AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
The three viewers who tuned into C-SPAN on January 6th to watch the ceremony in the House Chamber memorializing the events of January 6th, 2021, would have noticed two things. First, that they outnumbered the Republican attendees: Liz Cheney and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Second, that, after witnessing Lin-Manuel Miranda provide a musical interlude for the event, Vox might, for one of the only times in history, have had a point when they said that the musical Hamilton should now be considered cringe-worthy. If they made it through that with the TV still on, they would have been subjected to a long series of solemn speeches about attacks on “democracy” and the dangers that arise when parties refuse to accept the results of elections.
It is a pity that Democrats have spent the last year turning “January 6th” into a bloody partisan shirt. If they were willing to reexamine their own actions since 2016 when they systematically refused to recognize the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s victory either because of “Russian interference” or because they felt the rules of the game (the Electoral College) were unfair after the fact, they would have realized that there is much to be said for the idea that democracy requires a willingness to accept defeat and try again next time on the part of all players. And that many of the problems in U.S. politics stem from an unwillingness to do so. What happened on January 6th is an example of such, but one which cannot be removed from the context of the preceding four years.
Democrats, and the media sphere which feeds the anxieties of their base of white college graduates, are not interested in the refusal to accept democratic elections in general, but rather in the refusal of Republicans to accept Democratic victories in particular. MSNBC’s constant coverage demands Republicans “publicly accept” the results of the 2020 elections not merely as having occurred but as having been unquestionably fair and without any legitimate questions being raised. Going further, they imply this requires assisting with the passage of whatever legislation Democrats or Joe Biden demand, even when not every Democrat supports it.
Democrats are also quick to invoke the memory of the U.S. Civil War and have recently discovered a newfound appreciation for Reconstruction, as it is a convenient tool to justify their desire for a radical remaking of Red State society without the need for pesky elections or consent from the people. There is, however, some truth to Civil War era analogies, albeit not with the 1870s but with the 1850s. The demands of speakers on MSNBC and Democratic politicians are that Republicans not merely accept that Joe Biden is President, but that he should be President, that it is right he is President, and that they should apologize for anything they may have done to not make him President.
In this absolutism and refusal to share a country with people who do not gratefully affirm all of their values, Democrats echo the Southern Fire-Eaters during the 1850s.
During the course of that decade, Southern politicians not only abandoned a previous willingness to compromise on policy, but also adopted an approach whereby Northerners were asked not just to accept Southern demands, but to publicly state that they were just. This manifested after the Dred Scott decision when Southern leaders implied that they considered compliance with the Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sanford to be insufficient. They insisted that any criticism of the decision whatsoever was anti-Southern, an attack on the “rights” of the South, and therefore grounds for secession. When Stephen Douglas, the leading Democratic candidate for president in 1860, a man who had helped repeal the Missouri Compromise on their behalf, refused to publicly state that he thought slavery should be respected everywhere, as opposed to merely pledging to accept the ruling, the Fire Eaters broke up the Democratic Party.
This may have seemed antithetical to their goals, but that assumed their goals were designed to be achieved democratically and through compromise. On the contrary, they had concluded that their vision of society was so important it could not be subject to compromise. If, because it was a minority vision, it could not be realized within the United States as it existed, then they would leave. The point was to prove this.
When Northern Republicans warned of a plot by “Slave Power” to dominate the country, they correctly grasped the consequences of accepting all Southern demands but misunderstood the purpose. The demands for first the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, then the admission of Kansas as a slave state, and finally, following Dred Scott, for the protection of slaves as property everywhere in the country were not really intended to achieve these demands but to have them denied. By denying them and demonstrating both the will and power to deny them, Northerners would then legitimize the option “Fire Eaters” were really invested in; namely, secession.
Democrats are once again openly advocating some kind of disunion. This time, they suggest that their opponents are the ones doing so, lobbing accusations of Neo-Confederate sympathies. However, the attitude they have adopted of “rule or ruin” is the same.
The term comes from Lincoln’s famed Cooper Union Address when he correctly diagnosed the uncompromising approach of the South: “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”
It is hard to watch MSNBC, or read the rhetoric in the New York Times or Washington Post, and not conclude that an America that does not fulfill their vision of what it should be is not really America at all. That is the subtext of their suggestions that democracy is under threat. If it is not their vision of democracy, it is not democracy, and it is not legitimate.
Many conservative intellectuals have noticed this subtext, and while correctly diagnosing the “rule or ruin” theme, they make the same error of Northern Republicans in the 1850s of assuming that “rule” is the “plan A” of their opponents.
That is the fear expressed by Michel Anton in his recent article in American Mind, “Blue America’s Messaging Problem”. Anton observes that liberal culture war sentiment, especially in campus/workplace bubbles and online spaces such as Twitter, has turned near exterminationist, with a determination to ban all further discussion or dissent on issues, such as those revolving around gender identity, where the left feels there is no need for debate. Fantasies abound on left-wing Twitter about authoritarian solutions to the problems of racism, sexism, economics, etc. They are combined with demands for action from the Democratic House and Senate, and denouncements of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for “treason” due to their opposition to eliminating the filibuster.
