After only one month in office, Marjorie Taylor Greene inflamed tensions between Republicans and Democrats. Greene is a new Republican to the House of Representatives, elected in 2020 to represent Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Since Greene’s election, former posts and videos have surfaced in which Greene supported the execution of Democratic leaders, promoted QAnon conspiracy theories, and doubted the attacks on 9/11. In light of these comments, Democrats called for Greene to be removed from congressional committees and even expelled from Congress. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned Greene’s comments, but he refused to remove Greene from her assignments as he viewed the Democrats’ demands as a “partisan power grab.” McCarthy’s inaction prompted 219 Democrats and 11 Republicans to vote to remove Greene from her committees, undermining the tradition that party leaders control committee assignments. While Greene’s removal has seemingly concluded this episode in Congressional history, this event exposes the dangerous dilemma that looms over the United States’ (U.S.) democracy: the dilemma of gatekeeping. This dilemma springs forth from the Republican party’s failure to isolate figures like Greene, leaving the Democratic party to act as the sole gatekeeper of U.S. democracy. This unilateral gatekeeping, however, unintentionally jeopardizes democracy by fueling polarization.
To understand this predicament, one must first ask: Why are Democrats so concerned with gatekeeping democracy? In their book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that throughout history, political parties have served as “democracy’s gatekeepers” as they have the unique ability to filter out and “distance” would-be authoritarians (24). Distancing can take many forms such as keeping would-be authoritarians off ballots, removing grassroots extremists from the party, avoiding alliances with anti-democratic parties, repeatedly isolating extremists, and creating alliances to immobilize potential authoritarians (Levitsky and Ziblatt 25-26). Levitsky and Ziblatt even provide a list of warning signs that signify authoritarian tendencies. They write that, “we should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 23-24).
If the role of political parties is to identify and distance would-be authoritarians, then the Republican party has failed. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s social media posts clearly revealed one of these authoritarian warning signs: the toleration or encouragement of violence. In 2019, Greene “liked a comment that said ‘a bullet to the head would be quicker’ to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.” Additionally, in 2018, Greene received a comment on her post regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal that stated, “Now do we get to hang them ?? Meaning H & O [Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton] ???”. In response, Greene stated, “Stage is being set. Players are being put in place. We must be patient. This must be done perfectly or liberal judges would let them off.” These two instances clearly demonstrate how Greene supported violence against Democratic leaders. Due to this authoritarian warning sign, the Republican party should have distanced Greene before she was elected. Or, at the very least, removed Greene from her committee assignments when these comments came to light. The Republican party’s failure to marginalize Greene, before or while Greene was in office, suggests that the party is not engaging in effective gatekeeping.
Because the Republican party failed to act as a gatekeeper, the Democratic party removed Greene from congressional committees by itself. However, this type of unilateral gatekeeping is unsustainable and unintentionally harms democracy as it fuels polarization. Polarization, as Jennifer McCoy, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer define, is “the process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’” (16). By breaking from tradition and removing Greene from her committee assignments, Democrats added fuel to McCarthy’s view that this act was a “partisan power grab.” With only 11 Republicans joining Democrats on this vote, Greene’s removal largely fell upon party lines, thus creating an “Us” versus “Them” dynamic. While polarization can sometimes trigger pro-democratic reforms, McCoy, Rahman, and Somer note three more likely negative outcomes to polarization: “gridlock and careening,” “democratic erosion or collapse under new elites and dominant groups,” and “democratic erosion or collapse with old elites and dominant groups” (16). Therefore, while Democrats check would-be authoritarians in an attempt to safeguard U.S. democracy, they actually heighten polarization and jeopardize U.S. democracy. This heightened polarization demonstrates that unilateral gatekeeping, although intended to safeguard democracy, produces effects that undermine this system of governance.
Additionally, it is questionable whether the Democrats’ gatekeeping is truly effective at marginalizing would-be authoritarians. For instance, Greene’s removal from congressional committees catapulted her in the national spotlight. Now, 59% of voters know Greene which is the same percentage of people that know House Minority Leader McCarthy. Due to her rise to the national stage, Greene raised $300,000. These extra funds will be useful for Greene’s reelection campaign, a campaign that already appears contentious with over a dozen Democrats in the race. As a representative who just barely began her term, it is unlikely that she would have raised this much money or become a national figure without this scandal. By giving Greene a national platform, in which she portrayed herself as a victim of partisan politics, unilateral gatekeeping undermined the goal of protecting democracy.
Therein, lies the dilemma facing U.S. democracy: Democrats must check would-be authoritarians in the Republican party because the Republican party has failed to do so. Unfortunately, in checking these would-be authoritarians, Democrats only increase sentiments of polarization and amplify the voices of these individuals, thus endangering democracy. Is the solution for neither party to filter out would-be authoritarians? It is unlikely that this is a viable solution as it flies directly in the face of Levitsky and Zeblatt’s argument. There must be some form of democratic gatekeeping.
Perhaps one solution to this dilemma is for Republicans to enforce gatekeeping within their own party again, preventing would-be authoritarians from being accepted and gaining power. At the current moment, however, this seems extremely unlikely. McCarthy and 199 other Republicans failed to take action against Marjorie Greene. What would motivate the Republican party to begin marginalizing potential authoritarians now? An alternative solution is that people will vote out would-be authoritarians, yet this is also difficult to predict. After Greene’s scandal, only “18% of voters view her favorably, while 41% view her unfavorably,” however, her approval among Republicans increased eleven points. The final, and perhaps most effective solution is for politicians to address the issues that make would-be authoritarians like Greene popular. For instance, Greene is powered by a rural base that resents liberal elites. Pro-democratic politicians need to connect with these voters and restore their faith in the United States’ government. The gap between elites and voters can begin to be addressed through grassroots organizing and the creation of more responsive public policy. In short, politicians with strong democratic commitments need to reflect the voices of voters who feel unheard. If not, populist, would-be authoritarians like Greene will continue to remain popular.
Marjorie Taylor Greene’s social media scandal illuminated the great gatekeeping dilemma that looms over U.S. democracy. With only one political party acting as a filter for would-be authoritarians, the voices of these figures are amplified, and democracy becomes vulnerable to polarization. This polarization, which divides society into mutually antagonistic “Us” versus “Them” blocs, endangers democracy―a system that relies upon pluralism, cooperation, and consensus-building (Tekinirk). This dilemma has created an unsustainable situation on Capitol Hill, and if it is not solved, unilateralism will continue to endanger U.S. democracy.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Fateful Alliances.” How Democracies Die, Penguin Random House, 2018, pp. 11–32.
McCoy, Jennifer, et al. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” SAGE, vol. 62, 2018, pp. 16–42., doi:10.1177/0002764218759576.
Tekinirk, Metehan. “Lecture on Polarization,” PO 333: Democratic Erosion, March 8, 2021, Boston University, Boston, MA.