The GOP Can Win Without Waging War on Democracy

Lost cause? Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The GOP holds every elected, statewide office that Texas has to offer — from railroad commissioner to comptroller to attorney general to governor. The party has controlled the state’s Senate for a quarter century, and its House for 19 years. Last November, Texas voters backed Donald Trump over Joe Biden by nearly seven points, while sending an overwhelmingly Republican delegation to Congress.

And yet, the Texas Republican Party is waging war on the democracy it dominates.

On Sunday night in Austin, Democratic lawmakers fled the state legislature to delay an assault on their state’s form of government. In the wake of Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election — and his subsequent campaign to delegitimize U.S. democracy — Republicans have pushed anti-democratic election reforms in states across the country. But SB-7 lends credence to the claim that everything is bigger in Texas — even partisan attacks on free elections. Governor Greg Abbott’s bill doesn’t just feature all of the GOP’s latest innovations in voter suppression (novel restrictions on early voting, absentee voting, drive-through voting, etc). It also contains a variety of measures that abet election subversion. The law would make it easier for state officials to throw out voters’ ballots on the basis of signature mismatches, a demonstrably unreliable and subjective means of identity verification. It would make providing an absentee ballot to a voter who has not requested one a criminal offense, punishable by prison time, while imposing no similar penalty on officials who deny eligible voters a chance to cast a ballot, thereby incentivizing election administrators to err on the side of disenfranchisement.

But the most troubling part of the legislation is its apparent attempt to lay the groundwork for the invalidation of ballots en masse. As my colleague Jonathan Chait explains:

The measure creates protections for poll watchers and criminal penalties for state officials who in any way obstruct or impair their “free movement” throughout polling areas. Recall that in 2020 Republicans deployed thousands of poll watchers, many of them with brains addled by Fox News and brimming with absurd claims of fraud.

Relatedly, the state also lowered the evidentiary bar for judges to declare elections fraudulent. The two aspects work in tandem: one generates more potential rule violations and more people to claim they witnessed rule violations, and the other more easily enables those claims to cancel the election.

The Texas GOP’s war on democracy is one of choice, not necessity. The party just demonstrated its capacity to dominate a high-turnout election. Republicans do face some demographic headwinds in Texas, with the state’s Hispanic population set to become a plurality in the coming years; the specter of Californication haunts Lone Star State reactionaries. And yet, in the 2020 election, the party made its biggest gains with Hispanic Texans. Between 2016 and last November, the Democratic presidential nominee’s vote share went up in Texas’s most urban, suburban, and rural counties; it was the state’s heavily Hispanic border counties that kept the state solid red, as Joe Biden underperformed Hillary Clinton by 16 points in such areas.
All of which is to say, the notion that Texas Republicans must choose between subverting democracy and allowing demographic change to render their party a permanent minority in the Lone Star State is a paranoid fantasy.

In truth, SB-7 may actually be contrary to the GOP’s best interests. The primary threat to Republican power in the Lone Star State is the leftward drift of highly educated suburbanites, who are exceptionally difficult to disenfranchise through voting restrictions due to their social power and economic security (there aren’t many lawyers who lack photo ID, or middle managers who will struggle to find transportation to a polling place). Of course, simply invalidating adverse election results is one solution to the party’s suburban challenge. But it’s a pretty elaborate and dicey approach to the problem. And if it doesn’t succeed, then pursuing blatantly anti-democratic measures, in tacit support of Trump’s insurrectionary cause, will only reinforce college-educated moderates’ alienation from red America. As one Republican operative said of Georgia’s voter-restriction bill in a February interview with the Washington Post, “There’s still an appetite from a lot of Republicans to do stuff like this, but it’s not bright. It just gives Democrats a baseball bat with which to beat us.”

