It’s All About Race

I’ve been working my way through the numerous books–both the physical ones and the ones on my Kindle–that have been piling up on my nightstand, and I’ve just finished How Democracies Die. It’s a book that has generated a lot of discussion, for obvious reasons. The two scholars who wrote it in 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zimblatt, have spent their academic careers focusing on the ups and downs of democratic governments around the globe. That focus has allowed them to draw conclusions about the normative elements that serve as guardrails protecting democratic institutions, and about the signs  warning of democratic collapse.

There’s a lot to absorb from the book’s copious descriptions of democratic failures in a wide variety of countries–and the authors make no bones about the reality of the threat to American institutions posed by Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. It’s all pretty grim–and entirely persuasive.

That said, I was particularly struck by one of the book’s central observations–probably because it confirms my strong belief that support for Trump/MAGA is almost entirely rooted in racism.

About halfway through the book, the authors identified two democratic norms that are essential to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. In other words, acknowledging the legitimacy of one’s political opponents, and “forbearing” to abuse or over-use institutional weapons like the filibuster or Mitch McConnell’s legal but shockingly undemocratic theft of a Supreme Court seat. Extreme polarization erodes those norms; as they write, when societies sort themselves into political camps whose world-views aren’t just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain.

When the authors analyzed what had allowed America’s politicians to sustain basic democratic norms for a period running roughly from the collapse of Reconstruction through the 1980s, they came to a very troubling conclusion–that during that time period, “The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” To the extent that America operated with bipartisanship and experienced reduced polarization during that extended time period, those outcomes “came at the cost of keeping civil rights off the political agenda.”

In the final paragraph of Chapter Six, they write

America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.

That paragraph confirms what a growing body of research has verified–and what any semi-sentient observer can see. The election of Barack Obama unleashed the overt expression of formerly-suppressed hatreds. It seeded the growth of White Christian nationalism, the huge reaction against anything seen as “woke,” the efforts to de-legitimatize efforts at inclusion–and explains the utter inability of most reasonable, non-racist Americans to understand the animus and fury of the MAGA movement.

That paragraph explains so much–as does a sentence in the final chapter, in which the authors concede that it is “difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities give up their dominant status without a fight.”

Even a cursory look at the current crop of GOP nominees up and down the various state ballots shows them publicly expressing opinions that would have been met with horror not all that long ago. Anti-Black, anti-Semitic, homophobic…meanwhile, the numerous Republican campaigns expressing hostility to immigration from the south hardly bother to veil their racism.

It’s been a long time since the Civil War. It’s been a long time since the South was able to dismantle Reconstruction. These days, the country’s accelerating social and demographic changes are making it increasingly difficult to maintain the dominance of White Christians. It’s the recognition of–and hysterical reaction to– that reality that explains Trump and MAGA. How Democracies Die warns us of the way that movement threatens not just social peace/tolerance, but the continued operation of America’s democratic institutions.

I keep thinking about that slogan “The South will rise again.”

It did. It’s now called the Republican Party, and How Democracies Die documents a lesson we have yet to learn: the persistence of this country’s deep-seated racism poses an existential threat to human decency, civic equality and the continuation of American democracy.


  1. Having lived in the south for 20 years of my federal career demonstrated the close ties between conservative Christian churches and racism. The latter was just below the surface but is now on display. They fear being treated the way they treated people outside of their little white enclave.

  2. They’ve already lost. We just have to make them aware of how badly they’ve lost in November. I wish we could banish them from our shores. Help them go live with Orban or Putin. But we’ll just have to shun them.

  3. This is a sobering and necessary book, and I also recommend their newest one, “Tyranny of the Minority”.
    I see evidence of much progress. I went to a segregated high school in Oklahoma. It was not until my senior year that we had one black student. Today, I will walk around city streets (I am in Boston today) and there will be multi-racial couples, people of many “races” will be mingling freely, without a thought to it, which was something many decades ago would have been remarkable if not unthinkable. It is that progress that a continually shrinking number of racist white people are terrified of, and that fear drives the political divide. People in power will do and believe whatever they can to maintain that power, but the math is not in their favor. Sooner or later “White” will no longer be the majority.

