The structures that kept a US president from abusing power 50 years ago are no longer functioning, which puts democracy in a 'dangerous' position, says historian
- The GOP is no longer accountable to the majority of voters due to polarization, a historian said.
- Ken Hughes told Insider that modern Republicans need only cater to their base to keep their jobs.
Increasing polarization throughout the US has fundamentally changed Republican politicians' relationship to the electorate — which could have dire consequences for democracy, a historian said.
Ken Hughes, a research specialist and Watergate expert at the University of Virginia's Miller Center spoke to Insider this week about the similarities and differences between the ongoing January 6 hearings and the Watergate hearings of nearly 50 years ago, positing the ways in which history does — and does not — repeat itself.
Among the most stark contrasts between the political climates of 1974 and 2022, Hughes said, is the role Republican lawmakers play in upholding democracy.
When the Watergate hearings first began, Republican lawmakers were initially supportive of President Richard Nixon amid the Democratic-led congressional committee's investigation into the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up.
"Congressional Republicans supported the Republican president because, otherwise, they would lose the support of Republican voters," Hughes said. "They would be primaried. They would get a challenge from the right, and they would lose their jobs."
Modern-day Republicans find themselves in a near identical position, Hughes said: If they fail to support former President Donald Trump, they'll see primary challenges and risk losing their jobs.
But the difference between the decades, Hughes said, was that once the August primaries were over, Republicans found themselves in a conundrum that would be unfamiliar to today's modern GOP.
"Back then, the states and the congressional districts were competitive enough so that congressional Republicans, once they got past their primaries, had to worry about losing their jobs because the majority — the left and the middle — would vote them out of office for supporting President Nixon," Hughes said.
But today, most congressional Republicans represent fully red states, red districts, or gerrymandered districts that insulate them from ever having to be accountable to the majority, Hughes said. All they typically have to do to get reelected is cater to their base.
"As a result, the mechanisms that kept a president from abusing power 50 years ago are not functioning," the historian said.
Dependent on moderate voters for their jobs, the Republicans of the 1970s had a vested interest in holding Nixon accountable, according to Hughes.
"In the '70s, the Republicans in Congress realized that they at least had to act like they were willing to hold the president accountable, even if at first, they didn't want to do it," he said.
But the modern GOP has no incentive to kowtow to the center, Hughes said, not when they've realized they can gain control of Congress, the presidency, and the court without ever winning a majority of voters.
"That puts us in a much more dangerous position now than we were 50 years ago because democracy can fail," he said.
And that problem could continue to get worse, Hughes said.
"The Republicans could very easily take control of Congress in the midterm elections of this year, without coming anywhere near to having a majority of the voter's support," he said. "Donald Trump could win in 2024 as he won in 2016, without getting a majority of the voters."
Such an outcome would leave the country in an even more precarious position than the one in which it currently finds itself, according to Hughes.
"What's at stake in elections isn't merely what policies will be enacted," he said. "What's at stake is: Will we have majority of rule? Will we remain a Republic, in fact, as well as in name?"
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