early and often

Yes, Republicans Still Pose a Threat to Democracy

This scene still reflects the radical edge of a partywide problem. Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Perhaps the mother of all contemporary false-equivalence arguments is that Democratic extremists have exaggerated the Republican threat to democracy to launch their own assault on the principles of self-government. This claim was renewed by Washington Post columnist Jason Willick, who cited the disappointing Republican midterm results to dismiss fears that the GOP was in danger of forcing “minority rule” on the country.

I won’t go through all my issues with the column, which regularly conflates democracy with the U.S. electoral system as currently constituted, as though they are the same thing. But his more specific arguments stemming from the 2022 results justify some pushback.

First of all, Willick sets up and burns down a bit of a straw man by spending six meaty paragraphs establishing that the 2022 House results reflected the actual House popular vote. That’s entirely true, but claims of pro-GOP bias in House elections have never been more than a footnote in broader arguments about anti-majoritarian pressures, and they mostly stemmed from concerns about gerrymandering (and determining the net effect of gerrymandering in 2022 is a very complex task).

But here’s a more serious argument:

Prophecies of inexorable Democratic doom in the upper chamber because of states’ ostensibly increasing GOP lean went unfulfilled as Democrats, despite the challenging midterm environment, picked up a seat in Pennsylvania and might even expand their majority if they win Georgia’s runoff election …

Progressive wonks have mustered all manner of data purporting to show the geographic unfairness of the Senate, yet far from entrenching “minority rule,” the body continues to reflect the United States’ close political divisions. With partisan control of the House flipping at a historically fast pace, the Senate’s stabilizing function is more pronounced.

To some extent, this argument confuses democratic with Democratic. There is zero doubt that the Senate is set up in a way that massively violates the fundamental democratic principle of each person’s vote counting as much as any other’s, with two senators representing California’s 39 million people and Wyoming’s 581,000 people. That’s offensive to democratic sensibilities no matter which political party controls the chamber. But to the extent that today’s Republicans have identified themselves with the values and interests of white voters living outside the core of major metropolitan areas, the small-state bias of the Senate tends to put a thumb on the scale for Republican prospects in the upper chamber. Democrats hung on to control of the Senate in 2022 in no small part because the one-third of Senate seats that happened to be up this year created a Democratic-leaning landscape (Democrats were defending just 14 of 35 seats at stake); that will not be the case two years from now, when Democrats must defend 23 of the 33 seats at stake.

More fundamentally, Republicans have an advantage in any state-based body of lawmakers. Even after a relatively strong midterm showing by Democrats, Republicans control 28 of the 50 governorships and 59 percent of the state legislative chambers. Geography rewards Republicans even when demography isn’t in their favor.

This reality, of course, carries over into the Electoral College that determines presidential elections, and it’s no accident that, with the exception of George W. Bush’s narrow win in 2004, Republicans have not won the popular vote in a presidential election since 1988. In 2020, Donald Trump’s reelection strategy did not even aim at a popular plurality. At some point, you have to concede that a party that is deeply committed to maintaining a system that now regularly produces anti-majoritarian presidential results is itself anti-majoritarian.

In several other crucial areas, the two parties have recently diverged in terms of their commitment to democracy. Willick refers contemptuously to “failed Democratic efforts to eliminate the Senate filibuster and radically rewrite U.S. voting laws.” The filibuster, of course, has in the past been a bulwark of Republican as well as Democratic strategy at times when either party has been in the minority. But now, Democrats seem irreversibly in favor of filibuster reform while Republicans are irrevocably opposed. This suggests an anti-majoritarian impulse going beyond tactical need that does not speak well of the GOP’s deeper motives. And that supposed “radical rewrite” of voting laws is mostly an effort to restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that, until very recently, virtually all Republicans supported along with measures to make voting simply easier that Republicans pioneered more often than did Democrats. Fear of convenience voting is a very bad sign in terms of the GOP’s commitment to democracy, and one of the genuinely positive signs coming out of the 2022 elections is that some Republicans appear to be abandoning Trump’s evil war on voting by mail.

Although Willick doesn’t make this argument, the two parties have also in the past alternated in righteous anger at the power of the judiciary to thwart or overturn the popular will. But right now and for the foreseeable future, it’s the GOP that is glorying in the prerogatives of the unelected judges enjoying lifetime tenures.

But the most important reason that Willick is off base in suggesting that Democrats now have no reason to suggest that Republicans are more hostile to democracy than they are is that the GOP remains a party loaded with politicians who still don’t accept the 2020-election results. Plus Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is now arguing that even the U.S. Constitution should not stand in the way of his wild determination to overturn his defeat. Yes, it’s great that with one conspicuous exception in Arizona, 2020-election deniers are grudgingly accepting their own 2022 defeats. But in a dangerous epidemic of election denial, approximately 100 percent of election deniers remain in one political party.

When will it be time to happily conclude that Republicans don’t represent a threat to democracy? I’d say it’s when they begin treating voting as a right rather than a privilege; when they look back at the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, and its chief instigator with universal contempt; and when they stop fighting every conceivable advance in self-government, as though democracy itself represents an existential threat to their principles.

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Yes, Republicans Still Pose a Threat to Democracy