The Republican Imperium

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Republican Party represent not just a disturbing, destructive social and political movement; they also pose a threat to the very ideas of democracy and democratic government. This can be seen (it’s not as if they work hard or consistently to hide it) in two distinct, if also ultimately related ways. 

First, Republicans have been orchestrating a nationwide campaign to suppress voter turnout. Invoking the possibility of voter fraud, their own fabrication masquerading as a cause, the GOP has managed to pass numerous voter identification laws, especially in battleground states, to disenfranchise American citizens. The identification requirement, supposedly neutral, discriminates against the poor, elderly, young, and minorities, all of whom tend to vote Democratic. Republicans have also been purging election rosters of eligible voters (claiming citizens to be noncitizens), curtailing early voting periods, sanctioning voter registration campaigns with criminal penalties for the smallest of clerical errors, and whatever else they can think of to depress Democratic turnout. In moments of candor, they publicly admit these electoral measures are designed to produce one result: the election of Mitt Romney. Furious at the presidential election result four years ago, the GOP targeted for suppression groups critical to Obama’s victory. The GOP also has at its disposal electoral vigilantes (True the Vote) who plan to harass and intimidate voters at the polls, effectively forcing or keeping them at home. The 2012 election could well produce an illegitimate president, a Republican who holds office by virtue of crimes against democracy. The GOP is utterly indifferent to such a possible outcome, believing that it and only it has a right to rule in the United States. This conviction, rooted in a sense of superiority, patriotism, and truth, informs another feature of Republican conduct dominant these last four years: a “politics” of total obstruction, even destruction, no matter the social or economic cost, of an African-American president they loathe. A minority party, the GOP acts as if it has a mandate to rule. Remarkably, Republicans believed from the start that there would be no political cost to their sabotage insofar as they also believed the American voter would ultimately hold Obama responsible for the wreckage they produced. Republicans, in short, indulge an ugly form of political entitlement, namely, that they can commandeer a system to produce their desired outcomes, which, by definition, are the right outcomes. The presumption of political entitlement matches their sense of social and economic entitlement, deploying the vast resources of the state (subsidies, tax breaks, etc.) to enrich themselves—again, no matter the cost to others.

This brings me to the second source of the threat the GOP poses to the very idea of democracy. To many observers of American politics, Republican machinations may seem excessive but nothing more. Yet the GOP conducts itself domestically much like European imperialism conducted itself in the heyday of Western colonization in Africa and the Middle East. The latter ignored the natives of the lands it conquered, unwilling and unable to see them or the ways of life they had cultivate for generations. Europeans would treat natives as effectively invisible and proceed to remake (read: steal, exploit) the country in their own grand image. The dominant motif of the Romney-Ryan campaign, similarly, is, “We can rebuild it.” This claim presumes and professes a sense of overwhelming power, a power capable of removing any obstacles in its path. The power is so fantastic that Romney believes his mere election will result in economic revival. He doesn’t actually have to do anything to spur renewal. His mere status as President suffices. The claim also suggests that nothing meaningful or valuable (no institution, organization, party, program, or policy) stands in the way of rebuilding, certainly nothing Republicans can see. They are thus free to dismantle the social safety system and network of public institutions that tens of millions of hard-working citizens built across generations and earned, through blood, sweat, and tears, the right to enjoy. It would afford a modicum of protection against the regular, predictable ravages of an economic system the GOP would like to unleash on them. Accordingly, when Romney talks about “getting government out of the way,” this does not mean freeing economic actors to create jobs; they can do that already. It means leaving tens of millions of people exposed and vulnerable to the inevitable depredations of an economic and political system designed to concentrate wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands—hence the pathological hatred of unions, whether public or private, and the drive to eradicate them from American life. Opposition, let alone resistance, cannot be tolerated.

It’s no coincidence that Romney and Ryan champion more of the same policies and programs that led to the greatest economic crisis and social destruction since the Depression. The superrich thrive in these circumstances. The country may suffer, but they continue to prosper—and further separate themselves from the rest. The GOP relishes the brutality of a class warfare in which it enjoys a virtual monopoly of the social, political, and economic weapons needed to wage it. The GOP disdains the so-called 47% (the real figure is actually much higher) which would be left to fend for itself in a world where it has been effectively disempowered, stripped of its prior social democratic accomplishments and protections in the name of free market utopianism. After all, the 47% are parasites: they produce nothing; they create nothing of value themselves; they only take from the government, which means they take that to which they have no real right. They can thus be ignored, despite their real presence throughout the country. Worse, they can be acted upon, which is what the GOP plans to do as Republicans rebuild a country in no need of their imprint.

The GOP dreams of a world in which the very rich arrogate to themselves the vast wealth a capitalist economy produces, an outcome made possible by rules, regulations, and practices they devise; given the force of law thanks to “representatives” they usher into office courtesy of a political system they have bought; and sanctified by an activist Supreme Court they have installed. It’s a vicious economic-political noose that threatens to tighten the grip on democracy and make it yield to the slightest pressure from its masters. Republicans must rule the country they profit from, even pillage, while the rest are to be marginalized and dismissed, essentially foreigners in their own land. Those who think Romney and the GOP live in the 1950s may need to reset their calendars. They’re not nearly so modern.