The Only Two Buckets are Democracy & Autocracy
What’s unique now is one of our political parties — the Republican Party — has fully embraced autocratic governance and is doing everything it can to stop “will of the majority” Democracy
Ted Cruz has compared President Biden and the people in his administration working to stop Covid to “Nazi stormtroopers.” Republicans in his state are trying to ban any mention of Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from their schools’ textbooks and give Republicans the power to challenge and even reject votes they don’t like in future elections. What is going on here?
There are a lot of words thrown around these days, from democracy and republic to fascist, socialist, communist, theocrat, oligarchy, white supremacist, liberal, conservative, autocracy and dozens of others. But they all fall into one of two buckets.
Those two buckets are democracy and autocracy.
In a democracy, governance is conducted in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the people. Typically today that will is expressed through majority-wins voting for representatives, and that governance is conducted within the constraints of a constitution and common law; what the Founders called “a republican form of government.” Starting in the late 1600s, this form of government and its variations were also often defined as “liberal.”
In autocratic forms of government the will of the majority of the people is secondary to the will of those in power. That would include priests and mullahs who claim to rule by a god’s will (theocracy); a bureaucracy that purports to know what’s best for the people (communism); a puppet government elected as a result of moneyed interests controlling public opinion (oligarchy/fascism/conservatism); and a government that excludes portions of the populace because of their economic status, race or religion (fascist/Nazi/white supremacist/oligarchy/conservative).
What’s unique about today’s moment in post-1965 American history is that one of our political parties — the Republican Party — has fully embraced autocratic governance and is doing everything it can to stop “will of the majority” democracy.
In 1965, Democratic politicians (with a few Republicans) passed laws overturning 100 years of Jim Crow laws that prevented minorities (particularly African Americans and Native Americans) from voting and otherwise participating in the governance of our republic. The entire history of America up to that point, while we called ourselves a democratic republic, had actually been a form of white supremacist autocracy with a thick whites-only democratic patina.
The Republican Party’s response to America enfranchising African Americans was immediate. Former Vice President Richard Nixon (VP 1953-1961) reached out to the mostly-Southern and -Western white supremacists who’d been part of the the Democratic Party’s coalition and invited them to join him in the Republican Party. Numerous former Democratic politicians followed Nixon’s lead, changing their party affiliation from Democratic to Republican (as West Virginia’s governor recently did).
They included such familiar names as Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Stanford Morse, Jesse Helms, Bob Barr, Trent Lott, John Connally, Elizabeth Dole, Bill Bennett, Roy Moore, David Duke, and Rick Perry.
The GOP then began a steady move away from democracy and toward autocracy, openly embracing several dimensions of that form of governance.
Reagan/Bush advisor George W. Bush formed an alliance between the white protestant evangelical wing of Christianity and the Republican Party as both Reagan and Bush switched positions on a woman’s right to choose to get an abortion (Reagan had signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law as California governor, and Bush was an open supporter and fundraiser for Planned Parenthood). Soon politics was being preached from the pulpit, and hard-right Catholics changed parties as well. The GOP embraced theocracy, often referring to America as a “Christian nation.”
In 1971, tobacco lawyer Lewis Powell wrote his infamous “Powell Memo” urging billionaires and big corporations to create an oligarch-friendly infrastructure of think tanks, media operations and influence groups while putting partisans into colleges and universities and packing the courts.
The GOP embraced oligarchy, and the judges they appointed declared that giving politicians money in exchange for tax breaks, subsidies and other “favors” was no longer bribery or corruption but “Constitutionally-protected Free Speech.” Powell, who Nixon put on the Supreme Court in 1972, actually wrote the decision giving billionaires and corporations this “right.”
The Republican Party has now so openly embraced oligarchy that they continue to do the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, which is literally threatening the future survival of humanity, by promoting climate change denial and fighting any legislation to reduce atmospheric carbon.
The Republican Party began campaigning on racist slogans and memes like “Law and Order,” “War on Drugs,” and running ads featuring Black criminals like Willie Horton. With a few rare exceptions, Black politicians found the only party welcoming them were the Democrats; the GOP openly embraced white supremacy and racism, culminating in the Trump presidency and the Party’s current moral panic about Critical Race Theory.
The GOP’s current war on voting is another clear dimension of their embrace of autocracy, and now that they have laws in place in 17 states saying that partisans can decide which votes count and which will be thrown out, who can vote and who gets purged, it’s entirely possible — as numerous commentators have pointed out — that in 2024 a Republican could lose the popular vote by millions, and lose the electoral college vote with an initial count of the votes, but still be established in the White House. (The last Republican to take the White House with a majority of the popular vote was George HW Bush in 1988, but if these laws has been in place last year Donald Trump would now still be president.)
The Democratic Party hasn’t been entirely blameless through this period. Today in the Senate, for example, there are several Democrats (Joe Manchin being the most “famous” example) who are still deeply in the pockets of fossil fuel oligarchs. But overall Democrats have, by and large, aggressively embraced the idea of democracy in our republic.
As Thomas Paine — a fierce advocate for multiracial democracy in America — famously said, “These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but … [t]yranny, like hell, is not easily conquered...”
As a retired AP US History teacher I love your posts, but today would disagree with some of your labelling and a couple of points. I always argue that our founders created a landed aristocracy, where that aristocracy got to vote so they could call it a republic. By the 1830s when the franchise extended to most white males over 21, it became a white supremacist republic/democracy. Today's crazies, I think really want a theocracy - where Evangelical Christianity rules in much the same way as the Mullahs in Iran. The passage of Civil Rights legislation took a lot of northern Republicans. From the Senate website "On June 10, a coalition of 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats ended the filibuster when the Senate voted 71 to 29 for cloture, thereby limiting further debate. " I thoroughly agree that Nixon's Southern Strategy and the appointment of Lewis Powell was the beginning of the slide where we seem to be approaching the bottom. I'm glad you got to the point to say that Democrats are not blameless - they have welcomed Black votes but have done little to protect or advance rights when they are in power. We are definitely in an analogous time to Tom Pain'es American Crisis.
With the pandemic, the shock value of the Republican agenda is lost. Their overt actions and the legislation they have passed in the states so far speak for themselves. This next election cycle could be even harder to dissect than usual. Confusion, mayhem, along with their voter suppression, is exactly what they will sow. It is the stock and trade of the Trump brand that is also now the Republican brand. SHAME on them.