The Escalating War Between The Republican Party and Democracy

An extremist party with fringe views can only hope to prevail if it subverts the popular will.

“If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”  — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) 

The majority of Americans reject the Republican Party’s basic agenda. Two-thirds of the country believes the federal government needs to do more to deal with global climate change. The majority desire a single government healthcare plan that would cover everybody. More Americans actually think the number of immigrants to this country should be increased than think it should be decreased. 71 percent believe transgender people should be allowed to serve in the military, and less than ⅓ support keeping marijuana illegal. Some polls have shown that nearly ¾ of people believe in a new wealth-tax on the super-rich. 

The Republican Party rejects these dominant viewpoints. Not only does it not want a single government healthcare plan, but Republicans loathe the Affordable Care Act, which was intentionally watered down in the hopes of pleasing conservatives. The right’s position on climate change ranges from “it’s a hoax” (the president) to “it’s real but there’s no need to worry much about it” (the Wall Street Journal editorial page). The Trump administration’s immigration policies are hideously cruel, and would probably shock and disturb people if the news media paid as much attention to the suffering of immigrants as they do to Trump’s personal finances. Trump, while often referred to as a “populist” in the 2016 campaign, and promising to raise taxes on rich people like himself, promptly gave a giant tax cut to the rich when he became president.

We live in something faintly resembling a democracy, in the sense that ordinary citizens semi-regularly get to choose which of the two major parties they would like to be ruled over by. The existence of such a system presents a basic problem for the Republican Party. If their ideas are not popular, but the party with the most popular ideas is the one that wins under a democratic system, Republicans are destined to lose. Even if there are many tens of millions of passionate believers in the Republican agenda, if those people are ultimately a minority, they will not prevail in a system where you have to get the most votes in order to be given power.

Democracy has always presented a problem for the right, due to the relative unpopularity of right-wing ideas. This was even true in 1930s Germany. The majority of Germans never voted for the Nazi Party—even in an election where Hitler’s Brownshirts unleashed a giant campaign of violent repression against their political enemies, they fell well short of 50 percent of the vote, a problem they solved by getting rid of elections entirely as soon as they were able to. 

Some U.S. conservatives are quite open about their suspicion of universal suffrage. The Founding Fathers, of course, explicitly did not believe in it, and there are still women alive today who were born before women had the right to vote. Citing England as an example, James Madison famously noted that “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure” and thus government should “be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Today, right-wing publications still invoke the founders to explain why democracy is bad. Here’s a Heritage Foundation article about the risks democracy poses: 

In a democracy, of course, the majority rules. That’s all well and good for the majority, but what about the minority? Don’t they have rights that deserve respect? Of course they do. Which is why a democracy won’t cut it. As the saying goes, a democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.

Now, here we should be careful to think about what is actually being referred to by the abstractions about minority rights, because it can be used to mean several very different things. A society in which 10 percent of people are Black, and 90 percent are White, and the latter use their demographic predominance to simply subvert the political preferences of the minority, is one where there is a “tyranny of the majority” problem. But what about a society in which one person has a billion dollars, and the rest of the people have no dollars, and must sell their labor to the billionaire in order to survive? They could, theoretically, vote to tax the billionaire, and because there are more of them, they would win in a system of “majority rule.” 

Clearly, then, it is correct that strict “majority rule” in which 50.00001 percent of people could do anything to the remaining 49.99999 percent if they had the votes is a recipe for injustice. People have inherent rights that can’t be violated by some larger group merely because it is larger. But what are those inherent rights? Is it “tyranny” for the “opulent” to be deprived of some of their opulence? The majority of people are not shareholders in ExxonMobil. Is it a violation of the rights of ExxonMobil shareholders for the majority to decide that the company’s contribution to climate destruction necessitates its expropriation and dismantlement? It’s easy to see how an argument that numerical minorities have inalienable rights could be used as a justification for subverting important popular policies that numerical minorities simply do not like.

Such is the situation the contemporary Republican Party finds itself in. Conservative ideology (at least of the kind that dominates the Congressional Republican Party) is that the wealthy are entitled to their wealth and that the government should not engage in the business of making society fairer through generous social welfare policies. But if the majority of the population does not agree, Republicans have a choice between simply accepting that they are beaten and finding some way to thwart that majority. Because conservative ideology says that small government and the protection of the wealthy’s property are issues of fundamental liberty, and that things like universal healthcare programs are tyranny and authoritarian socialism and the Road To Serfdom, they are disinclined to give up the fight.

And so the Republican Party is in an inherent conflict with American democracy. In the “red states,” where they predominate, they have less of a problem. But on the national level, they need institutions that will “protect the rights of the minority.” Fortunately, we have such institutions: the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. The Senate gives representation to Wyoming but not to Washington, D.C. or Puerto Rico, and gives a person in California much less of a voice than a person in New Hampshire or South Dakota. The Electoral College means that a candidate can become president despite getting millions fewer votes than their opponent. The Supreme Court has absolutely colossal powers; it can overturn essentially any law that it likes. Yet its justices are unelected, must be confirmed by the undemocratic Senate, and now tilt conservative by 6-3 in a country that does not tilt conservative 6-3. 

It is worth emphasizing just how illegitimate the structure of American government is from a democratic perspective. The entire basic framework, the Constitution, was never approved by the population on which it was imposed. Denying full voting rights to D.C. and Puerto Rico is impossible to defend (likewise colonial possessions like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands); every day that the situation persists is a day that the United States government is making its laws without satisfying the most elementary condition of legitimate governance: that people ought to have says in what the rules are, either directly or through the election of representatives. 

