News & Ideas  -  An Ongoing Struggle: Democratic Ideals and Illiberal Resistance


As part of the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing research, our staff and allied organizations gather for monthly Dayton Days research sessions to reflect on the ideas guiding our work and to share new insights. Conceptual thinkers from outside the foundation join us to talk about their work and provoke our thinking.

In November 2022, we invited Kevin C. O’Leary, director of Saving Democracy, to join us. Saving Democracy seeks to build a pro-democracy coalition from Liz Cheney conservatives to Bernie Sanders progressives and will conduct educational “deep canvassing” in selected congressional swing districts, focusing on the nation’s democratic tradition and individual liberty in a constitutional democracy. They plan to ask the business community to use the power of their political donations to reward political leaders who are committed to democracy. A research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine, O’Leary also teaches in the Political Science Department at Chapman University. He is the author of Saving Democracy: A Plan for Real Representation in America (2006) and Madison’s Sorrow: Today’s War on the Founders and America’s Liberal Ideal (2020).

Madison’s Sorrow frames the story of American history as the ongoing struggle between our liberal democratic ideal, which promotes liberty, equality, and constitutional democracy, and illiberal resistance. Illiberals remain committed to the caste and class structure of traditional authoritarian societies and seek to diminish the rights of those who they view as second-class citizens. The crux of my argument is that for much of our history, the United States was fortunate that the two elements in our political culture most conflicted in their commitment to constitutional democracy were housed in separate political parties. These two elements were racism, generated by the Southern plantation system and subsequent Jim Crow era, and the radical anti-government libertarianism of right-wing business owners. Although racism exists across the United States, many in the South shaped and perfected racism as a political weapon, one now employed against all groups they considered marginal, including Blacks.

For most of our history, neither racist Southern White Democrats nor right-wing Republican business elites dominated their respective parties. While these factions were powerful, both parties included many moderate and liberal elements that tempered reactionary anti-democratic tendencies. Because the extremists were split, there existed a powerful consensus across the mainstream of both major parties in favor of liberal democracy and putting the Constitution above partisan politics. After the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, this changed. Southern Whites began an exodus from the Democratic Party and joined forces with wealthy right-wing libertarians inside the GOP. Over the following decades, they marginalized traditional conservatives and propelled the Republican Party in a reactionary far-right direction. In the aftermath of the Gingrich speakership in the 1990s and the Tea Party revolt that followed, White privilege and radical anti-state libertarianism became the prime movers of a Trump-led GOP that has purged conservatives such as John McCain and Liz Cheney.  (For a fine study of the modern Republican Party that complements the argument of Madison’s Sorrow, see Dana Milbank, The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party.)

The United States has never confronted a far-left or far-right major political party before. Now we do. The displacement of traditional conservatives by illiberal reactionary radicals in one of the two major parties has unbalanced the American system, left millions of conservatives without a political home, and opened the door to a far-right attack on the foundations of American democracy and constitutional governance. Whereas traditional conservatives have pushed back against liberal policies, including the Great Society and the New Deal, today’s illiberals have mounted a reactionary counterrevolution against the nation’s founding principles.

The Republican political class and the Republican Party as a whole has fractured into a pattern identified by Yale political scientist Juan Linz as loyal, semi-loyal, and disloyal to democratic practice. While the disloyal (Trump, Bannon, Proud Boys, Sen. Hawley, etc.) are easy to identify, the key to America’s political future is putting pressure on the semi-loyal or gamers (such as Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy) who, while not fully radical, keep providing cover to the disloyal. Another threat is authoritarians, both here and abroad, who often use a quasi-legal approach to gradually implementing laws and programs that undermine democracy in a process that is difficult for the public to fully perceive.

Anti-democratic illiberal elements that dominate the contemporary Republican Party are fundamentally un-American because they defend the Old-World values of privilege, hierarchy, radical inequality, and exclusion. In contrast, the liberal-conservative tradition is committed to building a society based on liberty, equality, and democracy. Also, while the capitalists may not save us from autocracy, many in the business class genuinely value American democracy and the stability and individual rights it provides.

As demonstrated by the midterm results, while American democracy is threatened by an illiberal tide, a majority remains committed to constitutional democracy. The contemporary pro-democracy majority can draw inspiration from the founders’ aspirational rejection of an Old World based on caste and class. Voters and business leaders have the capacity and resources needed to resist this and to apply pressure on politicians to do the right thing. Our task going forward is to grow that majority. Success in the political arena depends on emotion, energy, and leadership. That’s the challenge ahead.