Why then, have Texas Republicans made legislative priorities out of voter suppression and election subversion? Because a large percentage of their most engaged voters and activists believe that the 2020 election was literally stolen, while a less-deluded subset simply believes that democratic governance must be subordinated to Democratic disempowerment. Texas Republicans can win without embracing authoritarianism; but the point, for some in the party’s firmament, is to never lose.

And the same can be said of the Republican Party as a whole.

America’s version of democracy is ripe for right-wing minority rule.

Conservatives are turning on liberal democracy, because liberal democracy is turning on conservatives.

In recent years, variations on that argument have long been a commonplace of progressive punditry (including my own). And the notion that the right has grown increasingly skeptical of democracy as its causes have grown increasingly unpopular is well founded. One can’t explain contemporary conservatism’s hostility to popular sovereignty without noting that the animating ambitions of the Christian right, Koch Network, and white nativist movement all lack majority support, or that that the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

Meanwhile, generational churn really does pose a long-term threat to the conservative movement’s electoral viability: The millennial and zoomer generations are much less right wing than any of their predecessors.
Yet, if we learned anything from the Trump era, it’s that the Republican Party does not need to be popular to thrive in America’s version of democracy. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 2 percent and won the presidency; in 2020, he lost by 4.4 percent nationally, yet came just 44,000 (well-placed) votes shy of eking out reelection. In between, Democrats enjoyed a historically strong midterm election, and still lost two Senate seats.

The cause of these paradoxical outcomes is simple: The GOP boasts a historically efficient coalition. The Senate, House, and Electoral College all give disproportionate weight to the votes of white rural Americans, and the Republican Party wins such voters by landslide margins. As a consequence, the GOP is all-but certain to recapture the House in 2022, and is very likely to reclaim the Senate by 2025. Absent a drastic change in the composition of the major-party coalitions, Joe Biden will likely need to win the popular vote in 2024 by well over 3 percent to secure reelection.

Graphic: @davidshor/Twitter

But the Trump era did not merely demonstrate the efficiency of the GOP coalition; it also indicated that this coalition has more room to grow than liberals have been inclined to think.

The GOP tent is bigger than it appears.

The GOP’s gains with Hispanic voters in 2020 were not limited to Texas, but apparent nationwide.

This sharp increase in Hispanic support for Republicans was not reducible to changes in turnout. Rather, a significant number of previously left-leaning Hispanic voters were persuaded to back the reelection of the most unabashedly xenophobic GOP nominee in the party’s modern history. Ironically, Trump seems to have done especially well with low-propensity Hispanic voters, who are among the groups most likely to be disenfranchised by voting restrictions. Republicans also appear to have made gains with Black and Asian-American voters, albeit less dramatic ones.

It’s possible that these inroads were the flukey byproducts of a pandemic election; recent polls suggest Biden has won over some Trump-voting Hispanic Americans since taking office. Yet it’s equally plausible that Republicans are poised to make broader gains with nonwhite voters when and if Trump ceases to define the party nationally. Historically, immigrant communities have grown more conservative in their second and third generations, as they’ve built wealth and assimilated into whiteness. There’s reason to believe that Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups may follow a similar trajectory. At the same time, as the Black church declines, and young African-Americans enter more integrated social networks than their forebears, the Democrats’ capacity to unite 90-plus percent of the demographic behind their banner is likely to diminish.

Finally, the GOP’s great, perennial political liability — its fealty to the fiscal priorities of the reactionary rich — may burden the party less in the future than it has in the past. For one thing, Republicans have finally mastered the art of online fundraising, and have grown less dependent on large-dollar donors in recent years. Between 2016 and 2020, small-dollar donors went from providing less than 10 percent of the Senate GOP’s campaign contributions to more than 30 percent of them.

Graphic: Open Secrets

Second, if the inflation doves prove right, and the COVID pandemic teaches the political class that we live in an age of secular stagnation — in which low tax rates can coexist with high government spending — then the GOP may be able to forswear austerity without alienating their plutocratic patrons. Further, it’s apparent that the party could triangulate on fiscal policy without running afoul of its voting base. The Republican rank and file’s support for ridding the party’s House leadership of Liz Cheney (a stalwart conservative who voted to impeach Donald Trump), and replacing her with Elise Stefanik (a moderate who worked tirelessly to cover for Trump’s offenses), suggests that its definition of “true conservatism” has little to do with economic policy.

