Bad Apple Republic: What We Find When We Bite Into American Democracy
Spoiling on the right
“Joe Biden’s administration has shamefully crossed into waters charted only by banana republics,” declared Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) on June 9.
David Frum’s response to this claim is to see Biden’s 2020 rival as the one responsible: “It's not the Trump prosecution that makes the United States look like a banana republic. It was the Trump presidency that made the United States look like a banana republic.”
The term “banana republic” has been making the rounds ever since Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, and again in the wake of the former president’s growing list of indictments. It’s reasonable for Americans to wonder whether many aspects of our democracy are becoming dangerously rotten. But I want to offer a differently fruited metaphor for the current problems facing the country.
Contrary to the almost comical corruption and abuse of a banana republic, American democracy is in many ways like a bad apple where the rot isn’t overly noticeable on the skin. There might be some soft spots, sure, but the country still scores well on international assessments of freedom and democracy. And perhaps the soft spots one can find are not indicative of a deeper problem. After all, our institutions have, for the most part, held over the last seven years.
But I like the bad apple comparison even more for how it plays into all the proverbs and aphorisms about that particular spoiled fruit. We talk often today about the “bad apple” as a circumscribed problem, limited to but a few individuals and not indicative of the broader community, agency, or institution from which the rot has been removed. Our ancestors thought in the reverse, with one 19th-century journalist writing of the infamous Dreyfus Affair that “A bad apple spoils the bin.”
We are familiar with the modern usage in America as a defense line deployed against those seeking to reform faltering public institutions, particularly those of our criminal justice and immigration systems. But I’d like to use it as a means to interrogate how our democracy is falling short, particularly how our democracies at the state and local levels are failing to meet high standards of liberal democratic functioning.
Our wider political culture, too, shows serious signs of decay. Americans across the country are in a state of agitation, enabling some of their own most conspiratorial and illiberal inclinations. One of the two major parties can no longer be trusted to espouse full-throated support for basic liberal democratic principles.
This is not an argument that American democracy has collapsed. It is, as the bad apple metaphor suggests, an argument that there is substantial rot within the democracy as a whole, emanating in large part from elites but spreading through the body politic. It is a call to treat that rot as malignant and threatening to the republic at large.
A Full Democracy, But Under the Skin?
America scores well on a number of relevant global indices for liberal democracy, such as V-Dem, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. But cracks are starting to show. In the turbulence of 2020, The Center for Systemic Peace, through its Polity Project, scored the U.S. as an “anocracy,” a middle zone between full democracy and autocracy. As Babara F. Walter has observed, this dip (the score has since risen a few points back into the democracy zone), “is deeply alarming.”
Rather than focus on the national level, let’s first turn to some of the emergent challenges at the state and local levels of American democracy, where I believe the problems are much more severe.
Wisconsin is a standout example of this. With one of the most severe gerrymanders in the country, elections in this fiercely competitive state deliver lopsided Republican majorities. The distortion is so severe that the GOP currently holds 63-of-99 seats in the State Assembly and 22-of-33 seats in the State Senate. This is in a state where the incumbent Democratic governor was just re-elected with 51.2 percent of the vote in a hotly contested race.
In Texas and Florida, we have seen the executive branches of both states take disturbingly illiberal approaches to their own residents, particularly LGBTQ citizens and immigrants. Ron DeSantis has led the expansion of the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill’s restrictions on classroom content through the 12th grade. It’s a move that makes the original justifications of protecting children appear all the more absurd and further exposes the crass anti-LGBTQ prejudices of the bill. At the college level, the installation of ideological hardliners as trustees at the New College of Florida has raised serious concerns about the DeSantis administration’s commitment to academic freedom.
In 2022, Governor Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to treat gender affirming care for trans youth as child abuse and to investigate parents seeking such treatment for their children. A combined legal effort by Lambda Legal and the ACLU blocked this order, although the courts have yet to rule on an appeal filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. This month, Texas became the 18th state to legally ban such care for minors.
But this new wave of illiberalism isn’t only emanating from statehouses. Thanks to the wildfires of anti-CRT activism and “grooming” panics, school boards and library systems across the country have gone from mostly sleepy institutions to key sites of culture war conflict.
The takeover of the Community Library Network in North Idaho by hardliners aligned with efforts to cull LGBTQ-friendly and racially inclusive materials poses a severe risk for residents of this rural area. People living in Kootenai and Shosone counties could soon find their reading options diminished, and that is particularly unfair for members of LGBTQ or other minority groups who may rely on local libraries and the literature therein for the support and solidarity not always present in their own immediate communities.
One of the most active groups in this tumult is Moms for Liberty, which has pressured school boards to remove LGBTQ-friendly and other inclusive books and curriculum and backed candidates with hardline views on sex and gender.
Moms for Liberty and its nationwide chapters combat what they consider the “woke indoctrination” of children by advocating for book bans in school libraries and endorsing candidates for public office that align with the group's views. They also use their multiple social media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community.
When we consider that, calculated across the K-12 spectrum, the American child spends an average of 1,000 hours a year at school, school boards and the pressure groups attempting to influence them have a huge amount of power over the lives of America’s youth. There is a clear danger to the attempt to overwhelm their deliberative processes, both through external pressure and by mounting exorbitantly funded campaigns to put hardline candidates in these seats.
Of course these state and local factors are driven in no small part by the ongoing nationalization of our politics. This isn’t merely a problem because it flattens politics into the crude binary that tends to animate presidential elections. It also strips out the nuances and intimacies that can define the best of local politics, replacing them with the hostilities and prejudices of our intensely factional national party politics.
