the media

The GOP Is Making Its Contempt for Democracy Clear. Will the Mainstream Media?

Unfair and balanced. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer; Photo: Subjug/Getty Images/iStockphoto (TV)

For decades now, the Republican Party has been broadcasting its alarm at the dire threat that electoral fraud poses to American democracy. George W. Bush was (ostensibly) so terrified by the notion that a high-stakes U.S. election might one day be decided by illegitimate means, he had his Justice Department launch a five-year investigation into America’s (wholly hypothetical) voter-fraud epidemic. When that investigation produced “no evidence” of the potential for such an outbreak, Republican state governments insisted that an absence of evidence was not evidence of absence. In their telling, the integrity of American elections was too precious to leave unguarded: If it was so much as possible to imagine fraudulent voters swinging a close race, then the government had an obligation to minimize that risk — even if doing so required adopting voter-ID laws that effectively disenfranchised many nonwhite voters, or punishing Americans who unwittingly cast ballots they aren’t eligible to cast with eight-year prison sentences.

Democrats balked at such radical measures. They insisted that the GOP’s true aim was to suppress the political participation of young and nonwhite constituencies, out of a tacit recognition that the conservative ideological project was increasingly incompatible with majoritarian rule. Some federal courts endorsed the Democrats’ interpretation; and a few stray Republicans were, on occasion, caught on tape doing the same. But so long as an official organ of the Republican Party didn’t openly declare, “We do not actually care about the integrity of elections, but only about insulating our power from popular opposition,” objective news outlets had no choice but to give the GOP the benefit the doubt; they were duty bound to tell both sides of the story.

But now, the North Carolina GOP has openly declared that it does not actually care about the integrity of elections, only about insulating its power from the Tar Heel State’s increasingly Democratic electorate.

The party conveyed this message by calling on North Carolina’s board of elections to certify the results of the congressional race in the state’s Ninth District — despite the fact that an ongoing investigation into alleged election fraud in that race has already produced overwhelming evidence of impropriety.

Among other things, scrutiny of that contest has already revealed that:

• In Bladen County, Leslie McCrae Dowless, a man who was once convicted of fraud and perjury, worked on a get-out-the-vote effort for the Republican candidate Mark Harris.

• In seven of the district’s eight counties, Democratic candidate Dan McCready won the mail-in absentee-ballot vote by no less than 16 points. In Bladen County, however, Harris won such ballots by 24 points (even though Bladen County is not the reddest county in the district).

• Dowless also ran a get-out-the-vote effort for Harris in Bladen County during the 2018 GOP primary race between Harris and incumbent Robert Pittenger. Harris won the county’s mail-in absentee ballots in that race by a margin of 437 to 17 — a lopsided result without parallel elsewhere in the state.

• In the 2016 House primary, Dowless ran a get-out-the-vote effort in Bladen County for a Republican named Todd Johnson. Johnson won that county’s mail-in absentee ballots against Harris and Pittenger by a margin of 221 to 4 and 1 — even as he lost that race statewide.

• Typically, about 16 percent of voters who request mail-in ballots do not ultimately return them. In 2018, in Bladen County, that figure was 40 percent; in neighboring Robeson County, it was 60 percent

• People who worked for Dowless’s effort this fall say that they went door to door collecting mail-in absentee ballots, which they then did not mail, but rather, handed over to Dowless — who would then have been free to throw out any he chose to.

This is only a limited sampling of the evidence that Harris’s 900-vote “victory” on November 6 may have been a product of election fraud. And yet, the North Carolina GOP — a party that has insisted that the hypothetical threat of mass in-person voter fraud (of which there is still no evidence) justifies the disenfranchisement of thousands of Tar Heel State residents — has officially announced that it does not believe that overwhelming evidence of mass election fraud in a House race justifies so much as waiting until an investigation into said fraud is finished before certifying the validity of that election’s outcome.

In fact, the party is actually telling its donors that, by insisting on a full investigation of Dowless’s alleged acts of fraud (including those committed against a sitting Republican congressman in a GOP primary), the Democrats are effectively “stealing the congressional race from Mark Harris.” Joe Bruno, of local news station WSOC-TV, obtained the following transcript of a donor-solicitation call that the state GOP has been making in recent days:

Hey, it is Dallas Woodhouse. I am actually calling from Chairman Hayes’s phone. He had to pick up the other line ’cause we are trying to cobble together additional donations to the state party because we are trying to keep the Democrats from stealing the congressional race from Mark Harris.

They are throwing everything against the wall and it is running up expenses for us by the minute. But you know they’ll steal it if they can. And the frustrating thing to Chairman Hayes, and I know you as well — this is just a test to see if they can steal North Carolina from Donald Trump in 2020. If you can give Chairman Hayes a call, please try to help us.

Meanwhile, a few North Carolina Republicans are acknowledging that a GOP operative (ostensibly) committed election fraud in Bladen County — and demanding the state make it harder for people to vote, in response.

Thus, it seems fair to say that the North Carolina GOP has now confessed that all its rhetoric about voter fraud was delivered in bad faith. And the party is on the cusp of going one step farther: Republicans in North Carolina’s legislature are preparing to (tacitly) cop to the belief that their party is unlikely to command the support of most eligible voters in the coming years — and that they thus must compensate for this disadvantage by manipulating election rules.

As HuffPost reports:

Republicans in North Carolina are attempting to push through a bill that would ensure their control over voting procedure in election years.

… The bill would require election boards in every county in the state to be chaired by a member of the political party with the highest number of registered voters in odd-numbered years. During even-numbered years, the boards would be chaired by a member of the party with the second-highest number of registered voters.

Were this rule in effect in 2018, the investigation into election fraud in Bladen County might not be happening.

