People in Congress Vote, But They Don’t All Believe in Democracy

Yesterday, I posted part of a pro-democracy, pro-majority rule speech given this week by a Democratic congressman, Sean Casten of Illinois. He argues that Congress doesn’t do what most voters want it to do because our government has a built-in bias toward minority-rule. Given how we elect presidents and members of Congress and how the Supreme Court functions, a minority of voters and a minority in Congress can make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for the government to do things most of us want it to do. He therefore recommends changes to the House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court and Electoral College that would make each of those institutions more democratic, i.e. more responsive to the will of the majority.

At the beginning of his speech, however, he said something about his colleagues in the House that just isn’t true:

Now everybody in this body has different policy views, different ideas of what a better position in that relay might look like. But I submit that we do have some universal goals that we all agree on or else we wouldn’t be in this line of work.

We all want a government that delivers the greatest good for the greatest number. We all want a government that upholds our founding promise of freedom and equality.

We all, I think, believe Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to us that a government of, by, and for the people should not perish from this Earth. And we all, also, I think agree that on those really hard questions, … the single best way to resolve those disputes is through a democratic process.

A few bedrock principles of democracy are that the vast majority of adult citizens get to vote, each of their votes counts the same, the person or proposal getting the most votes wins and people should be encouraged to vote (otherwise we won’t know what the majority wants).

It’s hard to know what Rep. Casten was thinking when he suggested that everybody in Congress believes in democracy. Maybe he was being collegial or sarcastic. But it simply isn’t true that his Republican colleagues accept the democratic principles he thinks are universal.

I just finished a book by two sociologists called The Flag and the Cross. It’s a great book if you want to understand American politics, since it deals with the rise of White Christian nationalism, the ideology that’s become dominant in the Republican Party. In a nutshell, White Christian nationalists think America should be a Christian country and White people who profess to support Christianity (mainly White men) should be in charge. You can immediately see there’s a conflict here with democracy and majority rule. Republicans don’t always admit they oppose majority rule, but sometimes they do. This is from The Flag and the Cross (pp. 96-98):

White Christian nationalism designates who is “worthy” of the freedom it cherishes, namely, “people like us.” But for the “others” outside that group, white Christian nationalism grants whites in authority the “freedom” to control such populations, to maintain a certain kind of social order that privileges “good people like us”….

Both legal and illegal voter suppression have long been a tactic of white conservatives to tilt elections in their favor. Yet political scientists and sociologists often forget the ideological support for such efforts since the civil rights movement has come from white Christian nationalism. Just months before the 1980 election, Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Moral Majority, spoke at a Dallas conference to an audience that included evangelical leaders … as well as GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

Weyrich told his audience, “Now many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo-goo syndrome.’ Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now.” He went on, explaining: “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Here before his Christian Right audience, Weyrich explained the strategy: our group stays in power if fewer people—especially our opponents—are able to vote. The policy implication is clear: make it harder for “problem” populations to vote, or at least don’t make it easier.

Weyrich’s antidemocratic sentiment has been repeated on the Christian Right for decades since. Also among those in attendance at that 1980 meeting was longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Schlafly underscored why limiting early voting was so critical. “The reduction in the number of days allowed for early voting is particularly important because early voting plays a major role in Obama’s ground game. The Democrats carried most states that allow many days of early voting.”

Several years later, former Baptist pastor, governor of Arkansas, and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee echoed Weyrich’s words: “I know that most politicians say we want everyone to vote, I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t want everyone to vote. If they’re so stupid—that’s right, if they’re gonna vote for me they need to vote, if they’re not gonna vote for me they need to stay home. I mean, it’s that simple . . . But in the big picture, there are people who vote and they have no idea what our Constitution says.” This last part of Huckabee’s quote is instructive in that he ties citizens’ worthiness to vote not only to their support for him, but to their knowledge of the Constitution.

Undergirding these views is an understanding of democratic participation that has deep historical roots, namely, that only certain groups (i.e., people like us) are “worthy” to have a say in government and it is perfectly acceptable to make it more difficult to vote, and particularly for those who might be “undeserving” (i.e., people like them). Indeed, we find the connection between white Christian nationalism and these attitudes is exceptionally strong.

In October 2020, just before the election, we asked Americans a series of questions about voter access…. Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that white Americans believe we already make it too easy to vote in this country and that they would support hypothetical laws restricting the vote….By contrast, as white Americans’ affirmation of our Christian nationalism indicators increases, their likelihood of believing voter suppression in presidential elections is a real problem plummets.

Why would we see these patterns even after we account for relevant political characteristics? Because White Christian nationalism is fundamentally antidemocratic for “others,” that is, those who are “unworthy” of participation. This is how order is maintained: freedom for us, restraint for them.

If you’d like to see more recent examples, this (gift) Washington Post article from two years ago quotes several Republican politicians who admit their party “needs voting restrictions to win”. It concludes:

In this age, in which one party in particular has embraced an all’s-fair-in-politics approach, they’re bothering less with arguing that this is the right policy for government, and more that it’s the right policy for Republicans being able to control government.