Democracy dies without accountability. The democratic system is built on our ability to know what our representatives are doing and kick officials out of office as a corrective to poor performance.
This is how the mechanism is supposed to work: Candidates tell us what they want to do if they are elected. They give us honest information about their platforms which we use to decide how to vote. In office, officials attempt to enact their campaign agenda. Then they run for re-election on their record, defending it honestly and on a level playing field against challengers who criticize it fairly. We assess the record of incumbents and the promises of challengers, and if we’re unhappy with how we’re being represented, we make a change.
You probably see the problem here. At every juncture, the process has been undermined by those who do not want to be held accountable for their actions in office. We are inundated with false information, bankrolled by freely flowing supplies of dark money from unidentified contributors whose interests would never withstand public scrutiny. Most congressional incumbents can leverage the advantages of their office to make sure their re-election bids are non-competitive before would-be opponents have a chance to organize a campaign. The connection between public preferences and public officials is weakened or severed.
Of course, the democratic ideal has always been elusive. Officials since the beginning of the republic have misrepresented their opponents’ positions and re-written their own records to avoid being held responsible for unpopular actions, and incumbents of both parties are more than happy to perpetuate a system that makes this easy to do. But what happens when the effort to avoid accountability is systematic, organized, well-funded and total? What happens when one party takes a hammer to the institutions that protect democratic accountability in order to remain in power long after their expiration date?
That’s what we’re experiencing today, and what we have been experiencing ever since the coalition that once propelled the Republican Party to landslide national victories began to unravel earlier this century. Whether in the guise of preventing non-existent voter fraud by pushing registration restrictions that fall disproportionately on core Democratic voters, repealing early voting laws that boosted Democratic participation, aggressively gerrymandering congressional and state legislative districts to dilute the influence of Democratic constituencies, denying the legitimacy of a duly elected president while working to make him fail, or maintaining a media empire that disseminates false information, the Republican coalition began breaking norms, curtailing rights and damaging democratic institutions as the country drifted away from Reagan conservatism and the Republican platform was reduced to reflexive tax cuts for the one percent, deregulation and, with Trump, xenophobia and fear.
One of the most brazen attacks on the political system concluded when the Senate Republican majority confirmed Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court earlier this month, the last move in a power play that began the day Antonin Scalia died over one year ago. Republicans understood that an Obama appointee to Scalia’s seat threatened to restore political accountability and recalibrate the political playing field against them by shattering the Court’s support for corporate personhood, reversing blatant gerrymandering and restoring voting rights. Without hesitation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reacted to this existential threat to his power with brute force, concocting a flimsy cover story about the necessity to wait until after the presidential election to consider Scalia’s replacement, defiantly refusing to hold hearings on Obama’s universally respected nominee Merrick Garland, and nuking the Democrat’s ability to filibuster Gorsuch. McConnell calculated that his party would not be held accountable at the ballot box for these actions. He was correct.
Had Republicans succeeded in electing Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, this would likely have been the end of the story. However, in exchange for the opportunity to preserve, for now, the Court’s right-leaning majority, McConnell and his partisan allies have been forced to pledge allegiance to Donald Trump. As odious as many of them may find him, and as damaging as he has been to the Republican brand (to say nothing of the country), they have thus far held their noses and enabled his behavior in order to hold on to their power by securing the seat for Gorsuch. In a fundamental sense, seating Gorsuch is what elite Republican support for Trump has been about.
But the price Trump is imposing on the party may turn out to be greater than the price the party is imposing on the democratic system. Trump campaigned as an outsider but no one could more fully embody longstanding Republican disdain for accountability than the president who has never accepted responsibility for anything while disregarding precedent, norms, facts and promises whenever it suits him. The problem he poses for Republicans isn’t his behavior as much as the way he flaunts it. They would be happy to let him promise one thing and do another if he could get away with it. But through the toxic combination of divisive actions, angry rhetoric and unparalleled incompetence, Trump is threatening to expose his enablers as morally and intellectually bankrupt. He has put the entire party in the crosshairs of an energized resistance, elevating the likelihood that they will face a moment of accountability from those eager to shine light on what the Republican Party has been doing. I’ll have more to say about that in future posts.