How The Radical Right Took American Politics Hostage

Through fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and voter suppression tactics, the far-right has poisoned America's political discourse in pursuit of power.
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders, listen to a briefing in the Laurel conference room at Camp David, Saturday, January 6, 2018, near Thurmont, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders, listen to a briefing in the Laurel conference room at Camp David, Saturday, January 6, 2018, near Thurmont, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

Writing an op-ed column “Why Republicans Play Dirty” in The New York Times, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe recent efforts by Republican executives and legislators – at both the state and federal levels – to subvert the norms of constitutional democracy. Not mincing their words, the two Harvard University political scientists write: “Republicans across the country seem to have embraced an ‘any means necessary’ strategy to preserve their power.” They then elaborate by citing a substantial list of successful rule-bending and rule-breaking efforts by Republicans to retain their grip on political power.

Their list includes – egregious attempts to gerrymander state legislative and congressional districts in such a way as to maximize the number of GOP seats well out of proportion to the number of votes cast for their candidates; so that the number of seats won by GOP candidates far exceeds the percentage of voters who actually supported them at the polls. Of particular concern is the matter of ‘voter suppression’. Overall, this technique involves manipulating the rules governing the conduct of elections to discourage or prevent citizens that GOP decision-makers believe will vote for Democratic candidates from casting ballots.

“Voter suppression” encompasses a number of schemes, including: 1) making voter registration harder by the passage of discriminatory ‘ID’ laws, 2) requiring, among other things, photographic evidence the would-be voter is who he/she claims to be, 3) purging the voter rolls of individuals who fail to cast ballots in the previous election, 4) reducing the number of polling stations in districts unlikely to vote for GOP candidates, 5) reducing the number of hours the polls are open, and 6) actually phoning African-American and Latino voters misinforming them about the times and dates elections will be held.

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For example, during the 2018 congressional elections, the GOP dominated North Dakota legislature enacted a law requiring all voters to provide their street addresses before they would be permitted to cast ballots. Legislators were aware that native-Americans living on reservations normally didn’t possess numbered home addresses.

At the national level, Levitsky and Ziblatt pay particular attention to recent Supreme Court appointments. They refer to the 2016 refusal by the GOP majority in the Senate under the leadership of Senator Mitch McConnell to consider the appointment of President Obama’s nominee for the post (Merrick Garland), waiting for close to a year for the subsequently elected President Trump to choose someone else – Neil Gorsuch – who was then confirmed by the Senate in 2017.

What explains the Republican Party’s win at any price behavior, behavior that comes close to the Law and Justice Party’s rule in Poland and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz and “illiberal democracy” in Hungary? Levitsky and Ziblatt’s answer is that the GOP’s “constitutional hardball” more than anything else is based on fear and the loss of status. Their answer is based largely on demographic changes presently underway in the U.S. They note the GOP ‘base’ is heavily composed of white male Christians, and aging ones at that. Their judgment is certainly worth quoting:

“White Christians are losing more than an electoral majority: their once-dominant status is eroding. Half a century ago, white Protestant men occupied nearly all our country’s high status positions: They made up nearly all the elected officials, business leaders and media figures. Those days are over, but the loss of a group’s social status can feel deeply threatening.”

Loss of status as an explanation for anti-democratic politics has a familiar ring to it. As the late American baseball legend, Yogi Berra once put it: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” In fact, the loss of status or ‘status anxiety’ was employed by an influential group of social scientists to account for the rise of the radical right in the U.S. from the middle of the 1950s through the early 1960s (see especially, Daniel Bell ed., The Radical Right Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963). Daniel Bell and his collaborators sought to explain the appearances of the John Birch Society, Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, the Minutemen, the Reverend Billy James Hargis, Freedom Forum, For America, the Dan Smoot Report, Dean Clarence Mannion, and a substantial list of local far-right radio commentators. Why in the space of a few years did these groups and individuals achieve prominence?

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Looking back to the middle of the 1950s through the early 1960s, Bell’s explanation for the emergence of the radical right phenomenon proceeds at two levels. According to the first: “The stock-in-trade of the radical right rests on a threefold appeal: the breakdown of moral fiber in the United States; a conspiracy theory of a ‘control apparatus’ in the government which is selling out the country; and a detailed forecast regarding the Communist ‘takeover’ of the United States.”

These fears of a domestic communist conspiracy operating at the highest levels of the American government are explicable in terms – of Richard Hofstadter’s well-known description – of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. But Bell sought a more ‘social’ explanation to account for the appearance of a radical right at this point in American history.

By his account, there were certain ‘social strains’ at work on American life during these years that explain the emergence of the radical right. The country’s old elites were being displaced by a new generation of highly educated and technologically sophisticated business leaders and those taking over the old professions and creating new ones. Among the ‘dispossessed’, Bell mentions “the independent physician, farm owner, small-town lawyer, real estate promoter, home builder, automobile dealer, gasoline station owner, small businessman – and the like.”

Some Americans – holding older middle or lower-middle-class jobs and suffering from a long-term loss of social status – reacted by supporting the various radical right groups mentioned above in the hope of restoring a bygone era. The GOP took advantage of this through their use of the racist Southern Strategy. How does Bell’s declining status explanation (circa 1962) compare to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s recent explanations for the current behavior of the GOP?

There are certain similarities. Fears of a domestic communist conspiracy (the founder of the John Birch Society accused President Eisenhower of supporting the communist cause!) have been replaced by suspicions of a ‘deep state’ impervious to control by elected officials. Moreover, worries about a communist menace have been replaced also by attacks on ‘socialism’ and ‘cultural marxism’, variously defined. In addition, right-wing concerns about the country’s moral decline are still with us – the fight over abortion appears illustrative of this.

The big difference between the two accounts is scale. For Bell, the radical right was a marginal phenomenon detached from the mainstream of American politics, something of a curiosity. On the other hand, for Levitsky and Ziblatt, the GOP’s status-driven subversion of liberal democratic principles represents a major menace to constitutional government, and is one that threatens its long-term survival.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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News // CARR / Donald Trump Jr. / Radical Right / Republican Party / Voter Suppression