But these screeds are precisely that – fantasies. It now appears likely that the filibuster will remain, and that even if it did not, the Supreme Court, fortified by Donald Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, would not allow the fulfillment of most of the radical left’s often preposterous visions. Hence the shelf-life of another left-wing fantasy, court-packing. In fact, if you look deeper into the words of actual Democratic leaders and more established liberal media personalities, you will see something entirely different. They already know not only that their agenda is doomed, but they have intellectually accepted the inevitability of GOP rule.
This is evident in their discussion about “assaults on democracy.” When they suggest that gerrymandering, or the existence of the Senate, or ballot security laws, or the Electoral College will keep them out of power, they are looking for rationalizations of impending defeat and its consequences. They are busy delegitimizing their impending defeat, not doing anything in particular to avert it.
Conservatives do need to be aware that America’s constitutional system faces an impending threat from the current intellectual climate on the left. But that threat will not come from left-wing tyranny when Democrats are in power. Rather, it will come from how the left will respond to being out of power when they have delegitimized the process by which they got there.
If Democrats already believe that with the failure of H.R.-1, “rule” is off the table, the real question is what they do when they are left with only the option of “ruin.”
Democrats and liberals have effectively established three major narrative “truths” which they have sold their voters. First, issues where Americans disagree, such as abortion or public health mandates, are not issues of policy where compromise is possible, or where you can live with an outcome you do not like. Rather, they are objective truths, where any answer other than their own is wrong and unacceptable. Second, that no definition of democracy is legitimate except for the one they define. And thirdly, that any institution which does not match up with the first two points is illegitimate.
Democrats on January 6th talked a big game about efforts to overturn an election, but their challenge to the legitimacy of any outcome they dislike goes drastically further than anything that occurred that day. In their view, the House of Representatives is unrepresentative due to gerrymandering, ignoring their own complicity in the practice in Illinois, Maryland, New York, and the other Blue States. The Senate, being not based on population, is also illegitimate. Even the Electoral College, whose integrity they claim to have defended on January 6th, 2021, they attack as illegitimate, suggesting that since they won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1988 except for 2004, all GOP presidents are illegitimate. In turn, this leads them to suggest the Supreme Court is illegitimate since most of its jurists were appointed by Republican presidents.
This delegitimization leaves them in a bind. Short of a Republican candidate in 2024 winning the electoral college and “popular vote”, Democrats are committed to denying the legitimacy of that outcome, and many would allege even then that the victory depended on “voter suppression.” This may seem like a threat, but a threat must have a prospect of action. What action can Democrats take?
Both some Democrats and Republicans point to Democrats’ efforts to seize federal control of elections as “action.” Yet at this point, that seems to be an uphill lift for Democrats. So what do they plan to do? The answer is nothing until after they lose. At that point, however, logic takes over.
Democrats, having delegitimized the courts, the House, the Senate, and the presidency to their base cannot merely accept that outcome. At the very least, ambitious Democratic politicians will denounce the legitimacy of the new Republican government. But at the state level, it is likely a greater temptation will develop. In the aftermath of his recall triumph, Gavin Newsom has begun challenging both the U.S. Supreme Court and other states, threatening to imitate Texas’ SB8 law, allowing for private civil enforcement of abortion restrictions, to firearms purchases. While it is grandstanding, what would Newsom do if a Republican president, who Newsom alleged was illegitimate, signed a bill allowing national concealed carry, or right-to-work? Would he meekly obey? Announce defiance? Hold a referendum asking for an endorsement? What if the FDA reversed the administration’s rushed approval of abortifacients? He has already indicated a determination to have California supply them to states where they are banned.
This would be Calhounism, an irony for liberals who have worked to remove the South Carolinian’s name from Yale houses and monuments. But it is Democrats and liberals, not Republicans and conservatives, who are the true Calhounists now. They are the ones who are suggesting that the Supreme Court is illegitimate, and why, one might ask, are you bound to follow the orders of illegitimate authorities?
It is quite plausible that the next Republican administration will find itself in conflict with the Blue States echoing the arguments of John C. Calhoun on a host of issues, openly denying the right or authority of the federal government to interfere in their affairs. While intellectual conservatives who have long advocated federalism might welcome this ironic turn of events, federalism as a proxy for partisanship is very different than federalism as a laboratory of ideas. The Blue States will use their “autonomy” to engage in steadily more provocative actions to “prove” their argument that the Republican party is tyrannical, and will steadily escalate their demands as they wish to make their prophecies of oppression real rather than achieve any specific ends. This is political nihilism of the sort that threatened the union once and risks doing so in the future.
Conservative intellectuals are correct to be concerned about the conspiratorial turn liberals are taking. But the focus on CRT and mandates misses the wider picture. Those pushing these policies, with a few exceptions, do not understand why they are doing so or what they want them for. They are pushing them as a means of control and power, and also of testing their control and power. In this case, rejection serves the purpose of proving their point as well as success.
Democracy is in danger. That danger does come from an unwillingness to accept anything short of unconditional surrender from the other side. Democrats, rather than projecting, need to look long and hard at what they are actually saying and demanding, lest they find themselves pursuing a self-fulfilling prophecy of exactly the outcome they claim to most fear.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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