Resolute Square

Disillusioned With Democracy

Why do Trump's voters stick with him? Teri Kanefield writes: They are mostly in agreement with Trump’s goals and they don’t care if he breaks laws. They don’t think democracy is working any longer, so they reject the laws and norms that underlie our democracy.
Credit: Teri Kanefield
Published:December 12, 2022

*with Teri Kanefield's generous permission to reprint her brilliant blog

Disillusioned With Democracy

Last week Trump expressed solidarity with the insurrectionists and had dinner with two fans of Adolph Hitler. On Sunday, December 4, he announced that the constitution should be “terminated” so that he can be reinstated as president. On Tuesday, the Trump Organization was convicted on all counts of tax fraud. 

The Republican leadership remained largely silent.

One reader on asked:

I want to understand how these voters rationalize this. Is it simply pure greed? How is dismantling the very foundation that helped make them “wealthy and powerful” a smart idea? I wonder it would take to get this “powerful” club to take a step back, and try to be grateful for what they do have, rather than wanting more “greatness.” Would they then maybe reevaluate their voting choices?

Answer: They are mostly in agreement with Trump’s goals and they don’t care if he breaks laws. They don’t think democracy is working any longer, so they reject the laws and norms that underlie our democracy.

(A good definition of democracy comes from sociologist Max Weber, who says there are three sources of authority for a government: Rule of law, the authority that underlies democracy. Traditional, the authority that underlies monarchies, and personal rule, the authority that underlies fascism. If you don’t like democracy, there are not many alternatives.)

Political scientist Karen Stenner explains it this way: As liberal democracy expands and includes more people, it becomes more diverse and complicated. The growing diversity and complexity trigger authoritarian reactions in people who are averse to complexity and cannot tolerate diversity

This is particularly true when an increasingly diverse electorate threatens the power and status of the ethnic majority. Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, Harvard political scientists, put it this way:

“It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities gave up their dominant status without a fight.” (How Democracies Die, p. 207.)

Members of the Republican Party who reject democracy are part of a movement that has been springing up worldwide, which we can call the “New Radical Right.” This movement has much in common with the fascist regimes of the 1930s. Hitler’s regime, recall, was partly a reaction to the growing diversity in cities like Berlin.

How the American “New Radical Right” Explains Its Goals

In April 2009 billionaire Peter Thiel announced that he “no longer believes that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Specifically, he said:

The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

To recap familiar territory: The 1920s did, indeed, mark the end of an era. Before Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, the United States was in what Heather Cox Richardson calls our second oligarchy (the first was the era of slavery). All wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy and powerful white men.

The New Deal—intended to curb the worst impulses of capitalism and lift large segments of the population from an unbreakable poverty cycle—got us out of the second oligarchy by reducing the levels of income inequality. The New deal gave us worker protections, minimum wage, social security, and regulations outlawing things like fixing prices and manipulating markets. The idea was to make it harder to get rich by cheating. The Civil Rights movement further expanded our government with new legislation and agencies designed to promote racial equality.

The era that Peter Thiel wants to return to has been called a “patriarchy”: a social hierarchy or order with white men at the top and Black women at the bottom.

Here is the logic behind Thiel’s statement that democracy and freedom are incompatible: Suppose you have five people. One is competent and does all the work and the other four are lazy. In a democracy (as Thiel understands democracy) the four can vote to seize and redistribute the property of the competent person. The racist implication of course is that white men are the competent ones.

One of many points that Thiel is missing is that in a functioning democracy, “the majority is held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations.” (Quoting Abraham Lincoln) Another is that in unregulated capitalism, the person who gets the richest isn’t necessarily the most competent. He may just be the best cheater.

In 2016, Thiel was one of Trump’s biggest donors. In October 2020, Thiel spoke about the “deranged society” that “a completely deranged government” had created.

It seems obvious to me that if you think the society and its government are “deranged,” you would want to dismantle the government, and this would include the Constitution, the document enabling the development of a “deranged” government.

If you think laws shouldn’t be there (like the laws requiring wealthy people to pay taxes) you don’t mind if someone breaks those laws. That’s why the Republicans won’t care that Trump committed tax fraud.

