Since the advent of parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage, law-makers have faced a dilemma. What to do about political parties that refuse to accept the ‘rules of the game’? In the European context, this usually meant what to do about communist and fascist parties whose raison d’etre was a replacement of the democratic order itself with some form of dictatorial rule, whether by legal means, violence, or some combination of both. On occasion, it also meant the presence of separatist political parties whose aims were secession. For at least part of the late 19th and 20th centuries, this meant the presence of Sinn Fain (Irish nationalists) in the House of Commons, and, more recently, the Parti Quebecois in the Canadian Parliament, its goal Quebec’s national independence.
Those committed to the preservation of the democratic order have tried varied solutions. An outright ban has been one of them. In some instances, candidates for parliament (and their parliamentary groups) have been required to swear an oath to support the existing constitution or democratic order before being permitted to take a parliamentary seat. Sometimes their sincerity has been questioned.
Following World War II, for example, the new Italian Constitution (1947) prohibited reorganization of the defunct National Fascist Party in any form. This did not prevent the formation of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), composed of veterans of the Mussolini dictatorship, from campaigning at elections and winning seats in the Chamber of Deputies. It was sufficient for the MSI’s leadership to draft a founding document endorsing democracy to avoid proscription.
On occasion judicial remedies have been considered. The postwar Basic Law of the German Federal Republic (FRG) empowered government authorities to seek the dissolution of communist and neo-Nazi parties before the country’s constitutional court. Since its early years, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has, from time to time, sought similar bans against other entities, e.g. the National Democrats (NPD).
Another technique for excluding anti-system parties is manipulation of electoral laws: namely, how votes are counted.
Proportional representation – and its intention to accurately reflect the distribution of national opinion in relation to the distribution of seats in parliament—is often blamed for permitting anti-system parties to gain a foothold in parliament, a foothold which then allows anti-system parties to mount anti-democratic campaigns. Weimar Germany is often cited as an example. The remedy is to change the way votes are tabulated. Today elections in the FRG are based on a 5 percent rule, according to which no party winning less than 5 percent of the national vote may achieve representation in the Bundestag. The French system, based on single-member districts and a run-off system, is intended to achieve the same effect.
Prohibiting anti-system parties from participating in competitive elections is not cost-free. The effect may be to drive such parties underground, allowing them to do more damage to a democratic system than they would if they were to compete for popular support openly. During the Cold War, the presence of communist parties in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other democracies posed such problems.
Another difficulty for democratic rule occurs when a major political party seeks to erode a democratic system incrementally, transforming it on a step-by-step basis. In Europe, obvious examples are Poland’s Law and Justice Party, and Hungary’s Fidesz under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Both parties won national elections, formed governments, and then used their power to erode judicial independence and freedom of the press. Today they are in the process of limiting the personal freedoms of Polish and Hungarian citizens respectively.
The Republican Party (GOP) has embarked on the same path in an effort to alter and thus undermine American democracy. Its success remains to be seen.
Many link anti-democratic initiatives to the Trump presidency (2017-2021). Donald Trump has taken a variety of steps to erode the democratic process, most recently advancing false claims of fraud during and after the November 2020 presidential election. Having failed to persuade courts that widespread fraud occurred, Trump and his followers have asked GOP members of local election boards and state legislatures to reject popular vote results and instead choose state electors pledged to Trump rather than Biden, winner of the popular vote. Their efforts specifically target large cities with minority populations in an attempt to disenfranchise millions of Black voters wholesale.
This extra-constitutional episode is just the most recent of Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice and erode America’s system of constitutional government. Among the most egregious were Trump’s successful attempts to prevent members of his administration from responding to congressional subpoenas, and his efforts to use the Department of Justice as an instrument to carry out his personal political aims and grudges.
Trump’s systematic attacks on the independent press– accusing newspapers, television networks, and various social media of reporting ‘fake news’—created distrust of the press across wide swaths of the population and disbelief in what the news reported. When Trump repeatedly asserted that the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic was overblown by ‘fake’ news, millions of people took him at his word and avoided taking the necessary precautions.
Erosion of democratic values and procedures didn’t start with Trump. Well before Trump won the presidency in 2016, the GOP had adopted a strategy of undermining democratic norms in a ruthless effort to gain or maintain power. In fact, Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, campaigned by attacking the ‘fake’ or ‘lamestream’ media. Even earlier the Nixon administration (1969-1974) and the Watergate scandal might be considered exhibit ‘A’.
But the election and re-election of Barak Obama to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 seems to have intensified and re-ignited hostility towards democratic norms and constitutional rules in some elements of the GOP. The Party’s leaders and many of its voters found the election of the country’s first African-American president fundamentally unacceptable. Led by Donald Trump, the ‘birther movement” depicted Obama as not having been born in the United States, hence disqualified to serve as president. A range of initiatives became acceptable.
Following Obama’s victory in the 2008 balloting, certain GOP officials in Texas and elsewhere in the South spoke of secession. GOP leader in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, vowed he would do everything in his power to prevent the new president from winning a second term.
When Obama proposed reforming the health care system (“Obama Care” or the Affordable Health Care Act), GOP activists and wealthy donors around the country sponsored the Tea Party movement, which, among other things, depicted Obama as a traitor, a radical Muslim and an enemy of the American people. In the weeks after Obama was re-elected (2012), the White House website received citizen petitions from all 50 states, seeking to have their states withdraw from the union. Texas led the way with 95,000 petition signers, individuals who apparently wanted to reverse the outcome of the Civil War.
For many in the GOP, Obama’s election victories emphasized the need to restrict the right to vote. Voter suppression became a key to GOP victory. States dominated by GOP governors and legislatures enacted a series of measures making it more difficult for persons of color (believed to be Democratic voters) to gain access to the polls.
So-called ID laws required individuals to produce evidence of citizenship and residence before being permitted to cast their ballots in certain districts. The number of polling stations available to voters was reduced, the hours for early voting restricted. Key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights were overturned by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court (Shelby County v. Holder 2013) making it easier for GOP-dominated southern states to dilute the impact of Black voters on election outcomes.
Where does this leave us? Should we look forward to further erosion of American democracy?
Despite claims of fraud made by Trump and significant numbers of GOP operatives, Joe Biden will be sworn as President on January 20, 2021. This may arrest America’s drift towards Polish and Hungarian style illiberal democracy. Whether it interrupts the GOP’s determination to erode the norms of democratic government remains to be seen. The Party may still retain control of the Senate. A majority of governors and state legislators remain in the hands of the GOP – still determined to restrict voting rights. And we now have a conservative majority on the Supreme Court prepared to legitimize their efforts.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada. See full profile here.
© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
This article was originally published at CARR’s media partner, Rantt Media. See the original article here.