Looking at Donald Trump’s first year as president, it’s tempting to make him the sole focus. And, oh my, what a temptation that is!

But resist. That laser focus misses the bigger picture, which goes well beyond the president: American democracy is slowly eroding toward authoritarianism. Race is at the center of this erosion.

In their recent book “How Democracies Die,” which compares Trump to full-on authoritarian leaders, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe the president as a leader with strong authoritarian tendencies who has “repeatedly scraped up against the (democratic) guardrails.”

Hawaii protesters rallied in defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September after President Donald Trump announced he would dismantle the immigration policy.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The erosion toward authoritarianism is about these guardrails, and the threats to the guardrails are rooted in race.

But before we get there, let’s consider the nature of the challenge.

Soon the majority of the U.S. population will be non-white. Danielle Allen describes how challenging this demographic change is.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority … (that’s resulted in) political equality (and) social equality.”

“We are engaged,” she says, “in a fight over whether to work together to build such a world.”

Since 1960 two forces have driven American politics — the civil rights movement and a counter to that, which distrusts and resents much of what this movement has come to stand for.

That’s the fight.

Race, Democratic Norms And Gatekeeping

There are two sorts of guardrails that protect democracy: gatekeepers and norms.

The gatekeepers either fail to prevent or actively contribute to the decline. Norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance, those crucial informal rules that hold democracy together, fall by the wayside.

Levitsky and Ziblatt document how often Trump violates those good norms.

But in fact, as crucial as those protective norms are, they have a bad racial history. People accepted them as long as racial equality was kept out of the picture.

One of the most common illusions that political parties have is that they can work with an anti-democratic leader.

“The norms sustaining our political system,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write, “rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion… Mutual toleration was established only after the issue of racial equality was removed from the political agenda.”

Since World War II, countries that have seen their democracy erode generally haven’t experienced this through dramatic military coups. Democracy has more typically disappeared in slow, sometimes barely perceptible steps with elected officials doing things to make this happen.

Political parties are the key gatekeepers, especially the party in power. You probably see where this is going.

Historically, one of the most common illusions that political parties have is that they can work with, by some combination of resistance and cooperation, an anti-democratic leader.

Many Republican, victims of this illusion, have weakened the guardrails in several ways.

They were unable to prevent Trump from getting the nomination in the first place and, for the most part they, including Trump’s Republican congressional critics, have supported the president.

So instead of unifying to contest Trump, the GOP has deferred to or defended him. Most significantly, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, they excuse his behavior — that’s just Trump being Trump.

Playing To The Constituency

This is not simply political expediency, accepting a bad leader in exchange for a good tax bill. There’s a racial history behind this too.

White people are the GOP’s constituency. For the past 50 years, the GOP has worked hard and successfully to appeal to the racial insecurities of white people.

The two political parties now definitively divide on the basis of race.

In every presidential election since 1968 the majority of whites have voted Republican, while people of color have voted Democrat.

The degree of racial resentment among whites has stayed about the same since 1988, but what’s changed significantly is this resentment’s significance.

Today the degree of a person’s racial resentment has become a powerful predictor of how people feel about all kinds of major political issues. Racial resentment is a key divider.

In the past, U.S. democracy depended on the norms of mutual tolerance, where competing parties accepted one another as legitimate rivals, as well as on the combination of patience, moderation and self-control that Levitsky and Ziblatt call forbearance.

In short, politics was not all about playing for keeps. Well it is now, both in the way Congress does its business and the way the rest of us tend to out-group and distrust those with opposing political views

The degree of racial resentment among whites has stayed about the same since 1988, but what’s changed significantly is this resentment’s significance.

From 1870 until the civil rights era in the 1960s, racial justice was pretty much off the table. In deference to Southern Democrats, New Deal legislation and federal housing laws were written to exclude African Americans.

It was relatively easy to tolerate your opponents and bear with them if you avoid polarizing issues like race.

That’s no longer possible, not in the world we live in or the demographically different world that will arrive soon.

Here is the way Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize where we are:

When socioeconomic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain.

You see this played out in the increased importance of white resentment, in the battle over immigration, and in the struggle within the Democratic Party over identity politics and the ways to deal with the white working class.

Trump and his non-gatekeeping enablers make this worse, but race and polarization have roots that go much deeper and will continue, Trump or no Trump.

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