When a political party that was previously committed to the norms and rules of a democratic society begins to descend into dangerous political extremism, there are a number of key warning signs.
As previous TDS Strategy Memos have noted, among the first is the widespread adoption of the philosophy of “politics as warfare.” TDS has documented this change in the thinking of the Republican Party and along with it the rise of other disturbing trends such as the acceptance of measures to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters and the idea that it is legitimate to paralyze the operations of government in order to achieve partisan political objectives.
Another very significant and dangerous warning sign of growing political extremism, however, becomes evident when a political party embraces the idea that any expression of opposition to its extremist political agenda – even if expressed through entirely legitimate democratic channels — is actually quasi-fascist in character and presents a threat to democracy rather than being an example of democracy in action.
As Republicans have encountered powerful and widespread public opposition to their 2010 agenda, they have increasingly begun to express this view. In recent weeks the following quite disturbing notions have been circulated in the Republican and conservative world.
• That recall elections are not exercises in democracy but rather attacks on democracy.
• That when members, financial contributors and observers of a non-profit organization protest actions with which they disagree, they are behaving as “gangsters”, “bullies” and “totalitarians.”
• That when the actions of powerful individuals are “exposed to the public view,” this represents “releasing the liberal thugs on them”, “intimidation” and “corrodes democracy.”
• That when Democrats decide to use the same fundraising techniques as Republicans, noting as justification the role of wealthy funders like the Koch Brothers on the conservative side, this represents “an attack on [those individuals] first amendment rights” and an attempt to “intimidate and silence” them.
As Democrats will quickly note, in each of these cases there are comparable or even more extreme examples of precisely the same behavior on the Republican and conservative side that long pre-date the current examples (e.g. the demonizing of George Soros or the organizing of boycotts against companies with gay-friendly or pro-choice policies).
But the existence of a double standard is a secondary issue. Far more important is the fact that these current Republican/conservative criticisms are not directed at the substance of the particular debates in question but rather at challenging the basic legitimacy of exercising democratic rights themselves.
This point must be strongly emphasized and underlined. Actions such as (1) supporting recall election campaigns, (2) deciding to criticize or withdraw financial or other support from an organization with which a person disagrees, or (3) criticizing or publicizing the actions of individuals whose actions materially affect American political life are all actions that are utterly, absolutely and entirely legal and democratic in character – regardless of whether it is progressives or conservatives who engage in them. The deeply troubling underlying implication behind the recent conservative criticisms of these actions is the view that when such challenges are directed against Republicans or conservatives they are inherently illegitimate, thuggish and undemocratic.
In the paragraphs below several clear examples of this trend can be seen. In each case the clearly and explicitly expressed opinion is that democratic resistance against Republican or conservative views is inherently thuggish and undemocratic.
1. That recall elections are not exercises of democracy but rather an attack on democracy.
Here is a recent op-ed from the Washington Post Op-Ed writer Charles Lane:
I had supposed that Walker’s victory in 2010, along with the victory of Republicans in both houses of the state legislature, entitled the people’s choices to make policy until the next election. I had not realized that Wisconsin’s voters were allowed to elect representatives to do everything except change the rules on collective bargaining.
“But Walker never campaigned on curtailing union rights!” his opponents cry. What rule of American democracy says that public officials may do only what they explicitly promised before taking office, and nothing else?
… it would be a disaster to cut [Walker’s] term in half at the behest of a special interest group. That would confirm Wisconsin’s public-sector unions as the state’s de facto rulers, which really would be the end of democracy.
It is impossible to read this argument without logically inferring that elections with which the author agrees necessarily represent “the people’s choice” – even if the candidate concealed his actual agenda during the campaign — while equally democratic recall elections with whose results the author disagrees represent “the end of democracy.” This is, to put it mildly, a rather chilling conception of what the word democracy actually means.
2. That when members, financial contributors and observers of a non-profit organization protest actions with which they disagree, they are behaving as “gangsters”, “bullies” and “totalitarians.”