If you want to dismantle the government, you can do it slowly, as the Republicans have been trying to do for decades with systematic deregulation, or you can bring in a wrecking ball. Trump was a wrecking ball. (Actually, so were the insurrectionists.)

In September 2021, J.D. Vance, who is now the Senator-elect from Ohio, appeared on a podcast and suggested that Donald Trump, if he wins another term, should “seize the institutions of the left,” fire “every single midlevel bureaucrat” in the US government, and “replace them with our people.” Moreover, he should “defy the Supreme Court if it tries to stop him.” 

See how they cheer a rule breaker? They want their leaders to break laws. (Obviously “institutions of the left” include the regulations and regulatory agencies put in place since the New Deal and Civil Rights movement.)

One of Vance’s influences is a programmer named Curtis Yarvin, who also thinks American democracy is a failure. Specifically, he said:
“The US government is a sclerotic, decaying institution that can no longer achieve great or even competent things. It just sucks.” 
Sometimes he denounces democracy in general. Other times he says:

“Democracy doesn’t even practically exist in the US, because voters don’t have true power over the government as compared to those other interests, which function as an oligarchy.”

If you think something just sucks, you naturally want to dismantle it and replace it with something else. The problem Yarvin sees is that it’s too hard to get anything done, so his idea is that a would-be autocrat needs to come to power who can sweep aside the constraints and make real changes. He has a plan for how to do that:

Campaign on it and win. First off, the would-be dictator should seek a mandate from the people, by running for president and openly campaigning on the platform of, “If I’m elected, I’m gonna assume absolute power in Washington and rebuild the government.

Steven Levitsky similarly predicts that this is exactly what such an elected president would do:

“If Trump or a like-minded Republican wins the presidency in 2024 (with or without fraud), the new administration will almost certainly politicize the federal bureaucracy and deploy the machinery of government against its rivals. Having largely purged the party leadership of politicians committed to democratic norms, the next Republican administration could easily cross the line into what we have called competitive authoritarianism—a system in which competitive elections exist but incumbent abuse of state power tilts the playing field against the opposition.”

Military coups are very 20th century. The 21st-century way is to get a would-be autocrat elected. Yarvin said, “That’s sort of what people already thought was happening with Trump.

This is why the only complaint Trump supporters have about Trump is that he is losing elections. They are cool with lawbreaking and white supremacy. It’s the losing-elections part that bothers them.

Bill Barr said that even with everything he knows about Donald Trump, he would still vote for Trump over a Democratic candidate. For people like Barr, people choosing their pronouns represents a greater danger to the Republic than Trump inciting an insurrection and cheating on his taxes.

Moreover, as Steven Levitsky points out:

“Republican extremism is fueled by powerful pressure from below. The party’s core constituents are white and Christian, and live in exurbs, small towns, and rural areas. Not only are white Christians in decline as a percentage of the electorate but growing diversity and progress toward racial equality have also undermined their relative social status. According to a 2018 survey, nearly 60 percent of Republicans say they “feel like a stranger in their own country.” Many Republican voters think the country of their childhood is being taken away from them. This perceived relative loss of status has had a radicalizing effect: a 2021 survey sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute found that a stunning 56 percent of Republicans agreed that the “traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to stop it.” (Emphasis added.)

(Aside: Steven Levitsky habitually uses the term white Christians, which I take to refer to white Christian nationalism and the portion of the Republican base that wants America to be a “Christian” country.)

Yes, I know: The New Radical Right is not fueled by middle and lower-class economic grievances. The truest believers include billionaires like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. But lower and middle-class white men have also lost a lot in the past 100 years. Consider, for example, how easy it used to be for them to get a woman. Women had no way of earning a living. To quote Susan B. Anthony, “Women’s subsistence is in the hands of men, and most arbitrarily and unjustly does he exercise his consequent power.” 

Men could grab what they wanted. Rape was seen as a natural result of “human” nature. Men were aggressors, so a woman was responsible for guarding her chastity. Even after the Civil War, rape of a Black woman wasn’t seen as a crime. “Incel” wasn’t a thing.
To put it in Archie Bunker terms, the Republican constituency pines for the good old days when “guys like me, we had it made”:

Boy, the way Glenn Miller played
songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like me, we had it made.
Those were the days.