  4. It’s the way it is because we let it. What we have today is a monster of our own creation. How could that be? We don’t have any obligatory duties to the country except to pay taxes. We don’t have to vote. We don’t have to join the armed forces. We don’t have to do anything that rates as service for the common good.

    Since we don’t have to, why should we? We should do something that brings us into contact with others, and by contact I mean working with those who are not like us to achieve a common goal, eating together, and living in close proximity to one another. We usually fear what we don’t know. We won’t end up liking everyone, but we will have a chance to see that, “we are more alike my friends, than we are unalike.” (Human Family” by Maya Angelou)

  5. President Obama triggered the rise of Trump, which merged with the Tea Party movement from earlier periods. Most of us pointed to the blatant racism inherent in the billionaire-funded Tea Party. Ian Haney Lopez coined the term “dog-whistle politics” because, like Ronnie did in the 80s, the TP used code words.

    Trump came along during Obama’s presidency and threw out the dog whistle. He made it irrelevant and let the Republicans’ racism normalize. In time, they dropped all pretenses. It was also the development of “identity politics.”

    In all cultures, diversity brings strength. The US hasn’t learned that lesson—ever. “We the people” was a marketing slogan. It wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

    Here’s the kicker: it’s not about race. It’s about class. MLK, Jr. was learning that lesson and started preaching to small white churches throughout the South. Johnson let him score with the Civil Rights movement, but when MLK started protesting the war and promoting class oppression, he had to be stopped. The oligarchy couldn’t handle that!

    Sadly, our win-lose, predatory capitalism, conquerer-conquered mentality has been used in geopolitics. “American exceptionalism” is a unipolar framework in which the US wants to rule and everyone else follows; as within, so without. We are in a multipolar world, but the US doesn’t like it. As Sheila and others will point out clearly, our house is divided. If we can’t get our shit together internally, we have no business lecturing other countries. If we can’t adhere to our laws or international law, we have no business lecturing others.

    It will require moral leadership, but not religious leadership. I don’t think the oligarchy or Washington has a clue. Our government is not moral, and our oligarchy-owned media won’t hold it accountable. We are in a quandary!

  6. Just watched the movie Devil In A Blue Dress, with a young Denzel Washington (1995), which depicted life in the late 40s and early 50s, full of overt and often deadly racism (very good movie IMHO). I remember both subtle and not-so-subtle racism in my childhood years in Western Pennsylvania, and know that it still exists there to this day, as it does everywhere to varying degrees. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti LGBTQ+ and all regressive attitudes are alive and well in the good old USofA, just as they have been since the beginning. Some have been smoothed out a bit, and yes there have been progressive advances, but someone like trump comes along and like cicadas all those who really really wish it could be like the good old days of the 1950s, or the 1860s, or whatever era they can conjure up that includes things run by old white men with everything else in its place, emerge with a hatred and vitriol that has been simmering just below the surface. I still believe, however, that there are more of us progressives (come on GenZs!) than there are of those aforementioned regressives. VOTE! It really is our only chance to save this democracy. A lot of damage has already been done, much of it at state and local levels, so we’ll have our hands full in a modern day Reconstruction. Joe Biden is old and decent, and has initiated and helped pass some of the most far-reaching, positive infrastructure (which the GOP is eager to accept credit for even though not voting for it) in our country’s history. There is no doubt as to who is the better candidate for POTUS.

  7. Perhaps the word “racism” is overused. To me, “tribalism” fits us better here and now. Racism is too narrow to fit what we have degenerated into.

    “Tribalism” fits better because it encompasses all of us, not just the ones distinguishable by pronounced skin shade, hair texture, and culture.

    We are also not divided by the countries our ancestors emigrated from but by where we choose to live now.

    That gives each of us a tough choice to make. Do we follow the culture of liberal democracy our Constitution insists on, or do we follow our tribal instincts and side with the people who are more narrowly like us?

    How did the fall from grace begin?

    I posit that the biggest new force in our lives is pervasive commercial media entertainment as a carrier of tribalism. That is incompatible with liberal democracy because it gathers up the wealth from workers at too high a rate and deposits it into banks’ accounts, which are already too full from its success, thus reinforcing its influence on our behavior and thoughts. Doing the same thing over and over just keeps the wealth flowing up at increasing rates.

