Eternal loyalty?

by Jan-Werner Müller

Taboo (Issue I/2021)

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Another taboo-break: On 6 January 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C. Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images


One question is currently being fretted about across Europe – and frequently in the USA: Can Joe Biden bring the United States back together? There is little doubt that the new president stands for integrity and empathy; in many respects he embodies the opposite of his predecessor Donald Trump. But it is naïve to think that by voicing the right rhetoric - “We are not enemies. We are all Americans!” - Biden will make much difference. The problems are neither emotional nor, contrary to what many observers think, cultural. Rather, they are related to institutions and policy makers on the right of the political spectrum. Biden is unlikely to have much influence on either - nor can he shake the deep loyalty to Trumpism that seems to have developed since 2016 and which the Republicans, even if they want to, will not be able to easily eradicate. In recent years, the political community has been increasingly defined by its collective smashing of taboos: Trump has left many of his party members compromised by how they tolerated his violations of the norms. To put it bluntly: they are complicit. They were sometimes only able to avoid this mafia-like situation by claiming, for example, that they had not read Trump's worst taboo-breaking tweets.

Neither formal nor informal norms, nor taboos per se, are good or bad within democracy. As the American jurist Jedediah Purdy has pointed out, informal norms are like equestrian statues: You first have to know what they stand for. Some customs perpetuate deeply unjust conditions; often enough, democratic action consists precisely in breaking taboos. Other norms, however, are based on fundamental democratic principles: Fair political competition doesn't work when election losers fail to admit defeat and incite their supporters not only against the winner, but against the political system itself - as Trump has been doing since November 2020.

Even in a post-Trump-America, democracy will remain at risk

Contrary to vocal complaints, the "division of society" is not the primary challenge. Democracy's promise is not that people will always agree, but that conflicts will be dealt with peacefully and fairly. In a democracy, not everyone always has to be brought together harmoniously in the end, but the results of political processes - such as an election result - must be recognised. And there are more or less democratic ways of dealing with conflict, and therein lies the problem: American society has not spontaneously split into two camps. Nor is it true that the two major parties have moved equally towards ideological extremes. It is the Republicans who have been pursuing polarisation as a strategy for decades, portraying their political opponents as existential enemies - and thus violating a norm that is central to democratic debate. The paradox here is that the party actually advocates unpopular positions, but is successful in terms of power politics. The reason lies in the interplay of constitutional structures that should have a moderating effect but which today do exactly the opposite. Equally to blame are party and media systems that often reward extreme positions and political loyalty at any price - and in which one does not necessarily pay for serious taboo breaches. Donald Trump was a symptom of these developments, not their cause. Even in a post-Trump-America, democracy will remain at risk as long as the Republican Party does not fundamentally change. This may sound partisan, but it is a judgement that is even shared by many conservative observers.

In the USA, polarisation is not the automatic result of cultural differences. One can often claim that the political divide is naturally between the so-called “flyover country” (the states in the interior) and the “liberal cosmopolitan coasts”. But the fact remains that other countries are far more heterogeneous and yet far less divided into different political camps. Polarisation is a political project; elites are much more polarised among themselves than those who are often so disparagingly called “ordinary citizens”. And everyday stuff - where you go to eat, what car you drive, whether you wear a mask - are not spontaneously politicised by these “ordinary citizens”. We saw it with Trump, however, who cast mask-wearing as left-wing liberal or even un-American.

Moreover, polarisation is also simply big business: a self-declared “opinion journalist” like Fox and radio presenter Sean Hannity earns $38 million a year telling people in the countryside that the elites in New York do nothing but turn their noses up at the "red necks" day and night.

There is a right-wing, closed-off public in the USA which, instead of objective information, values political self-affirmation, competitive taboo breaking and even conspiracy theories. Those in this bubble, according to social scientists from Harvard University, do not even have contact with publications like the Wall Street Journal, whose opinion page made no secret of its preference for Trump, but which offers reliable news in its main section (because those who want to make money on the stock market resist the temptation to get high on party-pacifying “fake news”). Although there are also decidedly left-leaning publications and channels, their consumers also read and watch so-called mainstream media. The result? Conspiracy theories in the right-wing bubble - which, according to estimates, are consumed by up to forty percent of citizens – tend not to get corrected. This contrasts with false information spread on the left which, as a rule, gets corrected, because, sooner or later, people also consult reliable media.

The internet and social media fit into an already highly polarised media

Polarisation is therefore not symmetrical - nor is it the automatic result of technological innovation. According to the Harvard researchers, the right-wing bubble formed as a result of regulatory measures on radio and cable television in the 1980s and 1990s - in particular, the abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine”, which had at least made totally one-sided journalism more difficult. The internet and social media - which are so readily blamed for all ills - fit into an already highly polarised media world but they did not create that world.

