Sean Wilentz: The Republican Plan to Subvert American Democracy

Sean Wilentz, writing in Dissent (Winter 2004):

Over the past ten years, there has been a growing gap in perception over the state of American democracy. The vast majority of the Washington press corps-including many pundits critical of the Bush administration-is inclined to see what has happened (and is happening) as basically hard-knuckled politics as usual. The fights may sound harsher, the media blare may be much louder, the reigning politics may be more conservative than anyone expected-but the basic institutions of American democracy are, supposedly, secure. Those like economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who disagree, and who see something more dangerous unfolding, are branded as wild radicals, or paranoids, or both-and, as Krugman has mordantly observed, they receive the wild hate mail and e-mails that prove it.

There is, of course, always a danger of paranoia setting in at a time of intense polarization, when one political party controls all three branches of the federal government-all the more so when that party in charge looks less like the usual coalition of internally contending forces than a disciplined army. Such is certainly the case today, especially in Washington, where a virtually unanimous Republican Party-the House Republicans whipped into shape by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Senate Republicans only slightly less unified, both houses well coordinated with the adamantine Bush White House, and the Rehnquist Court standing by as the final forum-makes the Democratic minority look like a chorus of scorched cats. But isn't this just the result of the Republicans' superior political skills-playing the rules of the game to the utmost, always keeping their eyes on their prizes?

The Republicans' occasional failures-notably, in the fights over a few high-profile federal judiciary appointments, including that of Miguel Estrada-suggest that democracy still works well enough, that Madisonian checks and balances are still checking and balancing. Those failures even suggest that grassroots opposition organizing can still have some impact in national politics. If only the Democrats would consistently get their act together (so the argument goes), if only they could take advantage of the fact that the public supports their positions on leading issues, if only they could field a candidate with forceful credentials on foreign policy and the military (hence, the instant initial boom for General Wesley Clark), then the political scene would look very different.

Some of this is plausible, some of this is true, but all of it misses that something truly worrisome is happening here-a clear and present danger to democracy, posed by the leadership of the Republican Party. In his latest book, The Great Unraveling, Krugman charges that the current Republican regime is not "conservative" or even normal within the customary boundaries of American politics: it is controlled by abnormal radicals, who will stop at nothing to impose their right-wing ideology on the country. The origins of that abnormality long predate the younger Bush presidency or even the struggle over Florida in 2000. Its successes have already done great damage to our institutions....

[Mr. Wilentz then cites examples of alleged Republican perfidiousness ranging from the scrubbing of Florida election rolls in 2000 to prevent blacks from voting, to the successful attempts in Texas and Colorado to gerrymander congressional districts in favor of Republicans just two years after the state's districts had already been established according to the most recent census.]

Whatever the motivation, the Republicans' partisan assault on democracy displays a will to power unlike any seen in our country since the fire-eater secessionist movement of the 1850s that led to the creation of the southern Confederacy. In 1856, the antidemocratic secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett bellowed that "a complete revolution" had turned the federal government into "a sheer despotism," which could only be overcome by denying the national will by any means necessary-including disunion. The current Republican Party has no need for secessionism (although its pandering to racist Confederate sensibilities in the South has long been one of its key political weapons). What it shares with the fire-eaters is an implacable will to dominate and a combination of cynicism and contempt for our democratic constitutional procedures. This is not hard-knuckled politics as usual. It is radical and abnormal. It has already degraded American democracy. And it portends a crisis in our politics as great as any since the era of Reconstruction.

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Harley R. Miller - 2/8/2004

I would offer only the mildest of dissent from Wilentz. For many reasons the populace of this democracy is divided 50.1% vs 49.9% on almost every importand issue before us. Not only the electorate but the executive branch, both houses of congress, and the judiciary reflect those deep divisions. The 2000 election is only the most obvious example.

Due to a combination of luck, hard work, devious manipulation, and/or some "infinite number of monkeys..." principle, we all woke up in early 2001 with all three branches of our government in the hands of one political party, the conservative Republicans. 50.1% or 49.9% of the people (depending on one's political leanings) suddenly controlled 99% of the government.

Despite the narrowness of the political victory, which could have produced a modicum of humility, having and exercising 99% of the power is intoxicating as all hell and has produced and rampant arrogance (and unimaginable giddiness) from the right. The resultant dissonance will produce one of the hardest fought and likely most important (and negative) election cycles in recent times as our constitutional system tries to regain some sense of equalibrium that will once again represents all of the electorate. Oh, how I miss gridlock! A very real and intense political battle has been joined. Get ready to see a lot more history as it is being made.

Hans Vought - 2/4/2004

When historians write history, they immerse themselves in the evidence, sorting through it, evaluating it, piecing its clues together to construct a coherent narrative that makes sense of the past. Unfortunately, it seems that many historians fail to apply the same caution and rigorous standards when they turn to commentary on current events. They disregard the reality that we do not have sufficient evidence yet to judge the present, and they are far more credulous of those sources they want to believe and skeptical of those that they don't want to believe than they would be in the context of "doing history." More damaging to their credibility, historians engage in ad hominem attacks on all those who disagree, failing to show the respect they would show to colleagues in the halls of academe.

I do not know if the current Republican Party leadership is engaged in a sinister conspiracy to subvert American democracy. Neither does Dr. Wilentz. Yet he categorically asserts this to be true nevertheless. Considering how often historical interpretations change over time, as new evidence is uncovered or existing evidence is reexamined, one might expect more caution in making such serious charges without even the benefit of sufficient evidence. Certainly historians, as responsible citizens, have the right - and indeed, duty - to participate in public debate. But if we do so with blatant disregard for our professional standards, we discredit not only ourselves, but our profession. It raises doubts about how carefully we handle historical evidence in our published work and in our classroom.

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