Like noted theocrats Bill Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Ted Kennedy? RFRAs are a fundamentally defensive measure, and I disagree that they push the envelope, 25 years after the federal one was passed. Yes, they provide grounds on which some people can continue to discriminate under certain, fairly constrained circumstances; but they don’t provide the basis for anything resembling a US theocracy, especially in the context of the sweeping, ongoing legal and judicial victories of the LGBT civil rights movement.
(I should note that I have a fair amount of sympathy for RFRAs in general, since they’ve provided a robust basis for minority religions to defend themselves against laws with a discriminatory impact–especially Native American religions, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims).
In the Indiana case, where preserving space to discriminate against LGBT people was the law’s near-explicit intent, there was as you say an immediate and massive backlash. And as you emphasize, it took Pence and his fellow Indiana Republicans about a year to cave in and write anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people into the law. I don’t think that shows bold resolve, or suggests a theocrat-in-waiting.
Indeed, speaking as a pro-LGBT Christian, the US looks rather more like a theocracy favoring my religion these days than Pence’s.
My gut reaction to your first point is that McCarthyism took place in such a different historical context that it’s only slightly more relevant than the Republicans being the party of Lincoln (or the Democrats being the party of Jim Crow). And Watergate was ultimately Nixon v. both parties, with a norm-breaking President going down in shame rather than bequeathing a legacy that others would follow. (Of course Trump is doing a lot of the same shit now, but the Nixon legacy hampers him–it provides the language to resist e.g. the firing of Mueller rather than a precedent Trump can comfortably follow.)
As for the last twenty years, yes, the Republicans have done more than their fair share of democratic norm breaking. I wouldn’t trust Pence to reverse that trend. But then, I wouldn’t trust 90% of Democrats to reverse that trend, either.
Dems have sacrificed plenty of norms to advance our policy priorities. We’re the party that embraced Supreme Court judicial activism to get lots of our agenda locked in legislation-proof at national level. We were the ones who ignited all-stops-pulled-out, highly partisan SCOTUS confirmation battles based on nominees’ political beliefs in order to keep the Court reliably liberal. We resorted to massively stepped-up use of the filibuster against G.W. Bush nominees in 2003-5, and then initiated the “nuclear option” in 2013 to prevent minority parties’ ability to block cabinet and judicial nominees. We passed Obamacare on a technicality and broke plenty of norms around what couldn’t be done by executive order.
These are all symptoms of the erosion of American deliberative democracy, in which both parties are complicit (though not equally so). The US is on the slippery slope towards a politics of winner-take-all (within which presidential democracies are particularly prone to fail) and I don’t trust either side to pull back in time.
But I’d trust anyone more than Trump. Trump’s whole Presidency is both a symptom of our long bout of norm-killing and an acceleration of it. A narcissist like Trump comes into a system already well on its way to a “win at any cost” mentality and goes as far in that direction as the system will let him, unrestrained by other priorities.
Pence isn’t a narcissist. He cares about things other than winning, including respectability. He doesn’t have Trump’s shamelessness (and couldn’t pull it off even if he had the courage to try). A Pence Presidency threatens temporary losses, reversible setbacks. It doesn’t threaten the system.
Man, if the Donald Trump presidency can’t kill this mindset off, nothing ever will.
Look, I’d also like a President who didn’t engage in drone warfare, and a President who seriously takes on the moral-hazard-merchants of Wall Street. (I agree with Bryce that there was no alternative in 2008, and that’s what should have driven us to reinvent a system that privatizes profit while socializing risk.)
But I also like having a President who supports a solution to climate change, who doesn’t dismantle domestic environmental protections, who doesn’t deliberately choose policies that ramp up cruelty along the southern border, and who doesn’t waste time and energy on a host of made-up problems just because it gins up the nationalist vote.
Oh, and I’d like one who recognizes Russian election interference as a problem and seeks to push back on it rather than benefit from it. But that’s because I also think the last couple decades have plainly shown that voting matters, that US elections aren’t just a puppet show. In 2015-6, the Republican establishment for the most part couldn’t stand Trump; he was picked by the people, not the party. And as for the overall results, a few more voters in one key state in 2000 or a few key states in 2016 would have made the difference.
Violent uprisings don’t usually produce systems with more participation by the poor; where they have, they’ve been starting from a point with lot less opportunities than the current US one affords. An uprising in the States would almost certainly fail. If it succeeded, it would almost certainly result in a more oligarchic, exclusionary setup than our current one. I’ll stick to fighting within the system, thanks.
Once the Clinton administration took office and really got their heads round the implications of this, advisor James Carville famously said he’d changed from wishing he was Pope to wishing he was the bond market. “You can intimidate everybody.”
Managing the power imbalance built into the heart of modern economies is one of the great political challenges of this century (the last century’s attempted solutions having largely failed).