Let’s return to the question of anocracy. Walter’s focus is on the role of anocracy as a condition for civil war. One of the critical parts of her analysis is the attention to factionalism in political decay and conflict.
In How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, she stresses the prolonged nature of this process:
Citizens do not organize themselves into narrow, self-serving factions overnight. Often, they are unaware that the factionalism is even happening; they are certainly unaware of how dangerous it can be. They think they are ensuring their survival, defending their families and communities from emerging threats, pursuing what they believe is rightfully theirs—what is good for them and their country.
The dysfunction of our party system is at the heart of America’s factionalism problem. Over the last eight years, the Republican Party has been transmogrified from a party captured by a Trump insurgency to a total institution of Trumpism—an ism that I do not believe will go away when the man himself does. The logic of the Big Lie has been thoroughly embedded by now, one that presumes a mythical mandate from the people and does not cede an ounce of legitimacy to any opponent.
This has been on display most recently in the responses to Trump’s indictments. Massie’s handwringing over our descent into a banana republic is just one of many examples of leading GOP figures choosing yet again to rush to Trump’s defense at a moment when some measure of accountability appears nigh. Representative Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) tweeted, “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye.” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) went on television to decry “…a sitting president of the United States try to throw his opponent into jail.” This all culminated in a cartoonishly absurd Fox News chyron that declared: “Wannabe dictator speaks at the White House after having his political rival arrested.”
It’s a logic that follows naturally from the behavior of the same Republicans when Donald Trump challenged the results of the 2020 election. It’s hard to forget to rolle of figures like Biggs and Hawley in stoking those flames. Fox News’s settlement over its Dominion lies was just the culmination of a years-long entanglement with Trumpian and Trump-adjacent conspiracy mongering, from Seth Rich to QAnon.
This surrender to Trumpism and the central lies of the MAGA movement also has highly localized effects. Consider the decision of the overwhelmingly Republican Shasta County Board of Supervisors to remove their Dominion voting machines, leaving the county temporarily without any usable voting machines. Or look at the then-mayor of Sequim, Washington calling QAnon a “truth movement” on live radio.
We have reached a point where effects of these damaging trends are showing up in noticeable ways across our democracy. So we can and must think about this crisis beyond Congress, statehouses, and school boards. Here, I’m taking up a concern for just how much the bad apples do spoil the bunch, for how much all this derogatory and profane politics seeps into the population and becomes part of a rotten feedback loop of anti-liberal and anti-democratic attitudes.
Baking Bad Apple Pie
More generally, the GOP’s turn toward culture war, conspiracy, and illiberal politics has shown up in polling on American attitudes on a range of questions. New Gallup polling shows a seven-point drop (from 71 percent to 64 percent) in the number of Americans saying they view same-sex relations as “morally acceptable.” It’s important to stress, however, that this is driven by plummeting support for same-sex relations among self-identified Republicans. According to Gallup, “The current figure is the lowest Gallup has measured for Republicans since 2014 (39 percent). Between 2020 and 2022, majorities of Republicans approved of gay or lesbian relations.” The relentless campaigns against LGBTQ Americans, some of which I summarized above in discussing actions in Florida and Texas, have clearly been successful in stoking anxieties and prejudices.
Elite cues matter at the state level as well. A University of Houston poll found that 57 percent of Texas support legislation to classify parents seeking gender-affirming care for minors child abuse.
The Human Rights Campaign has observed that “Nearly 1 in 5 of any type of hate crime is now motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias and the last two years have been the deadliest for transgender people, especially Black transgender women, we have seen since we began tracking fatal violence against the community.” The consequences of one party’s about-face on LGBTQ rights and the particularly noisy efforts of extremists in red states are affecting Americans everywhere.
More broadly, we can see the rising acceptance of violence in politics in conjunction with the last few years. Consider the findings of a University of Chicago Institute of Politics poll from last year, which showed “…28 percent of voters, including 37 percent who have guns in their homes, agree that ‘it may be necessary at some point soon for citizens to take up arms against the government.’” Once again, sentiment among self-identified Republicans underpinned the results. Of self-identified “strong Republicans,” 45 percent agreed with the statement—the figures were 35 percent for Independents and 20 percent for Democrats.
The assaults on our institutions of law and justice have also taken their toll. Despite an NBC/Marist poll this month showing that 56 percent of Americans believe Donald Trump should drop out of the race in the wake of his indictments, the same poll also showed 76 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view the former president favorably. This is an eight-point increase from February. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found 48 percent of Americans believe Trump should be charged related to his handling of classified documents. But, once again, there are wrinkles. A plurality, 47 percent, said they view the charges as politically motivated, with 37 percent saying they do not.
It’s true that we could look at some of the same data and make an argument that focuses on a decline in civic virtues and sociability among the American public. I’m not dismissing such analysis. But I want to stress the contagious nature of the rot and the importance of elite cues here. The deterioration of one of the major party’s into an organ of anti-pluralist grievance and contempt means that more and more elected officials are signaling MAGA values to their voters—enabling and enhancing these worrying trends.
How Bad Could It Be?
A risk with all that I’ve laid out is that these trends continue and instead become newly baked-in assumptions in American political life. Greater freedom and a more equal society before the law are not guarantees. And neither is democracy itself.
The very fact that the United States has flirted with democratic backsliding should raise our alarm. And the situations in many states and localities are far more concerning. It is perhaps easy and certainly tempting to point to the topline takeaway that America is still a full, free, and fair democracy. But there is significant decay underneath the surface. We cannot afford to dismiss the growing examples of anti-liberal and anti-democratic impulses from both elected bodies and individuals as worrying but limited conditions of rot.