The GOP's Identity Crisis Is Everyone's Problem, Not Just Republicans'
A working democracy needs more than one rational party. Also: Russia and Navalny, Burma and Heroes, Democracy and the pandemic.
In this INSIGHT:
1. Why the GOP crisis is dangerous for everyone, including Democrats.
2. Putin tries to crush Navalny, shows his fear.
3. Burma coup creates a dilemma for the West.
4. Democracy has another terrible year.
1. The GOP’s Crisis is Dangerous for Democrats, for America, and for Democracy
When your rivals are divided and in turmoil, it may feel like they’re giving you reason to celebrate. But Democrats would be gravely mistaken if they think the contentious drama unfolding inside the Republican Party is good for them or, more importantly, for the country.
They may feel tempted to watch the GOP identity crisis as a spectator sport, but everyone, not just Republicans, has a stake in the outcome.
A functioning democracy requires at least two rational parties: Every country has policy disagreements, disputes about the best ways to achieve its goals, the best way to address challenges, and the preferred priorities for governing. The best democracies agree on basic facts and values, and then bring out competing ideas, debate them, and peacefully, if contentiously, choose a path forward. That’s the foundation of well-governed, successful countries.
That is not happening in the United States today.
The Republican Party is trying to choose, as its own Sen. Ben Sasse put it, between “conservatism and madness.”
Democrats may gain some temporary benefit from the GOP’s civil war. Recent events will surely cause at least some reasonable Republicans to question whether today’s GOP fits their values. But beyond the very short term, what is unfolding, the party’s continuous slide toward and growing acceptance of extremism, antisemitism, racism, and, yes, lunacy, is potentially disastrous for all. A weakened American democracy, it’s worth noting, is harmful to democracy around the world.
The current GOP drama pits those who accept reality as it is, and those who, in allegiance to former President Donald Trump, insist on rejecting truth on a number of fronts. So far, the war is being won by the Trumpist, reality-denying faction.
The most visibly extreme example of the reality-denying caucus is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who has promoted all manner of deranged antisemitic, racist, Clinton and Obama-obsessed fantasies, from claiming wealthy Jewish financiers used a “space laser” to start the California wildfires, to blaming the Clintons for crashing JFK Jr.’s plane.
She’s the most extreme example, but the majority of the party’s members of Congress refused to certify the results of the 2020 election, and tolerance for mind-boggling absurdities and bigotry has become commonplace. Those who challenge the tolerance for madness now routinely come under fire. See, for example, the attacks on Kinzinger (pictured above) and Sasse.
What the United States needs is a Republican Party that is unequivocally grounded in reality, that rejects extremism, and offers reasonable, legitimate policy alternatives to its rival’s. But that’s not what GOP is today.
How times have changed. Just two years ago, Republicans stripped Rep. Steve King, another recalcitrant racist, of his committee assignments. This time, the party decided Greene is okay to stay in their “very big tent,” as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it in a stunningly disingenuous performance.
Rep. King’s racist statements, deeply offensive as they were, looked like soft-boiled oatmeal compared to the poisonous, violence-inciting garbage Greene is spewing, complete with assault rifles threatening Democrats and suggestions of a “bullet to the head” of Nancy Pelosi. But the GOP refused to deprive her of her committee assignments, much less expel her from the party.
The issue is not, as I wrote for CNN, about free speech, contrary to what some claim.
“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and there's no prohibition against believing crazy ideas. But that does not mean that those who promote offensive notions — some of which have had deadly consequences — should be granted respect, honor and power…”
There are many reasons to worry. For one, Republicans are reversing years of progress. Ideas that were once so abhorrent they would not be tolerated in polite society have found a home in the GOP.
Refusing to ostracize an extremist hurts the party, but it also hurts the country.
“By embracing Greene, Republicans are moving the Overton window, the range of views that are considered politically acceptable. Unfortunately, that has an impact on the entire country, however much the Democrats try to correct for the moral failings of Republicans.”
Worse, the centrist, moderate slice of the GOP is growing thinner, gradually vanishing. Republican extremists — some Trump cultists, some afraid of Trump cultists — are taking over. Again, that could sound like good news to Democrats, who may think it will cost Republicans at the polls. But the reality is that in the mid-term elections, Republicans have a very good chance of capturing one or both chambers of Congress.
I remember in 2016, when Trump was running in the Republican primaries, I heard some Clinton fans say it would be good if he took the nomination, because Trump was so outrageous that he would be easier to beat than more “normal” candidates. Trump won the nomination. Then won the presidency, and he became even more outrageous.
The best condition for American democracy — and hence for global democracy — is for the United States to have two reasonable, rational parties offering competing ideas, while agreeing on what is true, what is fact, and sharing fundamental premises and values about the country’s goals going all the way back to that founding creed that all people are created equal, and that democracy, including the outcome of fair elections, should be respected.
2. Navalny’s Superhuman Courage, Putin’s Fear, Russians’ Defiance
Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to kill Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic who has made a name for himself by uncovering and publicizing the depth of the corruption of the Putin regime. After surviving an assassination attempt and recovering in Germany, Navalny returned to Moscow, showing nerves of steel. He knew what would happen.
He was arrested at the airport and immediately did two things: He called on Russians to protest, and he had his team post a jaw-dropping YouTube video describing Putin’s new mansion by the Black Sea. The video has English subtitles. Check it out.
This week, Putin’s judiciary sent Navalny to prison for almost three years, on the ridiculous grounds that he failed to keep up with the terms of his probation while he was in a coma after the assassination attempt.
Navalny skewered Putin in the courtroom, declaring, “It’s the duty of every person to defy you,” and writing Putin’s epitaph:
“He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. We all remember Alexander the Liberator [Alexander II] and Yaroslav the Wise [Yaroslav I]. Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants — that’s how he will go down in history.”
To Russians, he said:
“I hope very much that people won’t look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. All this — the National Guard, the cage — isn’t a demonstration of strength — it’s a show of weakness, nothing but weakness! You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will increasingly realize this. And once they do — and such a moment will come — this whole thing will fall to pieces because you can’t lock up the whole country.”
3. A Coup in Burma, a Dilemma for Democracy Advocates
In another dramatic reversal for democracy, the generals in Burma (Myanmar) launched yet another coup, imprisoning a number of top officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto president, and a very complicated figure for democracy advocates around the world.
I wrote about it in my World Politics Review column.
“A decade ago, Suu Kyi was a shining star. But today, she is known as a defender of ethnic cleansing and perhaps even genocide. Should democracies forcefully demand her release, or should their reaction be more muted in view of her recent defense of appalling actions by the military in the government she led, if not completely controlled?... It was precisely because Western governments and activists had worked so hard to support her and her cause that her fall from grace felt like a rebuke, a personal betrayal.”
The struggle for democracy in Burma was never just about Suu Kyi. The world should demand the military return the country to a path that leads to democracy, even if the old hero fell from her pedestal.
4. A Terrible Year for Democracy
It’s not just the United States, Russia and Burma. The past year was another dismal one for democracy. The pandemic only helped autocrats tighten their grip during a time when the autocratic drift was already in full force.
The elections in the United States will, I expect, become a powerful counterforce against that trend, but the trend is powerful. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index registered a steep decline across the world, reaching its lowest level on record.
That’s all for this edition. See you next time. Until then —
Stay safe; stay informed; stay engaged.