Given all this, how should a scrupulously objective mainstream media characterize the North Carolina GOP? As a party that has been accused of using disingenuous concerns about voter fraud as an excuse to disenfranchise minority voters (but which strenuously denies those aspersions) — or as a party that indisputably uses disingenuous concerns about voter fraud as an excuse to disenfranchise minority voters? Or, more broadly, as one of two equally legitimate political parties in North Carolina — or as the one party in that state that is demonstrably uncommitted to democratic governance?

For that matter, how should such an objective media describe a national GOP that hasn’t seen fit to condemn any of its North Carolina branch’s activities? What about a national GOP that has also spent the past few days abetting anti-majoritarian power grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan?

In both of those states, Republicans lost the offices of governor and attorney general last month, but retained control of the state legislature, thanks to district maps they had gerrymandered. Now, in lame-duck sessions, said GOP state legislators have attempted to strip various powers from their states’ incoming Democratic officials (including the authority to tighten campaign-finance laws, roll back voter-ID laws, and implement nonpartisan redistricting) and transfer them to the state legislature or to other bodies that Republicans control.

In Wisconsin, Republicans have defended their usurpation of power in plainly anti-democratic terms. Assembly speaker Robin Vos argued that if the legislature did not deny the popularly elected governor the full authorities of his office, then “we are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” State Senate speaker Scott Fitzgerald agreed that elections must not be allowed to negate conservative policy goals, saying, “Law written by the legislature and passed by a governor should not be erased based on the political maneuvering of an incoming administration. We must make sure that Wisconsin’s business environment continues to thrive.”

Still, one cannot fully appreciate the anti-democratic nature of the Wisconsin GOP’s gambit without understanding that is has already immunized its state legislative majority against popular rebuke. On November 6, incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers defeated Scott Walker by one percent, but won a majority of votes in only 36 of 99 Assembly districts — the same number of districts that Democratic Assembly candidates won, despite collectively claiming a far higher share of the popular vote than their Republican counterparts. The GOP’s position is, thus, that the branch of government that is controlled by a party that did not receive the most votes should enjoy supremacy over the branch of government controlled by a party that did — because otherwise, Wisconsin will enact policies that Republicans do not like (or, more precisely, that Republican donors do not like — among other things, the state legislature will prevent the incoming attorney general from withdrawing Wisconsin from a lawsuit aimed at eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with preexisting conditions, a goal that most Republican voters do not support).

One might think, then, that (putatively) objective reporting on partisan fighting in Wisconsin would note the state legislature’s relative lack of popular legitimacy. One would be wrong: In two articles on the extraordinary session in Wisconsin — titled “Stung by Election Losses, Republicans in the States Seek a Way to Neutralize Democrats,” and “Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly ‘Stand Like Bedrock’ in the Face of Democratic Wins” — the New York Times never once used the word “gerrymandering,” nor did it give readers any indication that the fight between the incoming governor and the GOP legislature was, in large part, a fight over whether more authority should be concentrated in an anti-majoritarian body, which gives dramatically more weight to the votes of white Wisconsinites than black ones.

Taken in isolation, this oversight might not qualify as troubling. But, as indicated above, the Times’ failure to note the anti-democratic nature of the Wisconsin GOP’s position reflects a broader problem: One of America’s two major parties is steadily abandoning its commitment to the most basic norms of liberal democracy — and the mainstream media is obscuring that reality because it refuses to abandon the norms of “view-from-nowhere” journalism.

The Republican Party’s recent actions in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin are not aberrations. For years if not decades, the GOP has been undermining both the formal institutions of democracy (through voter suppression, felon disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering), and eroding the substance of self-government (by campaigning on a combination of appeals to cultural resentment that have no policy content, and flatly dishonest descriptions of its fiscal priorities). By insisting that their tax cuts for the wealthy would not cut taxes on the wealthy — and that their plans to weaken protections for people with preexisting conditions would not weaken protections for people with preexisting conditions — Republicans have confirmed that they understand their ideological goals are not democratically viable. And by making voter suppression a top legislative priority in (virtually) every state in which they hold power, Republicans have signaled that that they believe that their party would not be politically viable in an America governed by popular sovereignty. The events of the past few days have only made these realities a bit more conspicuous.

But the nonpartisan institutions that fancy themselves members of “the Fourth Estate” have, up to this point, refused to describe the modern Republican Party’s relationship to democracy in forthright terms. Still beholden to journalistic conventions established in a less polarized era — when the ambition to deliver news to Democrats and Republicans alike was more plausible and less ethically fraught — America’s leading newspapers and network news broadcasts have spent much of the Trump era straining to balance out the biases of objective reality. In some instances, this has involved bestowing a bizarre degree of editorial attention on the excesses of the campus left and marginal anarchist activists; in others, it’s involved drawing unwarranted distinctions between the illiberalism of Donald Trump and that of the broader GOP.

To be sure, it’s far from clear that a genuinely “liberal” mainstream media that was willing to describe the modern Republican Party as the proto-authoritarian institution that it is would be a more effective defender of American democracy than our current one is. The New York Times could run front-page headlines like, “For the Republican Party, Oligarchy Is Desirable” every day, and it wouldn’t change the fact that our country’s most-watched cable news network and its largest local news conglomerate are propaganda arms of the GOP; or that many of our constitutionally mandated political institutions award disproportionate power to Republican constituencies; or that the Supreme Court’s reactionary majority appears poised to abet state-level Republican power grabs and voter suppression efforts for a generation.

Still, the Fourth Estate must retain its faith in the relevance of reported truth to American political life, or else forfeit its reason for being. And a fundamental truth about American politics in 2018 is that the Republican Party is no longer disguising its contempt for democracy. The “liberal” media shouldn’t disguise that either.

The GOP Isn’t Hiding Its Authoritarianism. Will the Media?