What is true for the media is even more true for political parties: long before Trump, the Republicans claimed that white, Christian America was being destroyed by the pro-immigration Democrats (even though none of their representatives ever called for anything like “open borders”). It is all right to play hardball, but it is not all right to want to push your opponents out of the game altogether. Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the mid-1990s, instructed his party colleagues to always use the following words in connection with the Democrats: “bizarre”, “decline”, “destroy”, “greed”, “lie”, “radical”, “selfish”, “sick”, “steal”, "traitors” (although the original list was a lot longer). The result? In 2016, as people left the polling stations, they said they thought Trump was totally unfit to be president - but had just voted for him. Apparently, the years of branding the other side as completely illegitimate and unelectable had worked.

More than half of US Americans who call themselves Republicans are in principle prepared to use violence

Not only is the other party discredited, but, in a line typical of right-wing populists, it is also suggested that some citizens do not really form part of the population. Jim Jordan, a congressman from Ohio, tweeted in autumn 2020 that Americans love America and they don't want their neighbourhood to become San Francisco. The logic is clear: not all people with US passports are Americans, only some - those the supposed “heartland” - constitute the real America; the rest are not really part of it. At the very best, the others are something like an internal foreign country, but in case of doubt, they form a threat.

These exclusions and incitements have not been without consequences: according to a study dating from the summer of 2020, more than half of US Americans who call themselves Republicans are in principle prepared to use violence to preserve their “traditional way of life”.

One reason why the US Republicans can no longer to be understood as a “normal” centre-right party is that, apart from tax breaks for the highly wealthy and the militant whipping up of a minority (majorities support abortion rights and moderate immigration policies), they no longer have much to offer. Over eighty percent of the 2017 tax cut - Trump's most important legislative initiative - benefited the top one percent; the big promises to workers – an industrial policy and major infrastructure projects - were simply dropped by the party. At the party's 2020 convention, the Republicans did not put forward a new programme, but rather swore their unwavering loyalty to the president.

Parties must not degenerate into an undiluted personality cult. Certainly, one should not idealise inner-party democracy - as it is known in Germany in the constitution: Oscar Wilde was probably right when he said that the problem with socialism was that too many evenings were spent on it. Those who spend their nights in district-meeting debates and who learn, time and again, that whoever stays seated the longest will prevail, knows exactly what Wilde was talking about. And yet such disputes are important for democracy as a whole: a party that is internally autocratic will often be less serious about democratic norms when it is in government. Less obviously, parties have principles, but they do not enshrine themselves, rather you have to argue about their concrete implementation. It is possible to disagree and still be loyal to the basic principles. Parties form a legitimate opposition internally through these democratic processes - and this also allows criticism of the leadership without becoming disloyal to the party. However, if there is no longer a political programme, but only taboos (Biden's election victory cannot be discussed) and personal loyalty to the president, democracy no longer functions within political parties – which at some point will probably derail the political system as a whole.

US political scientists have described the Republicans' strategy as “plutocratic populism”: unpopular economic and fiscal positions are obscured by constant culture wars. However, this strategy only works because the party has a structural advantage. Because every state has two senators, regardless of population size, the Republicans, who dominate in rural states, have a majority in the Senate even though they are supported by far fewer people. In the House of Representatives, too, the Democrats have to get significantly more votes to get a majority of deputies.

The Senate, as is well known, was created by the Founding Fathers as an assembly of independent white men - who were not to be directly elected. It was supposed to curb an all too impetuous popular will that was emanating from House of Representatives. In the meantime, right-wing senators are practising blind loyalty; they threw their weight behind Trump longer after his corruption and violations of the norms were widely known. The party now has to keep a Trumpist movement in line, one that upholds that Trump's victory in 2020 was stolen, and one that includes establishment Republicans. Even broadcasters like Fox now realise that they have hooked themselves to a movement that has outdone itself in conspiracy theories - and that they will be punished with complaints and loss of viewers. More radical Trumpian alternatives like Newsmax (motto: “Independent. American.”) and One America News Network (motto: “Your Nation. Your News”) will be pleased.

But the founding fathers feared not only the notorious tyranny of the majority, but also the tyranny of the minority. A party that defines itself solely in terms of xenophobic white identity politics is a party that will not only act against a majority but, as media critic Jay Rosen has noted, will also be increasingly at loggerheads with facts.

This is not to say that the parties must now simply become more similar or that all Republican positions are somehow illegitimate: elections must offer a choice. Moreover, politics does not have to be gentle: it can be rude and polemical; it does not have to respect all inherited customs (Trump allegedly broke a norm by not having a pet in the White House). However, it should respect the norms directly related to basic democratic principles. It is the latter that Republicans violate when they deny their opponents’ legitimacy and surrender to a movement based on unconditional loyalty to Trump. A two-party system - and a constitution that is ultimately geared towards compromise - can hardly cope with such a party, if at all.

Translated by Jess Smee



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