Is the GOP an Authoritarian Party?
Based on the research of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. authors of "How Democracies Die," the trendlines are clear: Republicans are embracing key aspects of authoritarianism.
In 2018, two Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published a book titled "How Democracies Die." The two authors examined how democracies have historically fallen victim to the pull of authoritarianism. They argue that the process does not usually occur via a military coup but rather through the ballot box and the gradual erosion of political norms and capture of democratic institutions by would-be autocrats.
Levitsky and Ziblatt lay out four key warning signs of authoritarian behavior, as documented below:
The authors, whose book was published in early 2018, conclude that Donald Trump had demonstrated all four types of behavior. He refused to accept credible electoral results; described partisan rivals as criminals; endorsed violence by his supporters; and recommended restrictions on civil liberties, threatened media organizations and praised repressive measures in other countries.
In the three years since the book appeared, Trump exhibited even more antidemocratic behavior. But looking at this chart again raises a more pressing question: has the Republican Party become an authoritarian political party? Let's take a look at this one by one (I've added in italics all the questions asked by Levitsky and Ziblatt that could be answered yes).
“Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.”
“Do they reject the Constitution or express a willingness to violate it?
“Do they suggest a need for antidemocratic measures, such as canceling elections, violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organizations, or restricting basic civil or political rights?”
“Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?”
On Jan. 6, 139 House Republicans and 8 Republican senators voted to reject certified - and credible - election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania. That is 65.8 percent of the GOP caucus in the House and 16 percent of Senate Republicans. Over the weekend, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is the number two ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election.
It's essential to recognize that this is a shift in Republican behavior. While Trump consistently lied about the 2016 election, claiming, for example, that there had been massive fraud and he had actually won the popular vote, other Republican leaders largely rejected or refused to endorse Trump's argument. In 2020, while they didn't go as far as Trump did in trying to steal the election, their refusal to acknowledge Biden's victory and votes against certification represented an unambiguous effort to delegitimize an electoral result. The trend seems to be picking up steam among down-ballot Republicans. This past week, former Senator David Perdue of Georgia announced that he would not be running for his seat again, but in his statement suggested that he had lost because of “illegal votes,” which is a completely false assertion.
On the question of antidemocratic measures that seek to restrict basic civil or political rights, Republicans have engaged in a feeding frenzy since the 2020 election.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks anti-voting measures, "thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year."
In Georgia, Republicans have proposed "tougher restrictions on both absentee and in-person early voting." The legislation would create a new photo ID requirement for absentee ballots, shrink the window in which one can request a ballot, limit the use of drop-boxes, and prevent early voting on Sunday, which has traditionally been when many Black voters go to the polls.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has put his support behind legislation that would enact a "slate of new voting restrictions that would make it more difficult for voters to receive and return mail-in ballots in future Florida elections."
In Arizona, GOP state legislators are pushing a bill requiring absentee ballots to be notarized, putting in place tougher voted ID requirements, and eliminating no-excuse absentee voting. Similar legislation has been introduced in Georgia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.
In Iowa, legislation has been proposed to cut mail-in and in-person early voting from 28 to 19 days and prohibit absentee ballot request forms from being sent to eligible voters.
South Carolina Republicans would make it harder to satisfy witness requirements for absentee ballots and impose a signature matching requirement. This measure has already been rejected by a federal court.
Republicans have, of course, been doing this for years. But the 165 bills imposing greater voting restrictions is more than a fourfold increase from a year ago - and appears to be a direct response to the party's failure to hold the presidency in the 2020 election. This represents an ongoing effort to restrict basic civil and political rights.
"Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents."
“Do they claim that their rivals constitute an existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life?
Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law (or potential to do so) disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena?”
During his Jan. 6 speech that incited the Capitol riot, Trump told his supporters to "fight like hell, or you won't have a country anymore." In the past, he has referred to Democrats as “treasonous,” “anti-American,” and “enemies.” The implicit message is that turning the country over to Democrats would, in effect, destroy America, i.e., constitute an existential threat.
It's a notion that Republicans have taken to heart. According to a recent poll by CBS News, 57 percent of Republicans view Democrats as "political enemies" rather than as "political opposition" (41 percent of Democrats view Republicans that way).
According to the Pew Research Center, and charted below by Philip Bump of the Washington Post, Republicans are far more likely to view Democrats as unpatriotic, immoral, closed-minded, and lazy.
This increase in negative attitudes is almost certainly a direct result of rhetoric from Trump and other Republicans portraying Democrats as un-American, corrupt, socialist, and enemies of America, among other epithets. Republican rhetoric has always been heated, but with Trump, it’s become more existential in nature and more inclined to fully delegitimize Democrats as governing officials.
