The past few years have seen dramatic challenges to liberal democratic systems of government around the world. It was not that long ago that hopes were rampant that democracy would triumph everywhere after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Francis Fukuyama notoriously declared that the victory of liberal democracy meant the end of history.
The prospect of a boring posthistorical liberal heaven without end turned out to be the illusion of the decade. Today publishers rush out titles on how democracies die and whether there is any hope of rescuing liberal democracy from a history that, far from ending, has instead turned cruel. The spectre that haunts Western states today is that of the German Weimar Republic (1919–1933), a brave experiment in democracy, liberalism and openness to progress that crashed and burned in the unspeakable violence of the reactionary Nazi conflagration.
History does not repeat itself, but it has been said that it does sometimes rhyme.
Weimar is a warning of how a vibrant democracy can fall victim to enemies from within who reject its fundamental premises. Major parties on the Weimar political spectrum like the Communists and Nazis never accepted the legitimacy of the Constitution, even as they contested elections. Both vowed to destroy the Republic, for diametrically opposed reasons. On the Right, traditional conservatives with deep ties to the powerful institutions of the state that preceded Weimar accepted the Republic only so long as its elections resulted in governments friendly to them and to the interests they supported.
Common ground between the warring sides of the spectrum was being eroded by the last days of the Republic. One side’s truth was the other side’s fake news. Civil debate and deliberation, staples of a functioning liberal democracy, had begun to degenerate into street battles between rival gangs of thugs. Trust in fellow citizens and in the institutions of the Republic were failing.
In 1933, parliamentary paralysis following successive inconclusive elections led conservatives to call Hitler to the Chancellery to form what purported to be a coalition of the Right, bringing together Nazis and more respectable right-wing parties. The conservatives’ catastrophic miscalculation was to believe they could control Hitler. Instead the Nazis immediately set about murdering or imprisoning opponents and declared the totalitarian Third Reich.
Contrary to common misconception, Weimar did not democratically vote the Nazis into power. In the Reichstag elections immediately preceding Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the Nazis’ previously meteoric rise had suffered a sharp reverse. Their momentum apparently broken, with defections and factionalism on the rise, they might well have continued on a downward spiral into eventual oblivion. It was the conservative parties, blinded by their extreme hatred and fear of the Left, that saved Hitler and doomed Germany and the world to the Nazi nightmare.
That is a chilling lesson for today of the Weimar debacle: when conservative parties in a bitterly polarized political system abandon faith that their values and goals can any longer be defended under liberal democracy, they may turn to nationalist-populist authoritarianism, the common thread linking the fascism of the 1930s to the various recent “strongmen” like Trump in the United States, Putin in Russia, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Erdoğan in Turkey. All of these purport to have a direct mandate from the “People” that may supersede institutional, legal and constitutional constraints, not to speak of the rule of law.
Conservative parties were once conservative about process as well as policy. The Eisenhower Republicans and the UK Tories in the 1950s accepted a grand compromise with the legacy of the New Deal and the postwar Labour government, behind the protective shield of Cold War unity. Alternation of left-centre and right-centre parties in office within this broad consensus posed no challenge to democratic legitimacy. Even the ideological triumph of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s did not challenge what might be called a procedural political consensus, still upheld by New Labour and Clinton Democrats in the 1990s, with no violent discontinuity resulting from party alternation.
In 1994 the first clear public notice of darker, more divisive forces rising within the Republican Party arrived with Newt Gingrich and his hardline “Contract with America” platform for the midterm elections of the first Clinton administration, which swept in a wave of uncompromising right-wingers and brought gridlock and shutdowns to Congress. Ever since, ideological polarization of the two parties in Congress has proceeded to the point where the traditional overlap in the centre, the ground for legislative compromise, has disappeared. This polarization is asymmetrical: for the most part, Democrats have not become more left-wing, but Republicans have become much more right-wing – and uncompromisingly so.
Trump Republicanism is a very particular kind of reactionary conservatism. Many analysts, including some on the Left, have claimed an economic class basis for Trump, discerning an abandonment of the working class by the Democrats, who are alleged to have become obsessed with the identity politics of race, gender, etc. to the exclusion of the old Left working-class agenda. This does not stand up to the evidence.
