Most Americans have a Whiggish view of their history, in which the story of America is one of gradual moral progress and expanding political liberty — of the nation continuously moving toward a more perfect union. It’s a vision President Barack Obama evoked in his 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., even as he tied it to work and struggle. “Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect,” he said. “But we are getting closer.”
But there’s an alternative narrative, in which progress is the exception, not the rule — where it comes at great cost and its full promise is dashed by reaction and backlash. This story is one of flawed institutions and limited democracy; of a slaveholder’s republic that lasted a little under three generations before it collapsed into civil war; of Redemption after Reconstruction; of Jim Crow autocracy in the midst of widening white prosperity.
I have been thinking about this story of the country’s history in the context of impeachment. On Wednesday, the Senate voted to acquit President Trump of charges levied by the House of Representatives — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. It’s not that the case wasn’t strong. Several Trump allies, like Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, acknowledged the president’s wrongdoing. And corroborating revelations from John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, only strengthened the argument against the president. In the end however, just one Republican — Mitt Romney of Utah — voted with Democrats to remove Trump from office for abuse of power.
Romney’s vote was the one surprise. Yet for all the condemnation of Senate Republicans — that they’re fearful, craven and “absolutely cowardly” — they were acting in character. The attempt to extort the Ukrainian president into investigating Joe Biden was, as Romney said before he cast his vote, “an appalling abuse of the public trust.” It was an assault on the integrity of our elections and our democracy.
But there have been other assaults on our democracy besides Trump’s attempt to cheat his way to re-election. There’s a way in which Trump’s strong-arming of Ukraine — and his acquittal by the Republican Senate majority — is the capstone to at least a decade of attacks on our democratic system. Seen in that context, Republican politicians are simply playing their usual part, greeting these attacks with either indifference, support or outright enthusiasm.
In 2010, when a Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission against prohibitions on independent political expenditures by corporations, it opened American elections to billions in unaccountable spending. It promised to undermine voters and political parties in favor of powerful, wealthy interests, tilting the playing field permanently. An overwhelming majority of Americans, including most Republican voters, opposed the decision. But Republican lawmakers sang a different tune.
“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was the Senate minority leader. “With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day.”
Michael Steele, at that time the chairman of the Republican National Committee, agreed. “Today’s decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. F.E.C., serves as an affirmation of the constitutional rights provided to Americans under the First Amendment,” he said.
If Republicans in Washington were enthusiastic about Citizens United, they were silent in 2013 after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, where that same Republican-appointed majority gutted a critical section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for new restrictions on voting. Neither McConnell nor House Speaker John Boehner had any comment in the wake of the decision, despite the fact that they voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act seven years earlier, under President George W. Bush. Boehner had even called it “an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy.” In 2015, he would effectively kill a House bill to restore the Voting Rights Act to its former strength.
Since Shelby, Republican lawmakers in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia have openly suppressed the vote with voter purges, strict ID laws and cuts to voting infrastructure (closing polling places in predominantly Democratic areas like college campuses, for example). While this happened, their counterparts in Washington either looked the other way or actively denounced efforts to protect the vote. The recent Democratic House bill to combat corruption and strengthen voting rights was, McConnell wrote in The Washington Post, “a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party.”
Let’s return to those rival accounts of United States history. If the story of the American republic is the story of democratic decline as much as it is democratic expansion — if backlash shapes our history as much as progress does — then the current moment is easy to understand. We are living through a period of democratic erosion, in which social and political reaction limits the reach and scope of past democratic victories. In this way of looking at the present, we’re living through a period of institutional deterioration, during which American government ceases to function in the face of polarization, zero-sum conflict and constitutional hardball.
The Republican Party has been the single most important force behind that erosion, breaking norms, backing suppression and welcoming an endless flood of money into our politics, all to protect themselves and their ideology from the will of the people. Viewed in that light, the acquittal of President Trump — the desperate cover-up in the face of damning evidence — is just another brick on a road Republicans have been paving for years.
It is what you would expect them to do, not because of any fear of the president or personal fealty to him, but because the party sees accountability, whether to voters or to the Constitution itself, as a threat to its interests. If the acquittal of Trump shows us anything, it’s a Republican Party free of pretense or artifice, ready to embrace its worst self without shame or embarrassment.“