May 24, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Liz Cheney is less bad than the GOP fascists but as long as she tolerates nonstop lying, she’s still bad
The untenable paradox on (real) conservatives.
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Axios posted last night a clip of Jonathan Swan’s interview with Liz Cheney.1 In it, the Wyoming Congresswoman, who just lost her job as chairwoman of the House GOP conference, seemed to walk a fine line that drove pro-democracy advocates crazy. On the one hand, she said (and I’m paraphrasing), the former president’s failed coup was out of bounds. On the other, attempts to suppress voting rights in states like Georgia are in bounds. She opposed Donald Trump’s Big Lie (that he won the election) but defended laws whose passing was inspired by the same Big Lie. Cue the crazy feels.
Matt Negrin, a producer for The Daily Show, said of the clip: “Mainstream journalists initiated the kick into hyperdrive to salute Liz Cheney with Cronkite-voiced news reads like ‘she stands accused of daring to tell the truth,’ because they’re desperate to create the artificial story that there are some good Republicans. There simply are not.”
For conservatives, there’s a difference between political violence and political lies. The liberal’s task, I think, is erasing that false binary. Lies are intended to harm. They are injuries.
I don’t think Cheney needs or deserves defending. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, that democracy has never been either/or. Liberals, myself included, tend to talk about it in rather categorical terms, as if it’s not really democracy unless every American citizen above the age of 18 has the fullest possible access to it. That’s a moral assertion more than an empirical statement. Anyway, liberals have limits, too.
Even as they rail against Cheney and the GOP fascists, most liberals don’t consider the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, for instance, or undocumented immigrants or even children. The voting age itself is reasonable and well-reasoned but ultimately arbitrary. Are liberals prepared to say we don’t have a democracy unless 10 year olds can vote? Are liberals prepared to say we don’t have a democracy unless everyone is forced to vote?2 Some would say that, obviously, but most don’t give it a first thought.
My point is that democracy is a spectrum. Liz Cheney exists on it. In one sense, it’s true—there are no good Republicans in that the party itself is rotten to the core. In another sense, however, it’s also true—Liz Cheney is less bad than, say, Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton or Lindsay Graham, all of whom are radicalized United States Senators who voted to acquit the former president of crimes against his country. It’s bad to defend voter-suppression laws. It’s worse to defend treason. However bad she is, Cheney has limits. As far as I can tell, most of the rest of the party has none at all.
When put on a spectrum, it’s easy to see why some people, like me, keep talking about conservatives as if they are ideologically distinct from most of the rest of the party. Conservatives are good for a democracy in that they are less bad than the fascists. Conservatives at least defer to the authority of law, the Constitution and democratic institutions, whereas the fascists defer to nothing. Deference, to a fascist, equals theft, a crime justifying any reaction. The logic of fascism always ends in political violence.
Because (real) conservatives tend to put a high premium on stability and order, they tend to shrink from political violence. In the absence of it, however, conservatives will push democracy as far as it will take them, which is to say, they will push democracy toward anti-democratic ends if they can, just as the fascists do. The difference, however—this is key—is conservatives stop at overt political violence. They will push democracy toward anti-democracy but exclusively through the democratic process. Love them or hate them, all voter-suppression laws are outcomes of democracy.
For this reason, the conservatives, though they are less bad than the fascists are, are still bad in that they stand against the most egalitarian consent of the governed. (This is why I think liberal democracy and illiberal democracy are more accurate terms.) That’s not the only reason. The other is that conservatives, while they shrink from overt political violence, don’t mind lying nonstop to get what they want. If Donald Trump’s Big Lie fuels efforts to suppress voting by non-white people who’d likely vote for the Democrats, well, jim-dandy. For conservatives, there’s a difference between political violence and political lies. The liberal’s task, I think, is erasing that false binary.
Forgive me for repeating myself, but lies are not merely intended to deceive. They are intended to harm. Moreover, lies so big they can bend political reality are injurious to the republic in ways that are hard to see until they are plainly visible, for instance, in the form of an insurrection against the United States. I don’t know how much lying a democracy can withstand without collapsing. I do know we are testing those limits. Conservatives like Cheney think everything would be jake if the fascists just quit it already. But conservatives like Cheney feed the fascists with their lies. Conservatives exist on a spectrum of democracy. They exist on a paradox, too. It cannot endure.
For the record, I favor mandatory voting.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.