Shortly before the November election, when most polls predicted an election blowout for Democrats, many pundits predicted the collapse of the GOP. “Of all the things President Trump has destroyed,” wrote the New York Times editorial board, “the Republican Party is among the most dismaying.”
It didn’t work out that way. Not only did Republicans hold the Senate — at least until the January runoff for both of Georgia’s Senate seats is decided — they gained seats in the House and strengthened their grip on state legislatures. It seems that rather than die, conservative political parties evolve. The question is: Evolve into what?
According to the V-Dem research institute in Sweden, the GOP shares important characteristics with ruling parties of at least four “illiberal democracies”: Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey. Liberal democracies limit the power of rulers and protect individual rights through rule of law and the practice of democratic norms by authoritative institutions. Illiberal democracies emerge when autocrats reach office through nominally democratic means and dismantle apolitical civil services, independent media, and impartial judiciaries. Conspiracy theories and disinformation fill the remaining epistemological void, violating shared norms for settling differences and rewriting the narratives about who we are as a nation.
The question has been asked before, in different contexts, but it persists: How did we get here?
In his analysis of European conservative parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harvard political historian Daniel Ziblatt concludes that for democracy to survive, conservative parties must run effective campaigns in competitive elections. Yet doing so presents a dilemma. How can parties aligned with economic elites make broad and effective popular appeals to working- and middle-class voters? Ziblatt argues that there are two ways out of this conservative dilemma. One path preserves liberal democracy while the other destroys it.
To follow the first path, conservative parties must run on non-economic crosscutting issues that appeal to a broad cross section of the public. In the opening decades of the 20th century, the British Conservative Party, for example, ran successfully on a broadly popular pro-monarchy, pro-Anglican Church, anti-Irish independence platform. Assisting the Conservatives were effective yet subordinate “surrogate organizations.” Single-issue groups, religious blocs, and aligned media outlets offer examples of these political surrogates.
As essential as they are for party success, surrogates can be dangerous. By championing extreme views to a smaller but deeply committed subset of citizens, conventional center-right parties may become radicalized. Herein lie the seeds of illiberalism. As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it, “Reliance on surrogates can thus lead a party down the path to extremism.” This is the second way out of a conservative dilemma. When conservative parties lose confidence in their ability to compete effectively in fair and free elections, they may use aligned extremist surrogate organizations to undermine democracy itself. When these radical factions still fail to produce electoral majorities, conservative parties often resort to varying mixes of electoral rigging, clientelism, corruption, and propaganda to hold onto power. Such is the state of today’s Republican Party.
How did the party of Lincoln become the party of illiberal democracy? Richard Nixon’s 1968 “Southern Strategy” used resistance to desegregation as a crosscutting issue designed to peel away white voters from the Democratic Party. Along the way, religion, abortion, and guns were added to the mix of GOP coalition issues. But the GOP’s racist dog-whistle appeals, inspired decades ago, and the supplementary groups added since, are no longer enough to win general elections.
Consider the race factor. In 2016, 71 percent of the eligible electorate was white and Trump won 57 percent of them. He captured the same percentage of white voters in 2020, but they were a smaller (65-67) percentage of the electorate. These trends reflect a steady decline from around 80 percent of the eligible electorate in 1996, to a white minority in 2045. As race becomes a less decisive issue for the GOP, its surrogates have pulled the party ever deeper into unhinged extremist positions on climate, guns, race-based nationalism, and health care. With the assistance of right-wing media and digital platforms, the GOP has doubled down on all manner of fearmongering to complement its voter suppression measures.
All of this suggests that the descent of the GOP into illiberalism did not begin with Trump’s ride down an escalator five years ago. It started with the party’s Faustian bargain with racism, along with its embrace of billionaire backers who fund elections, think tanks, and media networks producing propaganda for extremists. All of this serves as a distraction from decades-long strategies to legalize voter suppression.
As a result, the future of American democracy will not be resolved by Trump’s departure from the White House. It will require the party of Lincoln to again embrace democracy.
Steven Livingston is professor and founding director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University. W. Lance Bennett is professor of political science at the University of Washington. They are co-editors of “The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology, and Disruptive Communication in the United States.”