    It is Capitalism on steroids.

  8. “It’s the way it is because we let it. What we have today is a monster of our own creation. How could that be?”

    Peggy; it “be” this way because we treat the opposition by following laws, rules, ordinances, upholding Oaths of Office, using civility, humanitarian consideration, respect, understanding our responsibilities and maintaining our self respect. All part of democracy, Rule of Law and upholding the Constitution; none of which is evidenced by the opposition, once known as the Republican party. They do not understand the meanings of “Republic” or “Democracy”; power and control by using money, feeding the underlying racism with lies and meaningless promises of “power to the people” using Scripture and pseudo-Christianity as their source. It has always been and will always be racism…”The Bible tells them so!”

    Your “…we don’t have tos…” are our rights and our freedoms in a democracy which will never be found in a Dictatorship.

    “Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
    Go ahead and cheat a friend.
    Do it in the name of heaven,
    You’ll be justified in the end.” “One Tin Soldier”, theme song from “Billy Jack”

  9. Your comments, Shelia, are right on target. Racism, Capitalism, Tribalism, homophobia, misogyny, and other terms are converging into a “tipping point.” Will we return to employing the two guardrails or fall off the cliff as a nation? I want to add one other factor: religion (more especially, right-wing versions of Christianity). Spearheaded by the insidious Heritage Foundation, an extremely well-funded group intends to make the US something it has never been, a Christian nation.

  10. Pete. I think “pervasive commercial media entertainment” sometimes supports tribalism but often supports liberal democracy. Think about All in the Family, Murphy Brown, The Ellen Degeneres Show, and the hundreds of TV shows and movies that now portray every kind of minority in positive ways. Sure, there are examples to support your point, but they are not at all the whole story. Commercial media produces what sells and there is a huge market for liberalism.

  11. After reading HCR’s blog from yesterday, it becomes glaringly obvious that there is more to it than racial divides. Clarence Thomas exemplifies that difference.
    “Extreme polarization erodes those norms; as they write, when societies sort themselves into political camps whose world-views aren’t just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain.”
    There are others like him in all races and ethnicities. They see the power owned by the majority and decide to use the majority tactics to secure their own power. What they deliberately dismiss is the rapidity with which they will get thrown under the bus when the majority exerts their greater power.
    Patterns of tribal identity exist all around us, especially in metropolitan areas. Living in places of comforting sameness is nothing new. Where I grew up in Chicago, ethnic neighborhoods were the norm. Everyone knew where immigrant Poles, Italians, Jews, Irish, German, Asian, African, Hispanic, etc. businesses and residences were. Now we see even more subsets, by religion like Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist, etc., to say nothing of by class (almost exclusively white due to decades of discrimination by their majority).
    Rural areas of the country have been dominated by the white majority since the beginning when only white males land owners controlled access to power. There are pockets of minorities in rural areas. Even then, the majority exerts control with restrictions to services and outright threats and use of violence.
    Changing the dynamics of that power distribution almost always ends up in violent conflict. I fear that the MAGA will violently disrupt polling places in November, especially in states where they are already in control. There will be enough questions about legitimate voting totals to justify throwing the election into the House for resolution, as has been the plan all along.
    Voting may be much more dangerous than it has ever been in the last 60 years.
    “The call is coming from inside the house.”…HCR, “Letters from an American”

  12. I politely disagree – “it’s all about money” – I don’t think I need to explain that. And, again, there is no such thing as race:

    “Race has no biological reality. The Human Genome Project confirmed in 2003 that the genetic makeup of all human beings is 99.9 percent identical. The DNA of white people is indistinguishable from the DNA of Asian people — and of Black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, and Native American people. Unlike sex, which is etched into our chromosomes, race and ethnicity are subjective social constructs. Racial categories are objectively meaningless. There is no gene for race, and differences in skin color, hair texture, or eye shape have no more significance than any other physical variations among human beings.”

    Yes, there is prejudice against color, religion, disabilities, sex identity…and…money. Who hasn’t heard of “trailer trash”, “hillbillies” and the like.