The working-class vote, in all its rainbow colours of race, ethnicity and gender, abandoned the Democrats neither in 2016 nor in 2020. Trump’s rise in the primaries and his election was associated most with White racial resentment of alleged minority gains. It was the White male working class that went over to Trump, but not mainly on economic grounds. It was their threatened status as standing above Blacks, other minorities and women that drove them into the arms of the Republicans. Far from a rejection of identity politics, it was a virulent assertion of White male working-class identity politics. This is a historical link to the Nazis, to whom Jews were the threat to Aryan supremacy. A century later, “Making America Great Again” means making multiracial America White again.
The drive toward re-establishing white supremacy is institutionally powered: Republican state legislatures have systematically gerrymandered House districts, exploiting the first-past-the-post voting system to impose minority rule over Congress. Add in red state laws ruthlessly suppressing the votes of Blacks, ethnic minorities and the poor, all disproportionately Democratic. In the eight presidential elections over the past three decades, only one produced a Republican majority of actual votes cast, even though the bizarre 18th-century contraption of the Electoral College produced three Republican “victories,” including that of Donald Trump in 2016 with a three-million-vote deficit in the actual, as opposed to Electoral College, world. When Trump lost in 2020 by more than seven million votes, the reaction of most Republicans was (and still is) to deny the legitimacy of the entire electoral process and simply declare their man the victor because he represents their declared “real America,” as opposed to the illegitimate America of the demographic (and Democratic) majority.
The Republicans are now objectively an antidemocratic party. Factoring in the obscenely extravagant influence of billionaires and megacorporations via an unrestricted political financing regime, one might see the Republicans simply as the party of plutocracy. But whiffs of American-style fascism also cling to Trump and his supporters, whiffs that became a stench with the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol by a violent rabble, some sporting Confederate flags and neo-Nazi insignia, demanding that Congress, about to affirm Joe Biden’s election, be suppressed in favour of a Trump dictatorship.
Thankfully, the Trump coup, like Hitler’s failed 1923 beerhall putsch, was a fiasco, for the same reasons that Trump’s presidency was a fiasco: empty bluster and incompetence in execution. Yet Hitler’s failed putsch was the platform for the subsequent rise of his Nazi party. The Republican Party, far from being chastened by the Capitol debacle, has doubled down on the claims of massive electoral fraud, and these claims are believed by a majority of Republican supporters. It is also doubling down on its opposition to the Biden agenda with the same intransigence that a Republican-dominated Congress exercised against Barack Obama over the last six years of his presidency. If Republicans, assisted by crass manipulation and vote suppression, manage to snuff out the fragile Democratic majority in the midterm elections in 2022 and reassert Trump or another far-right demagogue – perhaps more dangerously competent than Trump – in the 2024 presidential race, American democracy will be definitely lost. The Republican Party will have been its historical gravedigger.
Perhaps the worst will not come to pass. Perhaps Joe Biden will succeed in his 21st-century New Deal and help revitalize the American economy and society, in which case the Republicans will have to radically reform themselves if they wish to play a responsible oppositional role. Otherwise they will still cripple democracy, even as self-marginalized critics. Liberal democracy needs a responsible, civil conservative force to balance progressive forces from the Left and alternate peaceably with them in office. That requires trust on both sides. Republicans have withdrawn trust from their opponents; Democrats, in light of that reckless withdrawal, have in turn learned to profoundly distrust Republicans. No good will come to liberal democracy from politics practised as war with no prisoners.
Republican America is the worst case of the Right gone wrong, but Boris Johnson’s weirdly Jacobin-like Tory party has also come unhinged from its traditional moorings, with the breakup of the post-Brexit United Kingdom a not inconceivable result.
These two examples offer a useful warning to post-Harper Conservatives in Canada: think twice before venturing onto that dark terrain described in medieval maps as “Here be Dragons.” The dragons threatening democracy are not mythical, but only too real.
For more on the current political climate of the American right, check out Good Policies Are Not Enough by Henry Milner.