by Akim Reinhardt
The perfect, so the saying goes, is the enemy of the good. Don’t deny yourself real progress by refusing to compromise. Be realistic. Pragmatic. Patient. Don’t waste resources and energy on lofty but ultimately unobtainable goals, no matter how noble they might be; that will only lead to frustration, and worse, hold us all back from the smaller victories we can actually achieve.
It seems like sound logic. But there’s a catch. Political progress based on compromise requires good faith. The political center must hold and be strong enough to induce opposing sides to negotiate. As you make small incremental gains, the loyal opposition must be counted upon to accept its small incremental defeats, and vice versa. Without that, there can be no compromise.
But in modern America, the center has crumbled. And when the center does not hold, to compromise is to be compromised. Democratic norms and institutions are under attack from right wing authoritarianism. We are on the precipice. And we have reached the moment when people who say things like “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” are the dangerously misguided citizens putting our nation at risk. Self-proclaimed realists and pragmatists, who would bargain in good faith with the far right wing, will obliviously deal away the republic, one piece at a time.
About two and a half centuries into the grand experiment, it seems that Western-style democracies are inherently vulnerable to authoritarian subversions. It is a long list of democracies that have, at various points in their history, either accommodated far right wing authoritarianism within their body politic or given themselves over to it entirely. It’s a lesson hard learned.
For a long time, many observers believed that “young” democracies were the most at-risk. The failure of the first French Republic, which lasted barely a decade, seemed to point this out. And so when Germany, Italy, and Japan elected right wing authoritarians during the 1920s and 1930s, many Western commentators arrogantly explained it away: these countries were new democracies, their institutions seemed not yet firmly established, their populations supposedly unaccustomed to and insufficiently appreciative and protective of democracy. Thus, the countries victimized by far right wing governments were blamed for it, as established Western democracies patted themselves on the back, insisting it could never happen to them.
But it can happen anywhere. Twentieth century history offers abundant examples of centrist naivete inadvertently feeding right wing extremism. Whether it’s negotiating with a supposedly reasonable Adolph Hitler, or cautioning Martin Luther King against being too radical and impatient, establishment moderates have a long track record of bending to right wing extremism as they cling to the disintegrating center. And in so doing, they ironically undermine the liberal democratic order they seek to protect, either ushering in new, or bolstering established, anti-democratic regimes.
Jim Crow apartheid was a prime example of right wing authoritarianism firmly entrenched in an older democracy. Its rightist nature became eminently clear when Jim Crow’s supporters eventually tried to smear civil rights movements as communist. And settler colonial regimes around the globe, throughout the Americas, Oceania, and parts of Africa, treated their Indigenous populations in such horrifying manners as to set examples for future right wing authoritarian states. For example, the U.S. Indian reservation system served as inspiration for both, Nazi Germany’s concentration camps (before they became dedicated death camps) and South African apartheid population control systems (the infamous townships and pass system).
However, despite the longstanding and endemic threats from right wing authoritarianism, Western democracies, buoyed by capital, were almost always more concerned with and hostile to left wing authoritarianism. That is, until right wing authoritarianism threatened to takeover all of Europe and East Asia. Only then did the two remaining Western democracies, the United States and Great Britain, team up with the tattered remains of France and the communist U.S.S.R. to beat back fascism.
Yet soon after World War II, Western democracies quickly fell back on their old, familiar attitudes. With the Axis vanquished, fascism was minimized as a thing of the past. The Cold War shined an intense focus on threats from the authoritarian left. The United States, Great Britain, and a resuscitated France quickly recast their recent Soviet ally as an enemy. Far right threats to democracy were largely ignored, with the Allies going so far as to embrace and even staunchly support right wing dictatorships in former colonies-cum-nation states simply because they were anti-communist. The United States even recruited over 700 fascist war criminals after the war.
