More fearful of losing power than losing democracy

Published September 30, 2021

By Thomas Mills

Over the past few months, several people have asked me about my audience and why I’m writing. My audience is people who follow North Carolina politics, but I also write for myself. I started PoliticsNC in 2013 because I was frustrated with the coverage of North Carolina government and politics and I had something to say about it. 

After eight years, I now write because it’s habit and a discipline. I don’t want to lose that. I’ve spent much of the past 30 years working in politics and grew up in a political family. I think a lot about how the state has changed in my lifetime and try to understand why those changes occurred. I’ve been thinking a whole lot about how we got to where we are today. 

In particular, I’m trying to understand how the people with whom I grew up and to whom I am related by blood moved from seemingly moderate conservatives to blindly following an authoritarian conman and supporting insurrection. Robert Kagan, a conservative intellectual and opinion columnist, argues that they are not an aberration but “normal” people who are acting “as people have for centuries. They put their trust in family, tribe, religion and race.” 

 He points out that “Europeans who joined fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s were also from the middle classes. No doubt many of them were good parents and neighbors, too. People do things as part of a mass movement that they would not do as individuals, especially if they are convinced that others are out to destroy their way of life.” That description also defines the lynch mobs that were part of keeping the social order of the South for almost a hundred years following the Civil War. 

I believe that is the root of the problem. White working class and middle class Americans feared a diverse country would lessen their power and influence in the country. Their reasons for opposing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s have turned out to be correct. Over the past decade, White population has declined for the first time in the history of the nation. Within 25 years, White Americans will no longer make up a majority of the country. 

 These Americans are scared of losing their way of life. Their towns and counties are losing population. Churches and civic organizations are dying. If their children leave for college or the military, they often don’t come home. In many cases, immigrants seem to be the only people moving into their communities. It’s not the America they want and they are angry about changes beyond their control.

I’m concerned about the lack of conservative voices within the GOP who are pushing back against authoritarian forces within the party. With the exception of the never-Trumpers, conservatives seem to have fallen into line, largely rejecting their reverence for institutions and embracing radical restructuring of the political process to preserve power. They are more concerned about Democrats than Trumpists. They are more fearful of losing power than losing democracy.

As Kagan points out, conservatives in Germany allied with Nazis because they feared the socialists more. And as Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beasts makes clear, the conservative establishment in Germany never took Hitler seriously and assumed they would be in control of the country. They never anticipated the horrors of Nazism even though they were complicit in its rise. 

Today, too many conservative thought leaders are quiet while too many Republican elected officials are enabling Trump. I believe, as Kagan does, that the threat to our democracy is real. With a largely populist mob making up the GOP rank-and-file, the Republican leadership is setting the stage to steal the next election by reducing the influence of independent organizations and replacing responsible gatekeepers of the democratic process with partisan hacks willing to do the bidding of the Trumpist movement. 

On these issues, my audience is anybody who wants to understand the anti-democratic currents running through our society today. I hope some of them are thoughtful conservative leaders who will stand up before it’s too late. I don’t believe that policy matters are the most important issues confronting our country. I believe preserving the democratic tradition and resisting the authoritarian movement should dominate the political discourse. And I don’t believe it will be a short fight.