Susan McWilliams Barndt is a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist. She is Chair and Professor in the Politics Department at Pomona College.
For the health of this republic, we need Republican leaders to believe that theirs can become the majority party.
Right now, I do not think they believe this. And as long as Republican leaders lack that kind of belief, ours is a nation in trouble.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, talks at some length about how Americans accede to majority rule because all Americans believe that they stand a chance to be in the majority someday.
This is no small thing. Acceding to majority rule means acceding to the outcome of elections, to the laws made by elected representatives, to the legitimacy of those elected representatives – in other words, to the democratic processes that ground the republic.
As far as Tocqueville could tell, all Americans in the 1830s believed they had some chance to make it into a governing majority of some sort, even those Americans who believed in then-outlandish ideas like female suffrage.
Having said this, Tocqueville notes that there will be huge problems for majoritarian government – for democracy in America – if a powerful enough minority ever becomes convinced that they have no chance of winning a majority of votes.
“If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed,” Tocqueville writes, it will be because a minority has been “urge[d] to desperation and oblige[d] to have recourse to physical force.” The result, Tocqueville says, will be “anarchy.”
Now, Tocqueville was almost certainly thinking about slavery when he wrote those lines. My sense, based on some of his other writing, is that Tocqueville was thinking about enslaved persons and the possibility of a slave insurrection like that which had happened in Haiti. And while such an insurrection never happened at sufficient scale to cause national anarchy, one way to understand the Civil War is to see it motivated by enslavers who feared they were becoming a permanent minority in the nation.
Tocqueville was right: The result was anarchy. The result was blood.
We find ourselves today in a situation where one of the nation’s two major political parties seems to find a majority far out of its reach. No Republican candidate has won the popular vote in a presidential election in almost a generation, since George W. Bush squeaked over the 50-percent line in the 2004 election. The only reason that Republicans have as much power as they do in the House of Representative and in the Senate are because of gerrymandering in the former case and the state-based allocation of seats in the latter case. While fewer Americans align with one of the two major parties every year, self-professed Democrats now outnumber self-professed Republicans rather substantially; in the most recent Gallup survey I can find, only 26 percent of American voters call themselves Republicans.
All of this is true even without the demographic data (which Democrats love to tout) that seem to bode an even darker future for Republicans. Younger voters disproportionately favor Democratic candidates, and they are only a few years away from dominating the American electorate. Democrats also have a decisive advantage among non-white voters, who represent an ever-bigger portion of the voting population.
Republican leaders have worried about these trends for some time, most pointedly in their postmortem of the 2012 election. In response, they have tried to counter these trends in three major ways:
- Republicans have tried to make new kinds of appeals to young, nonwhite, and female voters. This has included attempts by some party leaders to soften party positions that are unpopular among the young, nonwhite, and/or female. Republicans have also tried to make their own young, nonwhite, and/or female members more visible, and they have done targeted outreach in nonwhite communities in particular.
- Republicans have encouraged the development of Republican majorities at the local and state levels. This is a way of building on the party’s existing strength – since Republicans already outpower Democrats on those levels, in statehouses and governorships in particular – with the hope of expanding party outreach to voters and nurturing young and visionary talent.
- Republicans have looked to consolidate power in anti-majoritarian and non-majoritarian ways. Those efforts include a focus on the judicial system (which my colleague Amanda Hollis-Brusky has documented), capture of redistricting commissions (which is in many places a result of dominating at the state level), voter suppression efforts, and a growing reliance on rules, like the Senate’s filibuster rules, that are anti-majoritarian.
As strategy, it clearly makes sense for the party to pursue each kind of tactic.
But since the ascendance of Donald J. Trump, the third kind of approach – the anti-majoritarian approach – has become the most visible, and, I think, the most ascendant. For instance, while the Republican National Committee recently pledged money to create “outreach centers” in black communities, the manpower and money being devoted to that cause pale in comparison to the manpower and money being devoted to voter suppression efforts in battleground states. (Note that I felt like I needed to provide a hyperlink to the former, just to prove to you that it is happening, but feel no such need to document the latter, because you know it is happening.)
I see underneath this doubling down on anti-majoritarian and non-majoritarian strategy a deep fear, among Republican leaders, that they are never going to be a majority party. You double-down on anti-majoritarian and non-majoritarian tactics when you fear that there’s no way for you to appeal to a majority of voters.
True, we all know that Donald Trump is out there shouting, with lots of backup, that he actually did win the 2020 election. But remember that Trump’s most consistent and compelling claim is that America needs to be made “great again,” a pitch that resonates mostly with people who believe that their way of life is in decline, that they are losing ground, that their power is on the wane. It’s a cry meant for people who believe they are in danger of becoming a permanent minority (in ways that are certainly but not exclusively racialized.)
As I’ve written before, people who believe that there is no chance they are going to win a game have little incentive to play that game fairly. They have lots of incentive to cheat. They have lots of incentive to quit the game, or curse it, or refuse to play altogether. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the truly underappreciated political thinkers of the twentieth century, called this the ethic of total retaliation.
Now, total retaliation is not a big problem when the game is checkers, and your six-year-old upends the board when she realizes she is going to lose. But this is a big problem when the game is democracy. This is a big problem when the game is not a game at all.
Back to Tocqueville: Groups that believe they are facing permanent minority status, in a majoritarian system, turn to violence.
I don’t know how many of the people who stormed the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, believed that the election had really been “stolen” from President Trump. But I do suspect that almost all of them feel like they are in a minority group that is on the verge of being permanently outnumbered. (Part of what I think appeals to people about QAnon, besides what I have written here already, is that Q’s message was: Yes, you are in the minority. But in the end, the minority is going to have power.)
The republic remains in danger as long as one of our two major political parties pursues, out of its own sense of insufficiency, an anti-majoritarian/non-majoritarian strategy. But Republicans will continue to pursue that strategy – to prioritize it above all others – as long as party leaders remain unconvinced that they can capture the hearts and votes of a majority of American voters.
But we need them to believe this is possible, for all our sake. The first task of those Republicans who care for the health not just of their party but of our nation should be to work toward a real and not illusory Republican majority – and more immediately, toward the cultivation of a belief that such a majority is possible.
I know it is possible, especially if the party can (as it has done before) turn the dial down on the most virulent racists in its ranks:
Last week, I was talking with a student who describes herself as a radical communist. She talked to me about how, for her, we need more of an “it takes a village” attitude in American life, one that prioritizes local networks of care and concern rather than reliance on the bureaucratic, impersonal state.
I told her that she sounded a lot like Ronald Reagan, when he talked about small-town values.
“Well, I mean,” she said, “Reagan did not think government should do that work. I just don’t believe that government will do that work. I don’t want to believe that Reagan and I have anything in common, but maybe we do.”