Didn’t need no welfare state.
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.

And you knew who you were then,
girls were girls and men were men.
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.
People seemed to be content,
Fifty dollars paid the rent.
Freaks were in a circus tent.
Those were the days. . .

. . . I don’t know just what went wrong.
Those were the days.

What went “wrong” was the modern Civil Rights and women’s rights movements.

The Dangers of Disillusionment

Levitsky is clear about the problem:
“The Republican Party has radicalized into an extremist, antidemocratic force that imperils the U.S. constitutional order.”

However, he says this:
“Although the threat of democratic breakdown in the United States is real, the likelihood of a descent into stable autocracy, as has occurred, for example, in Hungary and Russia, remains low. The United States possesses several obstacles to stable authoritarianism that are not found in other backsliding cases.”

And what are these obstacles, according to Levitsky?
“The first is a powerful opposition in the Democratic Party. It is well-organized, well-financed, and electorally viable (it won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections).

Due to deep partisan divisions and the relatively limited appeal of white nationalism in the United States, a Republican autocrat would not enjoy the level of public support that has helped sustain elected autocrats elsewhere. To the contrary, such an autocrat would face a level of societal contestation unseen in other democratic backsliders.”

Notice that Levitsky used the phrase “elected autocrat.” Levitsky’s piece dovetails with Curtis Yarvin’s: Yarvin pines for an elected autocrat. Levitsky sees an elected autocrat as the danger. Yarvin, like Levitsky, understands that a well-unified opposition would pose a threat to a duly-elected would-be-autocrat.

But Yarvin had a plan for how to get what he called “Blue America” to go along:

“. . . ideally, liberals and leftists should feel so disillusioned with the status quo that they’re ready for something new.

During the early Biden administration, Yarvin felt encouraged by what he saw as widespread disillusionment in Blue America. If you were on social media or watching certain TV pundits in 2021, you know what Yarvin was talking about. There was (and is) a chorus of anti-Trump voices insisting that:

  • The “system” is hopelessly corrupt.
  • The criminal justice system failed because it hasn’t stopped the New Radical Right.
  • White men never face consequences (people were still saying this the day the Trump Org was indicted for fraud, but that didn’t count because yadda yadda.)
  • Democrats are just as much at fault as the Republicans because they are not doing enough to stop the Republicans.
  • Garland is doing nothing because he is weak or compromised.
  • Lawbreakers are walking free, which shows that rule of law has failed (this is not what rule of law means. See, for example, the Exclusionary Rule.)

Some spent months heckling Garland and mocking his commitment to rule of law and insisting that he break rules to deliver the results they wanted. (I have written full blog posts addressing each of the above.)

“The whole system is corrupt, just look at X example,” isn’t that different from Curtis Yarvin. Right?
Steven Levitsky says this:

“For the foreseeable future, U.S. presidential elections will involve not simply a choice between competing sets of policies but rather a more fundamental choice over whether the country will be democratic or authoritarian.”

In other words, the only thing standing between an authoritarian takeover is the Democratic Party, with all of its flaws and frustration, which explains why all that disillusionment with rule of law and the Democratic Party gave Yarvin hope that a would-be dictator could come to power and Blue America would feel so disillusioned with the status quo that they wouldn’t try too hard to preserve it. Yarvin started worrying again about the viability of an elected autocrat when he saw the way the Dobbs v. Jackson decision fired up the left.

I have observed certain patterns in disillusioned lefties. Like their right-wing counterparts, they tend to engage in all-or-nothing thinking. When they see flaws, they think the system is broken. If something doesn’t happen exactly as they think it should in the timeframe they demand, they think “the whole system is corrupt.” If the explanation for what they are seeing is complicated, they reject the explanation in exchange for conspiracy theories (“Garland is in the pay of plutocrats”). They want fast, dramatic action.

In addition, the solutions they propose would generally make the system more autocratic. For example, one solution I’ve seen frequently offered to solve the “problem” of why Trump isn’t in prison is to change the laws to make it easier to put people in prison. I’ve also seen people who, when they feel frustrated by how many appeals Trump and his pals file, want to take away or reduce the right to appeal. Such changes would fall disproportionately on vulnerable communities.

