Democracy’s living on a prayer.
Photo: Steve Dykes/Getty Images
In Donald Trump’s America, democracy dies in broad daylight.
Previous presidents have flouted the rule of law and sought to restrict access to the ballot, but none of Trump’s modern predecessors have treated these endeavors like photo ops. Trump has not subverted the independence of federal law enforcement through the quiet appointments of hacks but by openly declaring that he expects the U.S. attorney general to protect him from legal accountability and by warning his allies not to cooperate with FBI investigations. He has not subtly exploited official powers for partisan gain but, rather, has formally strong-armed a foreign government into investigating his chief domestic rival and hosted a Republican National Convention on the White House lawn. He has not evinced a desire to disenfranchise his opposition merely through the orchestration of probes into (nonexistent) voter fraud but by explaining on cable television that he is blocking federal aid to the Postal Service because, if it does not receive such aid, “that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”
Trump’s refusal to keep his assaults on democracy constrained within limits (and/or shrouded in pretense) has scandalized a significant minority of Republican elites. But his high crimes and misdemeanors have made little impression on the party faithful. None of the president’s affronts to liberal democracy — not his praise for “very fine” white vigilantes or his proposed postponement of November’s election — have shaken his grip on a little over 40 percent of the electorate.
One explanation for Republican indifference to such deeds is that Republicans aren’t aware of them: Fox News’s programming and Facebook’s algorithm have simply kept red America blissfully ignorant of the commander-in-chief’s most tyrannical moods. (If a president executes a political prisoner in the middle of Fifth Avenue and no right-wing pundit is inclined to report it, does his shot make a sound?)
But a new paper from Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels suggests an alternative hypothesis: Many Republican voters value “keeping America great” more than they value democracy — and, by “keeping America great,” such voters typically mean “keeping America’s power structure white.”
In a January 2020 survey fielded by YouGov, a slim majority of GOP voters agreed with the statement “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Nearly three-fourths agreed with “It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.” More than 40 percent agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” More than 47 percent concurred with the premise that “strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.” And on all of these questions, most of those who did not agree were merely unsure.
In our age of polarization, anti-democratic sentiment isn’t confined to the right. One 2017 survey that asked whether “violence would be justified” if the opposing party won the 2020 election found a slightly higher percentage of Democrats agreeing with that sentiment than Republicans (18 to 13 percent, respectively). Still, there is nowhere near as much open advocacy for illiberalism among Democratic elites as there is among Republican ones. And whether for high-minded or self-interested reasons, there is only one party that routinely seeks to restrict the franchise. For these reasons, anti-democratic opinion among GOP voters is of greater consequence than that among Democrats in the present moment.
Bartels’s study therefore aimed to discern the nature of popular indifference to liberal democracy on the American right. Which is to say: What ideological or cultural forces lead Republican voters to subordinate democracy to their desired political outcomes?
The study entertains a range of possibilities. By examining the answers that YouGov’s respondents gave to other survey questions, Bartels explored the degree of correlation between six voter dispositions and anti-democratic sentiment: partisan affect (i.e., a voter’s level of avowed love for Republicans and hostility for Democrats), enthusiasm for President Trump, cynicism about actually existing democracy, ideological commitment to economic conservatism, ideological commitment to cultural conservatism, and white “ethnic antagonism.” That last category refers to a voter’s level of concern about the political and cultural power of nonwhites in the United States. For example, if respondents agreed that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities,” and that speaking English is “essential for being a true American,” they would post a high score on the ethnic-antagonism scale.
Of course, many of these dispositions are heavily correlated. To gauge the independent influence of each factor, Bartels controlled for five of the dispositions (freezing them at the average value among Republican voters) and then looked at how closely a high score on the remaining one correlated with anti-democratic sentiment. Applying this method to all six variables, he found that ethnic antagonism is a better predictor of a Republican’s indifference to democratic niceties than anything else.
Notably, what Bartels calls “cultural conservatism” (essentially, attitudes on all “culture war” issues except those concerning race, such as “patriotism, traditional morality … and disdain for big cities, rich people, journalists, and college professors”) is actually negatively correlated with anti-democratic attitudes. In other words: A GOP voter who espouses average levels of ethnic antagonism, partisan affect, and support for Trump — but exceptionally high levels of cultural conservatism — is less likely to agree that defending America’s traditional way of life justifies the use of force than the average Republican is. This suggests that popular support for authoritarianism within the GOP is not animated primarily by concerns with conservative Christianity’s declining influence over public life but rather with that of the white race.
Which makes sense.
When democracy came to America, it was wrapped in white skin and carrying a burning cross. In the early 19th century, the same state constitutional conventions that gave the vote to propertyless white men disenfranchised free Blacks. For the bulk of our republic’s history, racial hierarchy took precedence over democracy. Across the past half century, the U.S. has shed its official caste system, and almost all white Americans have made peace with sharing this polity with people of other phenotypes. But forfeiting de jure supremacy is one thing; handing over de facto ownership of America’s mainstream politics, culture, and history is quite another. And as legal immigration diversifies America’s electorate while the nation’s unpaid debts to its Black population accrue interest and spur unrest, democracy has begun to seek more radical concessions from those who retain an attachment to white identity. A majority of light-skinned Americans may value their republic more than their (tacit) racial dominance. But sometimes, minorities rule.