And so it was that Western democracies spent six years fighting fascism, and the next forty-plus fighting communism while supporting a panoply of right wing authoritarian regimes.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and the People’s Republic of China began straddling the line between rightist and leftist totalitarianism, right wing strongmen around the world were no longer needed as bulwarks against communism. They became little more than embarrassing Cold War relics. In countries no longer seen as vital to U.S. concerns, brutal authoritarians that the West had long propped up were now allowed to fend for themselves. Dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire), Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (Chile), Suharto (Indonesia), and juntas such as the Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador and the Provisional National Defence Council of Ganha, all soon found themselves out of power. The United States eventually even launched military campaigns to remove particularly irksome dictators, notably Manuel Noriega (Panama) and Saddam Hussein (Iraq).
The United States and its Western allies made a big show of supporting new democracies after the Cold War. Yet just a quarter-century later, we find ourselves staring down a long list of current or former democracies ruled by far right wing strong men who have either crippled democratic institutions or are in the process of doing so. Hot spots include: Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, and Russia, all of which have either lost meaningful democracy or are in danger of doing so. Until recently, the Philippines and the United States were being run by right wing populist presidents, would-be dictators with strong authoritarian inclinations and practices. Meanwhile, other nations, including France, have recently flirted with electing far right wing populist leaders. Right wing populism in Great Britain found its main outlet through Brexit. And nearly all modern democracies are plagued by established far right wing populist movements, most of them much more powerful and dangerous than any leftist revolutionary movements within their borders. Given democracy’s history of internal vulnerability to, and exportation of, right wing authoritarianism, perhaps none of this should come as surprise.
Here in he United States, the situation is critical, and will very likely remain so for years to come. The political culture is shot through with right wing populism and authoritarianism. One of the nation’s only two viable parties has been captured by it, and radicalized to a degree that poses serious threats to democratic institutions and norms. The GOP has all but given itself over to right wing authoritarianism.
One might point to Election Day 2016 as the moment when the U.S. center officially crumbled, but in truth, it was nearly forty years in the making. With the rise of the Reagan Revolution in 1980, Conservatives began taking control of the Republican Party, and implementing a long term program of ideological purity. First they purged Liberals from their ranks. By the early 21st century, most major moderates and centrists had either retired or been run off, pushing the GOP ever further right, and rendering it less a political party than a bastion of doctrinal litmus tests. During the 1990s, the rise of Newt Gingrich as House Minority (and briefly Majority) Leader saw the embrace of win-at-all-cost tactics. Extra-party propaganda organs, beginning on AM talk radio and spreading out to cable news and eventually the internet, radicalized Republican voters by spewing endless streams of lies, half-truths, and rank vitriol. The 2008 election of a half-black Democratic president incited a furious backlash that spawned an angry populist movement (the Tea Party) infused with unhinged conspiracy theories (eg. Birtherism). For tens of millions of Republicans, the word “liberal” now signifies not an opposing political philosophy, but a deep character flaw, a synonym for stupidity and evil. Donald Trump planted his authoritarian seeds in ground made fertile by decades of Republican radicalization. And while Trump is out of office, perhaps forever, Trumpism is here to stay for the foreseeable future, as current Republican Party leaders openly model and court the world’s right wing autocrats. This is the kind of rot that takes a generation to ferret out.
The Republican Party is now largely inhabited by two kinds of politicians. First there are the small but rapidly growing ranks of genuine lunatics such as Larry Pittman, Marjorie Taylor Green, Dan Cox, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, Mo Brooks, Andy Briggs, and of course Donald Trump himself. These are the true believers. Yes, they may also be cynical manipulators, but many of them are delusional, unstable, and plagued by personality disorders and other deep psychiatric and psychological issues. No, I am not qualified to make that medical diagnosis. However, for political purposes we must treat them as unstable and deranged, lest we lose our democracy by respecting and treating them like competent office holders and normalizing their anti-democratic politics.
And then there is the overwhelming majority of elected and appointed Republicans, who look down their noses and occasionally even publicly critique the genuine wing nuts in their midst, but who nonetheless put their fingers to the wind six years ago and fell in line with Trumpism. Far right wing populist authoritarianism is the name of the game, and they’re all too eager to play along. Senator Mitch McConnell is the poster child for harnessing amoral cynicism to win by any means necessary. But he’s just the leader of the pack. Most of the rest fell in line years ago. The politicians who genuflect to Donald Trump with earnest awe and respect may be a minority, but it is the large number of Republicans who cynically embrace Trumpism, while disparaging Trump behind closed doors, who will drive the nation into a ditch. Anything to gain and hold power.
