Is Magical Realism Possible In American Politics?

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the dysfunction of modern politics, which according to many polls from democracies where polls can be more or less trusted, is leading to declining support for democracy is democracies themselves.

The bottom line is that people in democracies are losing faith in in the ability of their political systems to deliver what they really want—a better life for them and their children. There is plenty of inferential evidence that people in authoritarian countries or those with hybrid democratic/authoritarian regimes feel pretty much the same, but they don’t have a choice anymore.

A recent poll taken in the US reflects this general feeling of dysfunctional politics in an interesting way. It separated the people polled into three self-declared political identities: Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. The three categories were asked the same question: were they fearful about the US losing its democracy? Amazingly, all three groups responded that, yes, they were fearful about losing democracy.

It is very difficult to square this with the situation on the ground, where clearly it is the only the Republican Party that is a danger to democracy; it has become an anti-democracy party. It seeks, for example, to limit access to voting through legislation in Republican states that aims directly at minorities, while the Senate Republicans uses the minority power that Senate procedures give them to block all efforts of the Democrats to pass national legislation that protects voting rights. This kabuki dance goes on at the national level on most issues including many that are very popular across party lines with the public.

So, the follow up question is why the Republicans in this poll are so fearful that American democracy is in mortal danger. If the answer is just some variation of “because the Democrats are in power,” then it would be easy to dismiss the entire poll as meaningless and reflecting the partisan divide that is the main cause of the dysfunctionality of American politics. But a large proportion of those Republicans evidently responded that US democracy was in danger because the Democrats had cheated and stolen the 2020 election. In other words, these Republicans have swallowed hook, line, and sinker the “big lie” that Donald Trump has been broadcasting since he lost the election nearly a year ago. Trump’s “big lie” has been thoroughly rejected by every election expert in the country, of either party. Yet the greater part of the Republican Party continues to believe it.

This should make the rest of us even more fearful for American democracy than we already were. When the elected Republican officials—to Congress, State legislatures, City Councils, et. al.—mouth this mantra, we can be pretty sure most do not believe it, but feel compelled to support the party line. This is bad enough in itself as it clearly demonstrates that the level of hypocrisy in modern American politics is staggeringly high (and we know that hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics almost everywhere).
What happened on January 6 was in fact an unsuccessful attempt at a coup

Fear of losing their position, elected or not, compels them to put party over country their personal interests over national interests. Yes, the Republican Party has become a cult based on fear of its vindictive leader. But when the answer to this question from the party’s base comes from a mass delusion, one that many people will feel so passionate about that recourse to violence is close at hand, we are in serious trouble. This poll is further evidence that it is the firm attachment to this delusion by the core of Republican voters that keeps the Republican officials still voicing support for the “big lie” despite its clear, proven mendacity.

One of the scarier aspects of the result of this poll, as they are described by the media, is that many of those Republicans who were polled and cited the “big lie” as the source of their concern for democracy went on to remark that it was the canard (my word, certainly not theirs) of the stolen election that led to the violent insurgent attack on the capital on January 6.

It seems that in their view, that attack was justified, and implied that a second such attack would not be unjustified. Though no one has remarked on this yet that I know of, this would mark the base of the Republican Party as a rightwing revolutionary party. We may have the rightwing version of the Bolshevik Party in America.

The Democratic-controlled Congress got a late start looking into January 6 violent attack on the Congress during its meeting to certify the vote that elected Joe Biden as President. Readers will certainly know of the January 6 attack, the first violent insurrection against the US government since the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, a federal installation near Charleston, South Carolina in April 1861 that marked officially, the outbreak of the Civil War. The clearly insurrectionist mob of January 6 intended to force the Congress to annul the certified results of the November 2020 election. That it was not successful, like the attack that started the Civil War, is due to a lack of planning, coordination, and plain stupidity on the part of its organizers, and more importantly, because when it counted, our institutions and our political system retained enough strength to see it off.

But it was not a sure thing, and the threat of another such try being successful is not inconsiderable. What happened on January 6 was in fact an unsuccessful attempt at a coup. But as history tells us, when a major political party has reached the point that most of its adherents believe a violent resistance and a coup d’état is a viable option and may be needed to save their country, trouble lies ahead. I see a foreboding resemblance between the present situation and those dark days in 1861. When the people of the slave states thought their way of life was going to disappear, they found no other solution than violent resistance and separation.

This is not to be interpreted as some sort of apologia for the shameful fact that slavery, practiced only in one region of a vast country, disgraced the United States for the first 80 years of its existence. (I come from deep anti-slavery roots; my father’s ancestral family decamped from its home when Kentucky legalized slavery in 1800; my great grandfather joined the Union army in 1861 and fought in the Western campaign under Sherman throughout the entire war.) I am only drawing attention to the parallel: a portion of our population in 1861 believed that something they valued, although viewed as morally repugnant by the majority of the nation’s people, was being taken away and went to war to prevent it; in 2021 a significant portion of our population, overwhelmingly white, believes its dominance is being taken away by cultural change and the rise of minorities; in other words, their way of life is being taken away. But, in a subtle sense, this sense of depredation by Republican voters is as almost, if not equally, morally repugnant as the willingness to fight to maintain slavery, as it is based down deep in the psyche on a disregard for minorities and people of color, and a wish to maintain social and economic dominance over them.

In any case, after failing to get bipartisan support for a committee investigation of the January 6 attack, the Democrats chose to pursue it on their own. The idea was to emulate the 9/11 commission which was a truly bipartisan investigation into the terrorist attack on the US, and is the “gold standard” of Congressional investigations. Two brave and non-Trumpian House members joined the committee, which gives it some credence as bipartisan, and it labors away with a heavy work agenda and a number of hearings coming up in the next few months. Its first set of investigations involve how connected with the violent mob which invaded the Capitol were members of the administration and/or the unofficial band of informal advisors around President Trump. It is impossible not to remember that the President spoke to the crowd that was assembled that day immediately before it trekked to the Capital and forced it way in, and began to fight with the Capital Police. The committee has subpoenaed witnesses and documents, and we don’t know yet what level of cooperation it is receiving from persons subpoenaed or invited to give testimony or provide documents The exception, so far, is Steve Bannon one of Trump’s most constant supporters. Bannon, an “agent provocateur” if there ever was one, was one, is apparently suspected of being deeply involved in the planning of the January 6 attack. He has refused to appear or hand over documents. The committee, in order to show it means business, cited Mr. Bannon for criminal contempt of Congress, the first such charge in 40 years. All eyes are now on the Department of Justice, and the Biden Administration, to see if it will give the committee real teeth by sending Mr. Bannon to jail. Failure to do so, which the Republicans are betting on, will render the committee toothless, and give the Republicans reason to dismiss its findings as “partisan.” But if Mr. Bannon ends up in jail, the other witnesses now already called, and those the committee is likely to call, may provide the committee with enough evidence of Republican fingerprints on the January 6 attack to undermine Trump’s “big lie” even in the minds of those of his supporters who are not yet fully mesmerized. Even many Democrats wonder if their current leadership is up to playing real hard ball, and wish Lyndon Johnson would magically reappear.


The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.