Power is the ability to get what you want, even in opposition to others. In our two-party system, the party in power can pass legislation the other party may oppose.
Democrats thought they were in power, but Biden’s inability to pass his Build Back Better legislation casts doubt on how much power Democrats actually have.
In my state of Virginia, the governor in power has signed a raft of executive orders, including banning the teaching of “divisive concepts.”
We see this as a normal and anticipated aspect of democracy. We want our party in power so they can pass the legislation we think is best.
But we miss a crucial element in this understanding.
The party in power has traditionally had authority as well.
Power minus authority
Sociologists talk about authority as the legitimate power that one group or individual holds over another. People are said to be in positions of authority when they can issue commands and reasonably expect them to be carried out.
We don’t say parents have “power” over their children. That implies conflict and struggle. Instead, we say they have authority. We expect children to (more or less) willingly be guided by their parents.
And so, although authority is rooted in power, it rests on a belief that the person issuing commands is doing so legitimately. Authorities manage, command, lead and govern with consent of the governed.
Power in the absence of the consent of the governed is tyranny. Since at least Obama’s presidency, the Republican Party has been making plays for power with little regard for authority.
From complex to simple
This line of reasoning is not new. There are several lines of analysis for what is happening with the Republican Party.
Some focus on the dismantling of our system of free and fair elections and call it authoritarianism. A despotic figure rises to power and attempts to corrupt the democratic process to maintain power.
I believe Republicans have been doing this in fits and starts since the 1960s. However, this critique gained momentum during the Trump presidency, as he seemed to be operating from a dictator’s playbook and reached a crescendo after the J6 insurrection.
Others adopt a more complex sociocultural analysis and will liken the current, Trump-led far-right turn of the Republican party to fascism.
It’s also hard to tell what people mean when they say fascism, and resorting to a Wikipedia search doesn’t cut it. Vox did a piece where eight experts weighed in. “Is Trump a fascist?” They concluded no.
Authoritarianism and fascism are not mutually exclusive, as a fascist government is an authoritarian government.
Another analysis worth considering is that the Republican Party is attempting to make southern politics national.
In an interview with the Editorial Board’s own John Stoehr, professor of political science Angie Maxwell argued that the American south is a one-party system characterized by “a politics of entertainment as opposed to a contest of ideas.”
Moreover, “the long history of one-party politics in the south has created real structural barriers to progress and change.”
Maxwell argues that as more states fall under one-party rule, they will also experience problems of the American South. Stoehr subtitles his interview with Dr. Maxwell “The American south as mini-Russia.”
Authoritarianism. Fascism. Mini-Russia.
These are all fruitful ways of thinking about our current political climate. But I tend to look at these issues more straightforwardly.
The current iteration of the GOP wants power. It cares nothing about legitimacy. It’s as simple as that. We may end up describing it as authoritarianism or fascism or whatever. But it’s all about gaining power by hook or crook, and their power plays need cataloging.
Where to start?
I guess the first place is voting and elections.
- According to the ACLU, Republicans have introduced more than 400 anti-voter bills across the country in recent years. Voter suppression has become a major talking point on the left for a good reason. Voting is the primary way people exercise their voice. The Republicans are trying to silence that voice.
- The nation is becoming browner, especially where Republicans are in power. The nation’s population growth in the 2020 census came largely from racial minorities in Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. In these states, Republicans control redistricting, and they are working hard at gerrymandering districts to keep them red.
- The ultimate power play, thankfully unrealized, was to overturn legitimate election results. One hundred and forty-seven Republicans voted to overturn a free and fair presidential election. We can’t overlook the desire to manipulate our knowledge landscape. Severing the population from truth is its own type of power play.
- The Trump administration had on several occasions denied access by revoking press passes and banning reporters.
- If one imagines this is simply an idiosyncrasy of the Trump administration, consider that Republicans are possibly withdrawing from public debates. The RNC claims that the Commission on Presidential Debates is biased towards Democrats.
- Across the nation, Republicans are attempting to sever the population from the truth by instituting truth bans. Since January of last year, 33 states have “introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.”
Power and precarity
A more complex analysis will see these power plays as fitting within an overall scheme to institute a totalitarian, one-party state. I’m not sure that is the best way to understand the dynamics at play.
These accumulate into qualitative changes in how our democracy – what’s left of it – operates. But let’s not lose the trees for the forest.
Republicans are not interested in governing with legitimate authority. Instead, they are taking deliberate action that’s designed to gain or maintain power, regardless of what the population wants.
They are taking these actions not because of a grand scheme of dismantling democracy. At least, not intentionally. They are doing these things because of precarity.
They know that if they let democracy play out, they would have little authority in this country. And so, by necessity, they suppress votes, gerrymander, contest election results and ban the truth.