Some centrists and moderates reading this essay will no doubt think I’m hysterically crying Wolf! To them I say, Behold.
In February, 2021, a year and a half before the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs struck down Roe, North Carolina State Representative Larry Pittman introduced a bill that would: define an embryo as a human being at the moment of conception; criminalize abortion as first degree murder, punishable by death; and criminalize any attempted abortion as first degree attempted murder. And Pittman actually got four other state legislators to co-sponsor his bill. Repeatedly stymied in committee, it probably won’t pass. But the fact that “probably” is a viable word in that sentence illustrates GOP radicalization better than anything else I could write.
Nor is North Carolina an isolated case. After the Dobbs decision was leaked, and before it was made official, the Louisiana state legislature took up a bill to classify abortion as murder. More states will almost certainly follow suit as right wing authoritarianism spreads like an infection.
And by no means am I alone in sounding the alarm. Many historians believe U.S. democratic institutions are being seriously threatened by right wing authoritarianism, and that the nation is divided to a degree that is beginning to resemble the runup to the Civil War.
Republican radicalization, driven by a win-at-all-costs mentality, crystalized in the Trump presidency. It lit the way for January 6th. It drives the current practice of installing political hacks in key state and local electoral positions, their ultimate loyalties given to the party as they stand ready to overturn legitimate election results. It also inspires the Trumpist plan to purge the federal government, and replace thousands of civil servants with loyal apparatchiks.
“Democracy dies in darkness” has always been a wrongheaded cliché, but never has it been more dangerous. The truth is far more depressing: democracy dies in broad daylight, with Cassandra spending years loudly warning of its impending doom. The unpleasant truth is plain to see. The barbarians are not at the gate; they’re already inside, rampaging through the halls of power. And to treat them as good faith actors, as the loyal opposition, is to imperil American democracy. To reach out to them with the best of intentions from the tattered remnants of fondly remembered center is to passively betray constitutional norms. To negotiate incremental changes is to giveaway the republic incrementally.
Yet, despite all of this, many Democratic politicians and operatives are either unable to clearly recognize the new political reality, or are utterly clueless about what it means and how to deal with it. Instead, they continue to naively push their incrementalist agendas based on compromise and good faith, even as the GOP descends further and further into the madness of right wing extremism. The most myopic of them, shockingly, are actually supporting select right wing authoritarians, the more unstable the better, on the grounds that they are “unelectable.”
That bears worth repeating: Some Democratic Party operations are actually supporting authoritarian candidates in Republican primaries, because they think it’s the “smart” move for guaranteeing Democratic victories in the ensuing general elections. As if this is still the era of post-WWII consensus politics that actually ended thirty fucking years ago. And worse yet, they’ve been “successful.”
Here in Maryland, Democrats funded and helped nominate a lunatic Trumpist conspiracy theorist and election denier for governor. They did the same in Pennsylvania, and that extremist Republican candidate now has a good shot to win the general election. In Michigan, Democrats spent more money promoting a right wing authoritarian Congressional candidate than the candidate himself did. And now he might beat the Democratic candidate.
If right wing authoritarianism captures America, such Democrats will have a tremendous amount of blood on their hands and must be held to account. No doubt, many of these are the same people who whined about how Nader voters threw the election to George Bush in 2000. Irony runs thick these days. Please, tell me again, what is the enemy of the good?
American democracy hangs in the balance while dogmatic centrists complain about extremism on “both sides.” Democratic norms and institutions are increasingly and seriously threatened by raging right wing populism and authoritarianism. And this fever will likely take another decade to burn itself out. The era of conflict is well upon us. To pretend otherwise is to be dangerously naive. For now, the center is the enemy of the good. The good is basic civil rights for women, for minorities, and for anyone who disagrees with the far right’s agenda and anti-democratic tactics. If the far right is going to define our basic civil and political rights as radical, then we must be radical. We must offer no compromise in defending those rights. We draw a hard line around them. They are non-negotiable. They are our bedrock. They are perfect.