One thing I frequently see repeated is “You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” or “they break the rules so the Democrats need to do the same.” This is literally advocating authoritarianism. If both sides adopt authoritarian methods, authoritarianism wins because nobody is defending democracy or upholding democratic ideals. The way to save democracy is with more democracy, not authoritarian tactics. (For more on that, see this post.)

I suspect that autocracy holds a certain appeal for all of us. We all have to beware of a tendency to want swift, dramatic action and the thrill of watching a strongman land devastating blows on the enemy.

To quote Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “Democracy is grinding work.” Change in a complex rule-of-law democracy happens slowly and with great effort. All those checks and balances slow things down. In a democracy, we don’t always get the results we want. It can be hard to pass legislation. Prosecutors make bad decisions. Juries can get it wrong. It’s frustrating. I know. I was in the trenches as a public appellate defender.

I understand how people get disillusioned and discouraged. Even people who are comfortable with complexity can feel overwhelmed by our government. Criminal procedure is a full-semester law school course. The DOJ is conducting, in Garland’s words, the investigation into the January 6 attack was “the most wide-ranging and most complex that this department has ever undertaken.” It makes sense that even well-educated consumers of the news have trouble following what is happening.

Sometimes when I try to explain what was happening with the DOJ investigations, disillusioned lefties say unkind things about me. Example:

A person who wants ‘heads to roll’ wants instant gratification and spectacle. A person who thinks that “countless investigations are being squashed and mysteriously abandoned” is trading in conspiracy theories. I am afraid the above person will never be happy in a rule-of-law democracy. The question is how many other people will that person convert to disillusionment. I know it has an effect on me. Every time I post something on social media about the latest in the DOJ investigations, I can expect a throng of people to come into my mentions telling me that it’s obvious the entire system is failing and corrupt.

I assume it must also have an effect on others.

Some people see flaws and throw up their hands in despair. Others see flaws and ask, “What can I do to help make things better?”
We need lots of the second kind because we have a long battle ahead if democracy is going to survive. Because the Republican Party has turned into an extremist, antidemocratic force that imperils the U.S. constitutional order,” here is what Levitsky predicts:

The United States isn’t headed toward Russian- or Hungarian-style autocracy, as some analysts have warned, but something else: a period of protracted regime instability, marked by repeated constitutional crises, heightened political violence, and possibly, periods of authoritarian rule.”

People tend to think of democracy and autocracy as binary: It is either one or the other. But Levitsky explains that there are hybrid governments that contain some democratic elements while embracing autocratic ones. Partly because the Democratic Party is so robust, he doesn’t think we are in danger of becoming like Russia or Hungary. Instead, he suggests we may become like Ukraine:

American politics may come to resemble not Russia but its neighbor Ukraine, which has oscillated for decades between democracy and competitive authoritarianism, depending on which partisan forces controlled the executive. For the foreseeable future, U.S. presidential elections will involve not simply a choice between competing sets of policies but rather a more fundamental choice over whether the country will be democratic or authoritarian.”

Here is why it seems to me that we are in a protracted fight to save American democracy: If the Democrats could keep the White House and gain large enough majorities in both houses of Congress, they could make rapid changes that would help secure democracy: They could reform the Supreme Court by adding justices, thereby unraveling decades of work the rightwing spent packing the court. They could add Washington D.C. as a state, securing two more Senators and offsetting the Republican’s Senate-rural-state advantage. They could pass legislation regulating national elections.

But they can’t do those things because they can’t get a large enough majority in Congress. The New Deal, which ushered in rapid and far-reaching changes (including allowing Roosevelt to appoint the Supreme Court justices that declared racial segregation unconstitutional) happened because Roosevelt won elections with large majorities.

But young people vote Democratic and changing demographics favor Democrats, which will make it increasingly difficult for the Republicans to win national elections while embracing the New Radical Right.

So we have a lot of work to do over the next several elections. Fortunately, we have lots of people who are up for the task. For example ↓
(Grab some tissues before you hit “play.”)