Republicans will fight hard, though, to make sure that these serious deficiencies in our basic system of government are not resolved. Donald Trump has been clear on the reason he opposes giving D.C. the statehood status that should belong to it by right. He says plainly: it shouldn’t happen because it will empower Democrats

“D.C. will never be a state. You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No, thank you. That’ll never happen.”

There is no good argument for forcing “taxation without representation” on D.C. residents. The rationalization that the right will give is that some things are more important than universal suffrage, namely “liberty” (their word for radical laissez-faire capitalism). If elections would produce undesirable egalitarian economic outcomes, then voters are irrational and must have more enlightened rulers make better decisions on their behalf. (There are entire books by libertarian scholars called things like Against Democracy and The Myth of the Rational Voter making these kinds of arguments.) Senator Mike Lee (R—of course) created some controversy recently when he tweeted that “democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are” and that “rank democracy” can “thwart” the flourishing of the human condition. Historically, United States government officials have used similar arguments to justify subverting the popular will around the world. In Vietnam, the United States propped up a government it knew was unpopular and would lose a fair election, because it felt justified in preventing the country from going communist. From Chile to Guatemala to Iran, the United States has supported the overthrow of democratically-elected governments on the grounds that an autocrat better serves the people’s interest (and our own). When the people of Iraq made it clear through their representatives that they didn’t want U.S. troops there, Donald Trump immediately threatened to impose sanctions. Grand talk of spreading democracy goes out the window the moment a democracy does something we don’t like.

At the moment, Donald Trump is doing his best to cling to power despite having lost a fair election. I very much doubt he’ll succeed—for one thing, most of the power elite has no incentive to help Trump thwart the process, given that Joe Biden poses little threat to the status quo. A lot of Republicans have been eerily silent even as Trump has spread baseless lies about a rigged election and refused to concede. This is alarming, because it raises the disquieting possibility that if Trump tried to stage a coup, the right would raise no objection. Many Republicans, it seems, believe that any means justifies the ends of remaining in power. They are purely Machiavellian and will surrender nothing unless they are forced to surrender it. Hence gerrymandering, poll closures, etc. If the gap between the popular will and the Republican agenda grows wide enough, the measures necessary will become increasingly extreme. Lindsey Graham is certainly right when he suggests that if Republicans want to win the presidency, mail-in ballots are going to be a serious obstacle. It’s not surprising that prominent members of the Republican Party do not have much of a principled opposition to seizing power undemocratically, since, after all, their whole ideology rejects democracy to begin with. As Zack Beauchamp explained in a useful pre-election Vox article:

The idea that majority rule is intrinsically oppressive is necessarily an embrace of anti-democracy: an argument that an enlightened few, meaning Republican supporters, should be able to make decisions for the rest of us. If the election is close, and Trump makes a serious play to steal it, [Mike] Lee’s “we’re not a democracy” argument provides a ready-made justification for tactics that amount to a kind of legal coup.

We can expect, then, to see increasingly anti-democratic measures if popular opinion diverges far enough from the Republican agenda. But there is nothing inevitable about the trend of public opinion. The Republican Party does have another important political tool at its disposal, namely shameless lying. For example, Americans generally do not believe that people should be denied insurance coverage because of pre-existing health conditions. Ideologically, however, the Republican Party is opposed to prohibiting companies from denying coverage because of preexisting conditions, because it believes that corporations should not be told by the government who they have to sell their products to. This creates a problem: the ideology is in conflict with the popular will. Some Republicans resolve it by simply lying about their position. The same is true of Social Security and Medicare cuts. People do not want the government to reduce their retirement benefits or health coverage, so Donald Trump insisted that “We will not be touching your Social Security and Medicare in Fiscal 2021 Budget,” before proposing a budget that did exactly that. Republicans try to get people to believe false things about climate change, false things about the healthcare systems of other countries, false things about the impacts of taxation on the economy, etc., because if people knew the truth, they would not be able to swallow the ridiculous idea that social democracy is the “road to serfdom.” (Many Democrats also spread nonsense about the healthcare systems of other countries.) 

The Republican Party is an extremist organization that poses a serious threat to the future of human civilization. If it is allowed to hold power, it will accelerate climate catastrophe and the international arms race. Fortunately, the suicidal ideology of free-market libertarianism is marginal, because broadly speaking people do not want to live in a world where natural disasters destroy their communities and they work long hours at tedious jobs where they have no rights. In Florida, a state carried by Trump, voters overwhelmingly supported a $15 minimum wage, because most people do not accept the right-wing dogma that high minimum wages are bad for workers. 

But conservative ideology is scary, not just because of its unhinged policy ideas (let neo-feudalism flourish, burn the planet, build more nukes, strip workers’ rights, let people die if they can’t afford to go to a hospital) but because it contains a ready-made justification for imposing those ideas by authoritarian means. Majority rule is tyranny. The Founding Fathers wanted to protect minority rights (not racial minorities, of course—minorities of the opulent). This can easily morph into something like “My opinions are unpopular, thus I have a right to impose them on the masses to prevent their tyrannizing over me.” The more Republicans agree with Mike Lee that “liberty” rather than democracy is the goal, with liberty meaning the private property rights of the rich, the more we will see a form of feudalism justified as being healthy and good. Either Republicans will succeed in changing people’s minds and getting the public on the whole to share their delusions, or they will have to resort to less and less principled methods of pushing their agenda through. When we see Mitch McConnell’s ruthlessness in ditching his respect for procedural norms whenever it is convenient, we have to understand that McConnell is doing what he has to do to secure a viable future for his rotten party. He knows that principles might sign the Republican Party’s death warrant. And they do not intend to die quietly. 

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