David Leonhardt’s Centrist Nostalgia Won’t Save Democracy

David Leonhardt’s Centrist Nostalgia Won’t Save Democracy

David Leonhardt’s Centrist Nostalgia Won’t Save Democracy

Jim Crow wasn’t an exception—but a model for the future.


The passage of the Presidential Election Reform Act in the House of Representatives on Wednesday highlighted the curious fact that the only Republicans who are willing to take a stand to protect American democracy are the ones who have no political future in their party. The act is designed to close the constitutional loophole that Donald Trump tried to use on January 6 to allow Congress to override the Electoral College. In theory, it should be a reform that enjoys broad bipartisan support, since a repeat of the attempted insurrection would lead to a constitutional crisis.

The law, cowritten by Representatives Liz Cheney and Zoe Lofgren, was bipartisan only by the thinnest of margin. Cheney was joined by eight other Republicans who voted for it along with 220 Democrats. As The Washington Post reports, “None of those nine Republican lawmakers will be members of Congress next year—either because they lost their primaries or chose to retire.”

In other words, support for the bill among Republicans came from a small minority faction within the party, a minuscule group that has already been effectively purged. The vote on the act is only the latest evidence that the mainstream of the Republican Party has fully embraced Trumpism and turned its back on democracy.

The current threat to democracy is pressing enough that even mainstream outlets that have long stressed their neutrality toward the two parties have been forced to acknowledge the asymmetrical danger from the GOP. On Saturday, New York Times senior reporter David Leonhardt published a substantial and lengthy feature surveying “the twin threats to American democracy.” The first threat, according to Leonhardt is “a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties—the Republican Party—to refuse to accept defeat in an election.” The second threat, the journalist contends, is more “chronic” and structural: “The power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion.”

Because of his clarity on the first threat, Leonhardt’s column is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on the fragility of USA democracy. It’s crucial that centrist voices like Leonhardt be explicit about the growing consensus inside the Republican Party that elections can be overturned. Leonhardt convincingly argues that the antidemocratic turn in recent politics can be traced to white Americans anxious about changing demographics, coupled with the ease with which the counter-majoritarian mechanisms in the political system (the Senate, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court) can be exploited by a political party that embraces minority rule.

The story of American politics in the 21st century is that geographical sorting (densely populated urban centers becoming more Democratic, rural American becoming more Republican) has made an already counter-majoritarian system even less responsive to the popular will. And the Republicans have not only embraced the antidemocratic features of the system but also made them more extreme via gerrymandering and the rolling back of voting rights.

Yet Leonhardt’s analysis is hobbled by the persistent centrist vice of nostalgia, the desire to idealize a mythical past when a pro-democracy consensus enjoyed uncontested acceptance. He keeps emphasizing that the current situation is “unprecedented,” when in fact conspiracy-mongering authoritarianism has an all too robust history in the United States. Without understanding the deep historic roots of Trumpism and the way democratic rights have successfully been curtailed for many decades in the past, it’s impossible to recognize the full danger of the newest authoritarian threat.

Leonhardt writes that Trump’s “embrace” of election lies “was starkly different from the approach of past leaders from both parties. In the 1960s, Reagan and Barry Goldwater ultimately isolated the conspiracists of the John Birch Society.” The word “ultimately” is carrying a heavy load in this sentence. In fact, both Reagan and Goldwater rose to power thanks to their ability to mobilize John Birch Society members, whom they pushed away only when it became politically expedient to do so. In Goldwater’s case, his definitive turn against the Birchers didn’t happen until after he became a presidential nominee. Running for governor of California in 1966, Reagan deftly welcomed Birch Society support, while suggesting that the problem with the group was that it was infiltrated by a small minority of extremists (rather than being extremist to its core). Leonhardt is assuming that the lines separating mainstream conservatism from conspiratorial extremism are clear and impermeable. But the best recent scholarship on the American right, notably the work of Nicole Hemmer of Vanderbilt University and Edward H. Miller of Northeastern University, emphasizes that mainstream conservatism and the hard right have long had porous boundaries, with elected GOP politicians since at least the start of the New Deal laundering ideas taken from incendiary authoritarians and racists.

For all his foreboding, Leonhardt offers a fundamentally optimistic view of American history. His streamlined Whig narrative has the United States getting more and more democratic—until the recent emergence of Trumpism. Leonhardt argues,

Over the sweep of history, the American government has tended to become more democratic, through women’s suffrage, civil rights laws, the direct election of senators and more. The exceptions, like the post-Reconstruction period, when Black Southerners lost rights, have been rare. The current period is so striking partly because it is one of those exceptions.

The word “rare” stuck in my craw, since the post-Reconstruction period of Black Southerners’ losing rights ran from the late 1870s until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. That’s nearly a century of a large group of people living in an apartheid regime, hardly something that can be glossed over as a regrettable exception to a happy rule.

To confirm my skepticism, I contacted retired Columbia professor Eric Foner, the leading living expert on Reconstruction. Foner e-mailed me that “calling the overthrow of Reconstruction and other antidemocratic processes in US history ‘rare’ is misleading.” He added, “There have always been Americans, often very powerful ones, who think too many people are voting.”

Reconstruction aside, there have been plenty of periods of democratic backsliding in America, with African Americans, women, the working class, immigrants and Indigenous people often victims of backlashes. The early 19th century is often celebrated as a period of democratic expansion, culminating in the presidency of Andrew Jackson. But as historian Daniel Walker Howe noted in his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1948, this democratic revolution benefited white men as the economic barrier to voting was removed, but saw other groups being actively disenfranchised.

According to Howe,

The less the right to vote came to depend on economic criteria like property ownership or taxpaying, the more clearly it depended on race and gender. Those few women in New Jersey who had once exercised the franchise had been deprived of it in 1807. Now, there appeared a movement to roll back the enfranchisement of black men, so as to identify the suffrage clearly with white manhood. Black males lost the right to vote in Connecticut in 1818, in Rhode Island in 1822, in North Carolina in 1835, and in Pennsylvania in 1838. When New York removed its property qualifications for white voters in 1821, it retained one for blacks. Of the states admitted after 1819, every one but Maine disenfranchised African Americans. The United States was well on its way to becoming a “white republic.”

This history offers crucial cautionary lessons: Political rights are never guaranteed, always contested. They can be lost for generations. The counter-majoritarian structure of the American Constitution often works in favor of antidemocratic forces, as when the Supreme Court bolstered Jim Crow for decades. American political elites often push for these democratic reversals. The only way these antidemocratic waves have been thwarted has been through mass movements: abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement. The historical record is clear: Democracy can never be taken for granted. It’s always a fight. Relying on the beneficence of conservative elites is a mug’s game.

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