Here is a quick, very partial round-up of conservative reaction to the groundswell of protest over the Kamen Foundation’s plan to cut off funding for breast cancer screenings coordinated by Planned Parenthood:
The National Review’s Daniel Foster lashed out at the political left for the “gangsterism” it had unleashed on the Komen foundation. Editor Kathryn Lopez denounced the left’s “bullying.” Rush Limbaugh pinned the blame on “feminazis,” while the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto accused Planned Parenthood’s supporters of engaging in “totalitarian feminism.”
What completely contradicts these inflammatory adjectives, of course, is the fact that the most powerful and influential locus of the protests against Komen’s decision emerged among the organizations’ own local chapters and financial contributors and extended into the ranks of its top executives. Exactly how the organizations own members, executives and contributors can be said to have “bullied” themselves from the outside is an unexplained linguistic mystery.
3. That when the actions of powerful individuals are “exposed to the public view,” this represents “releasing the liberal thugs on them” and “corrodes our democracy.”
Consider the following excerpt from an article from Politico
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to launch a fierce attack on the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, calling out “liberal thugs” for intimidating their opponents…
…Without singling him out directly by name, McConnell will point the finger at New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer for seeking public hearings into super PACs, saying he’s calling “law-abiding citizens before a congressional panel just because they happen to support causes that he doesn’t.”
[McConnell] plans to add: “You know the drill. Expose these folks to public view, release the liberal thugs on them, and then hope the public pressure or the unwanted attention scares them from supporting similar causes down the road…. [These actions] corrode our democracy. And they need to stop.”
4. That when Democrats decide to use the same Super-PAC fundraising techniques as Republicans, noting as justification the unprecedented role of wealthy funders on the conservative side, this represents “an attack on [those individuals] first amendment rights” and an attempt to “intimidate and silence” them.
After Nancy Pelosi explained that the Administration’s decision to use Super-PAC’s was necessary because otherwise the Democrats would “leave the field to the Koch brothers to decide who would be president of the United States and who would control the Congress,” Philip Ellender, president and COO of Government and Public Affairs for Koch Companies said in reply:
“We will exercise our First Amendment rights and not be intimidated or silenced by the President’s aides and his allies who criticize private citizens that disagree with the President’s policies.
“Apparently, the President and his allies…are trying to intimidate into silence those who may disagree with them and who may decide to support other candidates.”
Again, the important issue is not the quite flagrant double-standard that all of these examples display. Rather, it is the direct identification of entirely democratic actions with “bullying” “intimidation”, “totalitarianism”, “thuggery” and “attacks on democracy.”
Not so long ago Republicans would have felt obligated to add ritual expressions of support for basic democratic rights (e.g. “of course Americans do have the right to organize and participate in recall campaigns” or “of course individuals do have the right to criticize or withhold support from private organizations with which they disagree”) but in all these recent cases, such qualifications are notably absent. The rhetoric directly and vividly identifies and equates democratically expressed forms of disagreement with conservatives as representing the goon-squad tactics of fascism and totalitarianism.
Psychiatrists as well as political commentators have frequently noted the degree to which psychological projection is at work in conservative accusations of liberal “fascism” and attacks on democracy, but, for Democratic and progressive strategy, it is a more prosaic motive that must be recognized as critical. By identifying all criticism with “thuggery” and “intimidation,” Republicans and conservatives are inherently laying the ideological groundwork for dismissing and even taking action against legitimate democratic protest and opposition.
Once one enters the Orwellian mind-set where voting against a Republican in a recall election can seriously be described as an “attack on democracy” or where protesting the actions or withdrawing support from an organization with which one disagrees with can be described as representing an act of “gangsterism,” or “totalitarianism,” it becomes dangerously easy to suggest that such votes or actions should simply not be allowed to occur. Once the rhetorical groundwork is laid for equating democratically expressed opposition with crypto-fascism, it becomes much easier to justify actions that – seen objectively – are themselves attacks on basic democratic rights.
After all, for most people it is “decent citizens” who deserve to have rights; “goons” and “thugs” do not. Americans agree that the rights of citizens must be respected; they do not feel that the rights of “goons” and “thugs” deserve such consideration.
Once a political party begins to repeatedly define legal and legitimate protests and objections of citizens as the work of “goons” and “thugs,” it becomes vastly easier to suggest that such opposition should simply not be permitted. This is a deeply dangerous political perspective that not only progressives and Democrats but all Americans should clearly and forcefully reject.