In addition, going back to 2016, Republicans regularly portrayed Hillary Clinton as a criminal, a charge that is sometimes levied against Joe Biden, though it hasn't yet taken on wide acceptance among Republicans.
"Toleration or encouragement of violence."
“Do they have any ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias, guerrillas, or other organizations that engage in illicit violence?”
Have they tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it? Have they praised (or refused to condemn) other significant acts of political”
Republican officials - though still a minority - have made positive statements about QAnon, a group that is considered a domestic terror threat. It is also striking that few House Republicans were willing to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee posts in Congress, even though she's previously expressed support for the cult.
While it's harder to argue that officials outside of Trump and a few other Republicans have sponsored or encouraged mob attacks, tacitly endorsing violence by refusing to unambiguously condemn it is something else altogether.
In November, when Trump supporters in Texas surrounded a campaign bus for vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and almost forced it off the road, the former president unsurprisingly expressed approval of this effort at political intimidation. But so too did Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who told a cheering pro-Trump crowd days later, "I saw yesterday a video of these people in Texas. Did you see it? All the cars on the road, we love what they did."
Few Republicans condemned Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte when he body-slammed reporter Ben Jacobs (Trump publicly praised him). Gianforte won his House election 2018 and then in 2020 was elected governor of the state.
In the recent Senate impeachment trial, 43 out of 50 Republican senators refused to convict Donald Trump for inciting a mob riot and insurrection in the Capitol. Since then, prominent Republican officials, including the Republican Senate Majority Leader in Michigan, Mike Shirkey, have said that the riots were staged by Antifa or other left-wing organizations. Others, like Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, have claimed that Jan. 6 wasn't an armed insurrection because the rioters weren't carrying guns - and in a Senate hearing this week suggested that "agent provocateurs" and "fake Trump supporters" were responsible for the riot. According to a recent USA Today poll, 58% of Trump's supporters believe the violence was "mostly an Antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters."
In fairness, most Republicans have been unambiguously critical of the rioters. Some like Mitch McConnell have clearly put the responsibility on Trump's shoulders (even as he voted not to convict him in the impeachment trial). Still, the trend within the GOP has been much more supportive of and disinclined to condemn acts of political violence by the party's supporters.
"Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media."
“Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain civic or political organizations?
Have they threatened to take legal or other punitive action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media?”
One of the more disturbing responses to last summer's massive demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd was a concerted effort by Republican state legislators across the country to make it harder for Americans to protest. According to International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), which tracks anti-protest legislation, more than 60 bills are now being considered in more than two dozen states to more narrowly define protests as riots and increase the legal penalties for participation.
In Florida, GOP-sponsored legislation would give the police broad discretion to designate a protest as a riot and charge those participating, even if acting peacefully, with a felony.
In Alabama, according to the ICNL, legislation proposed by Republicans would "redefine 'riot' under Alabama law as a 'tumultuous disturbance' in public by five or more assembled people." If any property damage or injuries occur, the law mandates that "anyone participating in the group is guilty of 'aggravated riot,' a new Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison."
In Arizona, interfering with traffic during a protest would become a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.
In Georgia, Republicans would outlaw peaceful assembly on public property without a permit and redefine "unlawful assembly" "as "two or more persons who harass or intimidate another person within any public accommodation."
In Kansas, new penalties have been proposed for those who protest near gas or oil pipelines.
Kentucky Republicans want to enact mandatory minimum prison sentences for participating in a riot and disqualification from receiving public benefits.
Oklahoma's State Senate recently passed a bill granting immunity to drivers who run over protesters with their cars. GOP legislators in 25 states have proposed such legislation.
Many of the legislative pushes include bills that would also make it more difficult for local communities to cut police funding and limit the ability of protesters harmed by counter-protesters to seek damages in court.
These legislative proposals, which seek to restrict political protest, strike at the heart of one of the core constitutional rights of Americans, "peaceful assembly," which is included in the First Amendment.
So not only are Republicans seeking to restrict voting rights, they are seeking to reject and violate basic constitutional rights.
One caveat is in order here. Levitsky and Ziblatt were describing a specific individual, Donald Trump, not an entire political party. Also, it’s difficult to generalize across the breadth of the Republican Party. But the trendlines seem unmistakable. Over the past four years, Republicans have become a party that overwhelmingly rejects electoral outcomes in which GOP candidates lose. Republicans in state legislatures across the country have expanded their efforts to restrict political and civil rights. Party officials are seemingly less inclined to condemn political violence carried out by their supporters, and they now openly question the legitimacy of their political opponents. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue these are clear warning signs of authoritarian behavior. There is little reason to believe that if Republicans do take power again - no matter who their presidential candidate might be - this trend will reverse itself. Instead, we are more likely at the tip of the iceberg.