Playing ball with insurrectionists

Are Democrats up to the task of protecting democracy?

US President Joe Biden chats with members of the the Republican baseball team as they watch the Congressional Baseball Game from their dugout at Nationals Park in Washington, DC on September 29, 2021.

Following the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, a majority of congressional Republicans voted in support of the rioters’ chief demand: to overturn the results of the November 2020 election, effectively ending American democracy as we’ve known it for the past 245 years.

Commenters at the time — myself included — expressed concern that neither Joe Biden nor congressional Democrats were up to the challenge of combatting the rising authoritarianism within the Republican party. And indeed in the months since, Democrats have made little progress on the measures most likely to prevent future soft coup attempts — things like censuring and expelling the insurrectionist members of Congress, reforming the electoral process to patch loopholes exploitable by anti-democratic forces, and changing how we elect House members in order to ensure a closer match between public opinion and political representation.

But few things have filled me with as much despair for the future as last night’s spectacle at Nationals Park in DC, when Democrats, staring down the barrel of a mid-pandemic government shutdown and a global financial collapse triggered by a failure to raise the debt ceiling, took the night off to play a friendly game of baseball with the same Republicans who voted to overturn the election just 9 months ago.

Steve Morris of The Recount has the grim numbers: of the 38 Republicans in attendance at the game, 30 voted to overturn the election, 5 have called Biden an “illegitimate” president, and one — Alabama’s Mo Brooks — spoke at the January 6 MAGA rally that preceded the Capitol invasion.

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In normal times, the annual congressional ballgame is a harmless exercise that allows members to perform a little bipartisanship while raising money for charity. In 1948, South Carolina Democrat James Richards summed up the ethos of the game: “It is a wonderful thing to get together and show the people of the United States that regardless of the fact that we sometimes differ on party matters, that after all we love our country and our flag, and like every boy in America, we love our great national game.”

But these are not normal times. One of the parties, finding its policy preferences increasingly out of line with public opinion, is laying the groundwork to ensure that the next January 6th-style coup attempt doesn’t fail. Among other things, the party is

In most modern democracies, political parties don’t operate this way. For the past year at least, political scientists have been sounding the alarm that the actions of the Republican party are akin to what you see in formerly democratic regimes backsliding into authoritarianism — actions that “eviscerate democracy’s substance behind a carefully crafted veneer of legality and constitutionality,” as democracy experts Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt put it recently.

When experts run comparative analyses to assess global political parties’ commitment to small-d democratic ideals, they find that the Republican party is has more in common with repressive autocratic parties in places like Hungary in Turkey than it does with conservative parties elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than aggressively confronting and condemning these actions — say, by using their authority to censure and reprimand Republican congressmen who supported the insurrection — Democrats have chosen to play softball (almost literally, in the case of last night’s ballgame). By taking the field with the people working to overturn the existing Constitutional order, Democrats are effectively saying that the sanctity of democracy is yet another “partisan difference” that can be set aside for an evening of light entertainment.

What’s happening in Congress is similar to the pattern we’re seeing in institutions across the country: the people with the actual power to curtail GOP authoritarianism are doing virtually nothing about it. The best lack all conviction.

Joe Biden made an appearance at last night’s game too. One might think that after the year he’s had, after the ongoing GOP efforts to disenfranchise American voters and cast his election as illegitimate, he might be ready to take a tougher stand against the insurrectionist caucus. Instead, he served them ice cream.