including one that typically represents conservative interests. But the commitment of America’s conservative party to this system is wavering, threatening our political system as a whole. Until Republicans learn to compete fairly in a diverse society, our democratic institutions will be imperiled.
It is with great trepidation that I comment on the work of two distinguished Harvard scholars, but I will do it, nonetheless.
First off, I think their analysis is right, as far as it goes.
Second, I think it’s very fortunate—given the circumstances they describe—that the Leader of the Pack, Donald J. Trump, does not give two hoots in hell about establishing a dictatorship of white Protestant men. What Donald J. Trump is all about is conning those who aspire to such a dictatorship, in order to line his pockets and satisfy his endless narcissistic delusions.
Third, the good professors seem to assume that it’s up to the “leaders” of the present Republican Party to discover a way out of this mess. But I think there’s good reason to suppose that is beyond their power.
And here’s the fourth and last point. Over at the Harvard Business School they teach that one goal of sophisticated corporate strategy is to shape what your competition does and how they do it. If the two professors are right that a right-of-center party that plays by the rules is essential to democracy, then folks on the center left need to give some thought as to how they might help to bring that about.
That implies, I think, that we need to evolve from a two party system into a three party system: one to represent the folks who are now the hard core Trump supporters, one to represent the progressives, and a third to represent the traditionally conservative upper middle and upper classes.