  13. Trouble is, Lester, the polity of all shades THINK there are these differences and act on what they think, not scientific realities. I have long held that there is only one race and that the differences in hue and the like are of no consequence, but I fear I remain in a decided minority. Our task is to persuade the polity to think differently based on scientific proof, a formidable and time-consuming but necessary job.

  14. Sharon, the problem is that we each choose to be entertained but what feels good and what feels best is hearing and seeing “the world is exactly how you see it. You are right. You are smart.”

  15. I have to agree with Sheila’s interpretation of the book, and what the authors say for the most part.
    To be tolerant, you have to have respect. And just an example of this kerfuffle between Green and Cortez, shows the lack of respect. And the forbearance issue, absolutely. Maybe The writers of the constitutional structure assumed that one person could have an issue and hold up the entire proceedings for an indefinite length of time, but they also made an assumption that those elected would be rational. Many are not rational today. Many have no respect today, many are just in it to win it! And the only thing that’s won is mal’effective power and Me-ist self-a-grandized narcissism. Greater good be damned. Are there any so-called men of goodwill? Can you identify any public servant that truly exudes goodwill towards their fellow Man (citizen) and neighbor? If you’re honest, there are none.

    Perfection never is derived from imperfection. When something that’s imperfect attempts to design perfection, it always without exception fails. No matter what happens later this year, imperfection is going to rule the day. And, more imperfection is going to be heaped upon the rot that this government portrays on a daily basis. Like I’ve said a million times in the past 10 years or so, look at history, humanity doesn’t learn from it, they follow it down the rabbit hole.

  16. The reason we had stability (not-polarization) before is that the white dumbs were split between the pro-worker, racist Democrats and the anti-worker, tolerant Republicans. We now have a pro-worker, anti-racist Democratic Party and an anti-worker, racist Republican Party.

    The great divisions in our society are those of intelligence and empathy (which of course are highly correlated), and the Republicans have, in essence, cornered the market on stupidity and indecency. Our differences are no longer political but moral.

    Is the American population sufficiently diverse in 2024 to overcome the overwhelming stupidity and cruelty of the majority of whites? We shall see.

  17. It’s trying/difficult to see the Maga party not observe tolerance or forbearance for US Constitution and rule of law. The promotion to elect an indicted criminal who couldn’t legitimately clear a national security clearance is evidence of that. When the US Speaker of the House shows up at tfg’s hush money trial to support tfg in his crimes and signal wanting to be Maga Veep candidate, Johnson is disrespecting/abusing the office of Speaker.
    I agree that the Libertine capitalists seem to network and work together to build and enhance their power to direct the country in ways that that will assure their continued power and success. They have responsibility in stirring up our cultural hornets’ nest (wars) and cause much fear and confusion, that they can then take advantage of for their benefit.
    Most Americans would like a sense of security, safety and dignity that is a possibility in a real Democracy, and I hope enough Americans see and vote that way this fall.

  18. More white women voted for Trump in 2016 than for Clinton. Race “trumped” gender.

  19. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Trumpism’s racism in 2017, in The Atlantic.

    In 2016, Trump won the vote of virtually any and every White cohort you can name — young or old, male or female, well or less educated, affluent or poor, and by geographic region.

    The Atlantic article is now unfortunately paywalled, but an audio recording of the article is still available to all. The whole is worth a listen. The electoral statistics recap begins about 9 minutes in.

  20. Then, too, there’s this quote:

    “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. The will reject democracy.”
    –David Frum

  21. The election of Drump in 2016 and his subsequent administration showed us how fragile norms can be. Norms are most definitely NOT ENOUGH to maintain democracy. The law must be more stringent and enforced equally for poor, rich, and everyone else in between. What good is the Hatch Act when it lacks “teeth” or serious and enforced consequences? Why should a judge bother with “shall recuse” to avoid perceivable conflict of interest, when there is no one to make sure such obviously biased judges such as Aileen Cannon and Clarence Thomas step aside when they have personal interests in a case? And why are only some subpoena-breakers prosecuted and others not like Jim Jordan, et al? This stinks.

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