The greatest threat to our democracy today is a Republican Party that plays dirty to win.
The party’s abandonment of fair play was showcased spectacularly in 2016, when the United States Senate refused to allow President Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. While technically constitutional, the act — in effect, stealing a court seat — hadn’t been tried since the 19th century. It would be bad enough on its own, but the Merrick Garland affair is part of a broader pattern.
Republicans across the country seem to have embraced an “any means necessary” strategy to preserve their power. After losing the governorship in North Carolina in 2016 and Wisconsin in 2018, Republicans used lame-duck legislative sessions to push through a flurry of bills stripping power from incoming Democratic governors. Last year, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a Republican gerrymandering initiative, conservative legislators attempted to impeach the justices. And back in North Carolina, Republican legislators used a surprise vote last week, on Sept. 11, to ram through an override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget veto — while most Democrats had been told no vote would be held. This is classic “constitutional hardball,” behavior that, while technically legal, uses the letter of the law to subvert its spirit.
Constitutional hardball has accelerated under the Trump administration. President Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency” to divert public money toward a border wall — openly flouting Congress, which voted against building a wall — is a clear example. And the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, manufactured by an earlier act of hardball, may uphold the constitutionality of the president’s autocratic behavior.
Constitutional hardball can damage and even destroy a democracy. Democratic institutions function only when power is exercised with restraint. When parties abandon the spirit of the law and seek to win by any means necessary, politics often descends into institutional warfare. Governments in Hungary and Turkey have used court packing and other “legal” maneuvers to lock in power and ensure that subsequent abuse is ruled “constitutional.” And when one party engages in constitutional hardball, its rivals often feel compelled to respond in a tit-for-tat fashion, triggering an escalating conflict that is difficult to undo. As the collapse of democracy in Germany and Spain in the 1930s and Chile in the 1970s makes clear, these escalating conflicts can end in tragedy.
Why is the Republican Party playing dirty? Republican leaders are not driven by an intrinsic or ideological contempt for democracy. They are driven by fear.
Democracy requires that parties know how to lose. Politicians who fail to win elections must be willing to accept defeat, go home, and get ready to play again the next day. This norm of gracious losing is essential to a healthy democracy.
But for parties to accept losing, two conditions must hold. First, they must feel secure that losing today will not bring ruinous consequences; and second, they must believe they have a reasonable chance of winning again in the future. When party leaders fear that they cannot win future elections, or that defeat poses an existential threat to themselves or their constituents, the stakes rise. Their time horizons shorten. They throw tomorrow to the wind and seek to win at any cost today. In short, desperation leads politicians to play dirty.
Ziblatt specializes in the study of European politics, state-building, democratization and historical political economy. His latest book How Democracies Die (co-authored with Steven Levitsky) was on the New York Times bestseller list ...