The Republican Party no longer prioritizes the promotion of liberal democracy either at home or abroad.
I do not make this claim lightly. I have a professional obligation as a political scientist to strive for impartiality and even-handedness when it comes to partisan politics. At the same time, I also have an obligation to aim for objectivity and accuracy. As has been argued by Jennifer Victor, evaluating the extent to which something strengthens or weakens liberal democracy is not a partisan activity, but analogous to a doctor diagnosing a disease. (It is important to note that in this sense “liberal” does not mean what we usually think about when we talk about “liberals vs. conservatives,” but rather a form of democracy premised on the classical liberal Enlightenment tradition of limited government, rule of law, protection of civil liberties, etc.)
In years past, Republican presidents and elected officials have proudly promoted liberal democracy around the world. Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and join the cause of liberal democracy. George W. Bush dedicated his presidency (however imperfectly) to the promotion of democratic regimes, especially in the Middle East. In his 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney identified autocratic Russia as one of the world’s primary advocates of illiberal authoritarianism, a position that Democrats have only recently come around to.
Recent events, however, have persuaded me that despite this legacy, the Republican Party has now abandoned its robust support of liberal democratic norms and institutions, both at home and abroad.
I offer the following as a non-comprehensive sampling of evidence:
- During the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declined to say he would accept the election results as legitimate if he lost, betraying a key prerequisite of healthy liberal democracies. He also praised foreign autocrats as “strong leaders.” Despite this clear anti-democratic behavior, he received nearly 90% of the Republican vote.
- The State Department, under the Trump administration, is removing democracy promotion from its mission statement.
- As president, Donald Trump has: 1) attacked the freedom and independence of the press on multiple occasions, describing them as the “enemy of the people,” 2) rhetorically attacked the freedom and independence of the judiciary, 3) fired an FBI director for investigating his own campaign’s ties to a foreign autocratic government, 4) drawn moral equivalences between white supremacists and those who oppose white supremacists, 5) threatened jail time for those who exercise first amendment freedoms to burn the American flag, 6) repeatedly claimed, without evidence, the existence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election, thereby undermining public faith and legitimacy in election outcomes, 7) repeatedly praised dictators and autocrats around the world while mocking and alienating democratic allies, and 8) threatened to “loosen up” libel laws to make it more difficult to criticize the president. Each of these represent a clear breach of core liberal democratic principles.
- A majority of Republicans in Congress regularly choose not to disagree publicly with the current Republican president when he engages in rhetoric and actions that violate liberal democratic norms and institutions.
- A strong majority of Republicans in the public, currently somewhere between 75% and 80%, tell public opinion pollsters that they approve of the job the Donald Trump is doing as president. His actions as president include the illiberal anti-democratic actions described above.
- A strong plurality of Republicans say that they believe courts should be permitted to “shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate.”
- A majority of Republicans say they would support postponing the 2020 elections until it can be guaranteed that only eligible citizens can vote.
- A strong majority of Republicans say that the news media poses a larger threat to America than white supremacists.
- Fewer than half of Republicans say that a strong democracy requires that “those who lose elections recognize the legitimacy of the winners” or that “news organizations are free to criticize presidential leaders.”
It is true, of course, that many Republicans have distanced themselves from these types of anti-democratic actions. Elected officials like Senators Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, and prominent conservative writers such as Jennifer Rubin, Ana Navarro, David Frum, Max Boot, and Michael Gerson have consistently been willing to stand up publicly for liberal democratic principles when they are threatened or violated by the current Republican president or others in the Republican Party. Nevertheless, these individuals are a clear minority.
It is also true that Democrats are not immune from a failure to adhere scrupulously to liberal democratic principles. President Obama at times rhetorically delegitimized decisions by the Supreme Court and, however well intentioned on the merits, arguably overstepped his Constitutional authority with many of his executive orders on immigration.
The difference, however, is one of both quantity and quality. A candid review of the evidence reveals that it is Republicans who are, by far, disproportionately responsible for recent actions and rhetoric that undermine liberal democratic institutions in the United States. We are now facing an unprecedented situation where one major political party is generally supportive of liberal democratic values and the other is not, or at least is not sufficiently supportive to prioritize its defense and promotion over other goals.
I am firmly of the opinion that American democracy is strengthened by the productive tension between liberalism, conservatism, and other ideologies as is manifest within the framework of our party system and constitutional checks and balances. A strong two-party or multi-party system is necessary to ensure the values of responsiveness and accountability on the part of a liberal democratic government. Regardless of one’s political views, it is in everyone’s interest for both the Republican and Democratic parties to work hand-in-hand to support and defend liberal democracy in the United States, even as they fight for their distinct policy goals.
This is my diagnosis of the health of our liberal democratic political system. Now let’s get to work on finding a cure.