A Party On The Extremes
This fall, we will have elections across the United States. There will be Republicans on the ballot and Democrats. The candidates will have earned the right to be there by winning a primary process currently nearing its completion. There will be rallies and television advertisements, polling and punditry, news stories and debates.
On the surface, the mechanisms of our democratic process will be familiar. And it is likely that much of the populace, and the press, will treat them as such. We will be reminded about the headwinds the party in power historically faces in midterm elections. There will be speculation about which base is more energized. Voters will head to the polls weighing continuity versus change. They may vote on very important issues, like gun safety, abortion access, and the economy.
But we should not let the familiar distract us from an underlying truth: There is nothing normal about this election, or the political system it reflects. By any reasonable analysis, one of our two main political parties has been consumed by an extremism that threatens the very stability of our nation.
There is no satisfaction in saying this. And I come to this conclusion based not on any matter of policy. This is not about how we set up our tax system or how we protect the environment. It’s not about how we fund our schools or regulate Wall Street. This is about whether we believe in representative democracy, the rule of law, and the right to vote. This is about the cohesion that holds our nation together and allows for us to shift course via a process of free and fair elections.
This past week, we have seen more evidence of the danger we confront. Foremost has been the congressional commission investigating the January 6 insurrection. Over the decades I have covered Washington, I have seen enough congressional investigations that I nurtured high hopes, but relatively low expectations, for this one.
I have been impressed. The approach has been methodical, compelling, and damning. It is clear that one of the committee’s chief objectives is to create an indelible demarcation between those who defend democracy and those who eagerly trade our protections and freedom for their craven path to power. This is an urgent exercise before the next elections.
We can see that, with a few notable exceptions, Republican officials across the country are embracing a vision of governance that is antithetical to stability, and frankly, sanity. One chilling data point comes from my beloved home state of Texas, where state Republicans recently adopted a platform that should anger — and frighten — any American of conscience, regardless of ideology.
The platform’s specifics are outright nuts on issues from President Biden (“not legitimately elected”) to the very continuation of Texas as a state (“Texas retains the right to secede from the United States, and the Texas Legislature should be called upon to pass a referendum consistent thereto”). You can dive into the murk on topic after topic: race, education, health, LGBTQ rights, even repeal of the Voting Rights Act.
These details are important, but one should look at the entirety of this dangerous document — marinated in conspiracy theories and bad faith — to understand the broader picture. This is full MAGA in spirit, tone, and substance (or lack thereof). Whether Texas Republicans are leading the charge into the abyss or following the national party’s broader assault on American democracy is difficult to discern — and somewhat beside the point. The process by which the Republican Party writ large has come to represent a Tucker Carlson rant has been swift and overwhelming — its own self-propelling force.
Another example of the depths to which the Republican Party has descended occurred in the Missouri Senate primary this week. The frontrunner in the polls, Eric Greitens, issued a video ad that blatantly promotes political violence. Carrying a shotgun and positioned alongside heavily armed men storming a house, Greitens claims he’s on a "RINO hunt" (as in, "Republican in name only," a familiar pejorative against any member of the party who dares to criticize it). Greitens, you might remember, was once governor of Missouri but had to resign due to allegations he had threatened a mistress with blackmail and nude photographs. He was also accused of multiple campaign finance violations. More recently, Greitens’ ex-wife has alleged he was abusive.
It is not clear that Greitens will win the primary, but that also is beside the point. This kind of divisive, destructive rhetoric is a test of the health of our political system. It is incumbent on all Republican leaders to repudiate this naked appeal to violence. In a positive sign, the Republican leader in the state senate said he had contacted law enforcement about the ad. But we need a lot more: Where are Greitens’ potential future colleagues in the U.S. Senate with their denunciations? Or are they more interested in acquiring another member of their caucus?
The danger of this political climate is directly tied to what happened on January 6, 2021, and the years that preceded it. What we are learning from the commission about the overt and back-channeled threats to undermine our electoral system, including through violent means, is the preface to the upcoming 2022 elections. As we noted recently, the “coup continues,” with Republicans elevating candidates in races across the country who not only shamelessly parrot the Big Lie, but would also be in positions to undermine election integrity in 2024.
Political parties are not static, although the consistency of their names conveys a false sense of permanence. Democrats and Republicans, Republicans and Democrats. We talk about them as fixed entities, like rocks and trees, permanent features of the landscape. We point to histories that stretch back into our distant past. They are the two pillars that comprise our political system.
But to think of these groupings and definitions as consistent when the world has changed so dramatically is a foolhardy exercise. When I was growing up, Texas was a solidly Democratic state. As I remembered in What Unites Us, “My father once joked that if I wanted to see a Republican, he would take me to the Hermann Park zoo. He said they had a stuffed one there, and while he had heard there were great herds of Republicans in the North, we hadn’t seen a live one down in Texas for quite some time.” Texas was Democratic because it was part of the Solid South, as in the former Confederacy, which fought the North and the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, in the Civil War.
Many of you know the history of what came next. The reason the South became solidly Republican for so long was due largely to the actions of President Lyndon Johnson, a son of Texas, who came to be viewed as an apostate for championing civil rights. Richard Nixon and others parlayed that shift into a major political realignment with a strategy that mined votes by leveraging white grievances.
The roots of the current Republican Party can be found in this identity shift. It was further fostered by the likes of Newt Gingrich and others who hardened our political discourse into a zero-sum game. But what we have witnessed in the last few years is an escalation into an entirely new dimension. Whereas in the past, Republicans and Democrats competed for votes within a system of agreed-upon winners and losers (Bush v. Gore a notable and under-scrutinized exception), we now are in a state where the very system of elections is being threatened with violence and illegitimacy by major forces within one of the two major political parties.
The debate is no longer over policy but over the stability of our republic based on the principles of freedom and democracy. And while there are still some Republicans of principle, the energy of the party is clearly with those who would scuttle our democratic institutions.
Once again, there will be R’s and D’s on the ballot in November. But we should not allow that consistency to lull us into a sense of complacency. The R next to many of those names might technically stand for Republican, but “reactionary” would be more accurate.
To say all of this infuses me with a deep and profound sadness. Our role as journalists is not to promote one political party or denigrate another. We are supposed to hold all accountable. But at the same time, we must be vigilant against the pull of false equivalence. I hope that the Republican Party can repudiate its descent into authoritarianism. But until it does so, unequivocally and en masse, any consideration of the party that doesn’t recognize the danger it poses to American democracy misses the truth. Sad to say: Extremism is not a facet of today’s Republican Party, but its driving force.