They pay lip service to it, but they actively try to undermine its institutions.
By Michael Tomasky [July 1, 2019]
A number of observers, myself included, have written pieces in recent years arguing that the Republican Party is no longer simply trying to compete with and defeat the Democratic Party on a level playing field. Today, rather than simply playing the game, the Republicans are simultaneously trying to rig the game’s rules so that they never lose.
The aggressive gerrymandering, which the Supreme Court just declared to be a matter beyond its purview; the voter suppression schemes; the dubious proposals that haven’t gone anywhere — yet — like trying to award presidential electoral votes by congressional district rather than by state, a scheme that Republicans in five states considered after the 2012 election and that is still discussed: These are not ideas aimed at invigorating democracy. They are hatched and executed for the express purpose of essentially fixing elections.
We have been brought up to believe that American political parties are the same — that they are similar creatures with similar traits and similar ways of behaving. Political science spent decades teaching us this. The idea that one party has become so radically different from the other, despite mountains of evidence, is a tough sell.
It’s a hard sell to make for one very simple reason: It doesn’t have a name, this thing the Republicans are trying to do. It’s not true democracy that they want. But it’s also a bit much to call them outright authoritarians. And there’s nothing in between.
Or is there?
A couple of weekends ago, I tripped across a 2010 book called “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War,” by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. If you pay close attention to such things, you will recognize Mr. Levitsky’s name — he was a co-author, with Daniel Ziblatt, of last year’s book “How Democracies Die,” which sparked much discussion. “Competitive Authoritarianism” deserves to do the same.
What defines competitive authoritarian states? They are “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.” Sound like anyone you know?
I discovered the book somewhat by accident, ordered it and read it immediately. As the subtitle states, the authors, working in a field that Mr. Levitsky likes to call “comparative regime studies,” were looking at regimes in the developing world and the former Eastern Bloc in the years after Communism’s collapse — years, that is, when a number of countries were moving, however fitfully, toward democratization.
There are sections on Mozambique, Kenya and Cameroon; on Taiwan, Malaysia and Cambodia; and on Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. In the late 2000s, when the authors were assembling their research, these were the kinds of countries they had in mind when they conjured up the phrase “competitive authoritarianism.”
But today, incredibly, the phrase has begun to bring to mind the United States of America. I literally gasped as I read certain passages, notably the part about the important role of a strong party in winning elections and in controlling legislatures. “Legislative control is critical in competitive authoritarian regimes,” the authors write. They list four reasons. You can bet Mitch McConnell knows every one of them, and probably a couple more.
Now, I should say that I don’t think we’re there yet. Neither does Mr. Levitsky. “For all of its unfairness and growing dysfunction, American democracy has not slid into competitive authoritarianism,” he told me. “The playing field between Democrats and Republicans remains reasonably level.”
So we’re not there right now. But we may well be on the way, and it’s abundantly clear who wants to take us there.
For one, there’s President Trump. Think of his efforts to do things like politicize the institutions of the executive branch, to try to turn the Department of Justice into his personal law firm. Think of his threat in 2016 that he would honor the results of the election “if I win,” and his recent musings about staying beyond two terms. Think of his commerce secretary’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, which would benefit the Republicans electorally. These are all manifestations of competitive authoritarianism.
Second — and maybe even more so — there’s the Republican Party. The gerrymandering enabled them to maintain their House majority during the Obama years even as Democratic House candidates were winning more votes. But there’s much more. “Recent Republican behavior — from the 2016 stolen Supreme Court seat to the legislative shenanigans that followed gubernatorial defeats in North Carolina and Wisconsin to voter suppression efforts across numerous states — suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened,” Mr. Levitsky said. “The fact that the Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian poses a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump.”
The United States still has strong institutions and traditions that did not exist in, say, post-Yeltsin Russia, and that may well save us. The principles of free speech and freedom of the press run deep in our DNA. So, too, does support for civil liberties, although that’s more contested. But in general, we enjoy certain safeguards against the authoritarian instinct that other nations don’t.
Michael Tomasky is a New York Times Contributing Opinion Writer.