Ever since Reagan, Republicans view any branch of government they have ever controlled as their birthright. Clinton and Obama were illegitimate in their eyes because the Republicans own the presidency. The same goes, but even more, for the Supreme Court. Media commentary seems bizarrely fixated on the idea that the Republicans are just now securing control of the Supreme Court, but they have actually held a majority for most of our lifetimes — secured in part by appointments from Republican presidents installed against the popular will. In reality, Democrats had their first shot at a majority in almost a generation, and the thought of allowing that was so unthinkable that the Republicans were basically willing to burn down everything. And the media went along with it as a case of “political hardball,” rather than the unprecedented insult to the American people it really was.
This points to a deeper crisis in our system. You can’t have a party-based representative democracy when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other party. The premise is that you alternate power and each party has the right to implement its agenda while in power. Republicans reject that premise. For them, any Democratic president or congressional majority is a state of absolute emergency. The number of Republicans willing to engage in traditional horse-trading politics while in the minority has dwindled sharply, while there are plenty of Democrats willing to play ball — Joe Manchin, most dramatically, but also many others who have voted for Trump cabinet and court appointees on the principle that the president has a right to appoint people who share his views, as long as they are otherwise qualified. Republicans refuse to even consider a Democratic Supreme Court nominee who would change the partisan balance, while many Democrats happily voted for the boring conservative who was nominated for the “stolen” seat and only mounted serious opposition when Kavanaugh turned out to have a cloud of sexual abuse and violent alcoholism in his past. And again, Republicans treated these reasonable concerns as an unprecedented outrage — because they own the court.
At this point, by continuing to play along with the system as it exists, Democrats objectively exist to give procedural cover for Republican rule. And it’s not clear to me how to break out of that pattern, because the public discourse is so systematically corrupt and false. Republican voters have been so brainwashed to believe that the Democrats secretly control everything that they are effectively inoculated against the idea that Republicans are rigging the system. The mainstream media has no interest in dispelling these illusions. Even if the Democrats managed to thoroughly delegitimate the Republicans in the eyes of their own base, they have no means to exercise institutional power — and hence they would only provide further justification to the Republican habit (accelerated under Trump) of governing only on behalf of their “base” and viewing the opposition party and public opinion with contempt.
Like many, I find the idea of delegitimating the Republicans and, with them, the whole Constitutional system deeply appealing. But in the absence of a plausible alternative with a claim to popular legitimacy, delegitimizing the system creates a situation where force decides, and I think we all know who would win if push came to shove. Yet surely there comes a point when the attempt to avoid civil war becomes a way of conceding victory in advance. Perhaps push has already come to shove — but in that case, it is very unclear how to proceed. Electoral victory is one option, but the Republicans have already primed their base to reject the validity of election results.
The last time our country was on the brink of civil war, the slavers had a stranglehold on institutional power and the terms of debate and yet continually viewed themselves as oppressed victims — and as soon as an opposition president took office, they decided to blow up the country rather than accept his victory. Like contemporary Democrats, Lincoln was conciliatory to a fault, but the slavers would not take yes for an answer. Lincoln was, of course, actually able to become president in the first place despite the slavers’ opposition. If a Democrat won the 2020 election, would they even be able to take office? Would Republicans control enough state-level governments to steal the Electoral College outright? And then what?