The GOP remains unlikely to assemble a majority coalition. Republicans may be slimming their margin of defeat with nonwhite voters, but they’re still losing that growing demographic category by a great deal. And although generational replacement is a slow process, millennials’ growing share of the electorate has been turning America about 0.4 percent more Democratic every four years. 

But as we’ve seen, the GOP needs neither majority support, nor systematic voter suppression, to dominate our politics. If Republicans make minuscule expansions to their minority coalition, they will likely control all three branches of the federal government by 2025, while boasting a hammerlock on the Senate for a decade or more. Of course, to lock in its anti-majoritarian advantages, Republicans will need to block structural reforms like a federal ban on partisan gerrymandering or the admission of new, Democratic-leaning states to the union. But at present, moderate Democrats don’t seem terribly interested in passing such measures.

To Tucker Carlson’s faithful, defeat is not an option.

In any case, mainstream political discourse casts support for America’s existing counter-majoritarian institutions as entirely legitimate; only voting restrictions and efforts to decertify election results are deemed “anti-democratic.” Which is funny, when one considers that the underrepresentation of African-American voters in the Senate does exponentially more to dilute Black political power than voter ID laws ever could. Nevertheless, Republicans could escape their politically damaging association with authoritarianism, while retaining an excellent shot at ruling in defiance of majority will, if they would only abandon largely ineffective voter-suppression laws, and cease threatening to nullify future election losses.

But they have not done so. Instead, the GOP has opted to wage a frontal assault on the constitutional order that gives it a roughly four-point handicap in national elections.

The party’s flirtation with naked authoritarianism isn’t in its political interest, conventionally defined. Cold calculations of how to maximize Republican power by mid-decade would not recommend the pursuit of voter suppression in Iowa. Two other forces have propelled the right’s authoritarian turn. One is the GOP primary electorate’s earnest belief that the 2020 election was stolen. Donald Trump made this conviction into a core tenet of contemporary conservatism. And if your constituency believes that the opposition party rigged the last election, and stole the presidency, you can’t very well do nothing about it and expect to be returned to office.

The second force is more sinister. Some Republican activists don’t believe that Trump won the most legally cast ballots in 2020, so much as the most legitimately cast ones. To this less deluded yet more fanatical contingent, any election a Democrat wins is a stolen election, because a critical mass of the Democratic coalition does not belong in this country.

The spokesman for this faction is America’s most-watched cable news host. In April, Tucker Carlson argued that the Immigration Act of 1965 was “the worst attack on our democracy” since the Civil War. “That law completely changed the composition of America’s voter rolls, purely to benefit the Democratic Party,” Carlson explained. “That seems like kind of an assault on democracy, a permanent one.”

That same month, Carlson reiterated his long-running claim that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate — the voters now casting ballots — with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”

These few short sentences explain why Democrats can’t win power legitimately and must be barred from power permanently: Democrats’ existing majority is the product of an “assault on democracy”; absent the lifting of racial quotas on immigration in 1965, the party could not compete nationally with so little white support. And if given the chance to wield power, Democrats will use it to carry on replacing the current electorate with “obedient voters from the Third World,” who will form the backbone of a new and permanent socialistic tyranny.

If every Democratic election victory brings America to the brink of national suicide, then conventional calculations of partisan interest are immaterial. Winning most of the time is no longer good enough; the aim must be to never lose.

Such catastrophic reasoning lingers beneath the GOP’s empowerment of “poll watchers” and vote challengers. And it’s why the conservative movement has become an existential threat to a democratic system that poses no grave threat to it.

Conservatives Can Win Without Waging War on Democracy