The Avatar Rule of Politics Is Killing America

The problem isn't the politicians. It's their voters.

1. Contempt

Here is a question:

Why don’t Republican senators feel the need to be hypocritical about the impeachment trial?

In a different time Republican senators would have spent this week saying some version of the following:

We have undertaken a sacred oath as jurors to listen to the evidence presented and at the end we’ll reach a conclusion. We don’t take any of this lightly. What happened on January 6 was a terrible moment for our country and must make sure it never happens again.

And then they would have ignored all of the evidence and voted to acquit Donald Trump without ever having even considered the alternative.

But they would have felt the need to pretend that they were giving the case a fair hearing so that their votes for acquittal would look like votes of principle.

Instead, we get this from a substantial number of Republican senators:

Sen. Rand Paul, who is not wearing a mask, was doodling squiggly lines on a white pad of paper. Next to him, his friend, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, was taking extensive notes, writing furiously as Democrats were making their arguments. . . .

Lee has a book titled "Senate procedure" on his desk, while Sen. Rick Scott has a book entitled "Vicksburg." Sen. Mike Braun was sitting in the back of the chamber reading The Hill newspaper, with a copy of Roll Call also at his desk.

Here’s another report from inside the chamber:

Mike Braun, R-Ind., at times appeared to be struggling to stay awake. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wasn’t paying much attention either as Rep. Neguse was going through his presentation, even as the two senators sitting next to her — Steve Daines of Montana and James Lankford of Oklahoma — were turned, looking past her at the TV screens.

Rand Paul, R-Ky., was doodling again what appeared to be a drawing of the Capitol building (and a rather sophisticated one at that.) Rick Scott, R-Fla., was studying what appeared to be a map of Southeast Asia.

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue and some Republicans no longer feel compelled to pay it.

Why is that?

Let me explain.

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2. The Voters Decide

It is generally a mistake to view elected politicians as autonomous actors: That they have the freedom to be either virtuous or wicked. That, at any given crossroads, they can choose either X or Y.

Instead, you should view elected officials as avatars of their voters. What I’ll call the Avatar Rule of Politics is:

Politicians will only be as virtuous as their voters allow, or as wicked as their voters demand.

Which, in the case of the current Republican electorate, is kind of a problem. Republican voters are the ones who supported overthrowing the constitutional order and favored a putsch installing an unelected strongman. Republican voters are the ones who are—at scale—openly considering violence in order to “protect their way of life.”

In some localities, Republican voters might tolerate their elected representative giving a superficially respectful hearing to the impeachment. But in many cases these voters clearly prefer that their elected representatives show contempt.

And so contempt is what we get from a large number of Republican senators, who mock the idea that this trial is even worth holding. Even the supposedly “good” ones.

Now let’s get to the bad part.

The corollary to the Avatar Rule of Politics is that a democracy is only as stable its citizens want it to be.

So once you have a large enough bloc of voters who don’t want free and fair elections, and are openly supportive of overturning the democratic order, then your democracy is in danger.

Because what happens the next time a sitting Republican president loses reelection?

What happens is that if the party’s voters want him to try to overturn the results, then he will. Maybe only performatively. Maybe half-heartedly. But he’ll at least have to play-act an attempted coup.

Because it will be what his voters want.

I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m fundamentally short on America and this is why. It’s because some very large percentage of the country is no longer interested in democracy. Maybe that percentage is 15 percent, maybe it’s 40 percent. But it ain’t 2 percent.

That percentage is largely concentrated in a single political party. That party is not evenly distributed—which is to say diluted—across the country. It is concentrated in distinct geographic regions which increases the party’s throw-weight.

As a result, this party will not be kept out of power indefinitely. At some point in the future—probably the near future—Republicans will be in power again.

And when that happens, they will do what their voters demand.

Maybe we’ll get lucky again and the next attempt to overturn the government will fail. But that’s the thing about being on the side of democracy: You have to win every single time. The anti-democratic forces only have to win once.

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3. Friday Steiner