“Purity” and “Quality”: A Crisis in the Making

More than 100 experts on democracy, from John Aldrich to Daniel Ziblatt, have issued a “statement of concern” regarding the imminent crisis in American politics:

We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm. Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.

When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral. In the process, violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators. State legislatures have advanced initiatives that curtail voting methods now preferred by Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as early voting and mail voting. Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the “purity” and “quality” of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.

State legislators supporting these changes have cited the urgency of “electoral integrity” and the need to ensure that elections are secure and free of fraud. But by multiple expert judgments, the 2020 election was extremely secure and free of fraud. The reason that Republican voters have concerns is because many Republican officials, led by former President Donald Trump, have manufactured false claims of fraud, claims that have been repeatedly rejected by courts of law, and which Trump’s own lawyers have acknowledged were mere speculation when they testified about them before judges.

In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

Democracy rests on certain elemental institutional and normative conditions. Elections must be neutrally and fairly administered. They must be free of manipulation. Every citizen who is qualified must have an equal right to vote, unhindered by obstruction. And when they lose elections, political parties and their candidates and supporters must be willing to accept defeat and acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome. The refusal of prominent Republicans to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, and the anti-democratic laws adopted (or approaching adoption) in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and Texas—and under serious consideration in other Republican-controlled states—violate these principles. More profoundly, these actions call into question whether the United States will remain a democracy. As scholars of democracy, we condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms as a betrayal of our precious democratic heritage.

The most effective remedy for these anti-democratic laws at the state level is federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections. Just as it ultimately took federal voting rights law to put an end to state-led voter suppression laws throughout the South, so federal law must once again ensure that American citizens’ voting rights do not depend on which party or faction happens to be dominant in their state legislature, and that votes are cast and counted equally, regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which a citizen happens to live. This is widely recognized as a fundamental principle of electoral integrity in democracies around the world.

A new voting rights law (such as that proposed in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) is essential but alone is not enough. True electoral integrity demands a comprehensive set of national standards that ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration, guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote, prevent partisan gerrymandering from giving dominant parties in the states an unfair advantage in the process of drawing congressional districts, and regulate ethics and money in politics.

It is always far better for major democracy reforms to be bipartisan, to give change the broadest possible legitimacy. However, in the current hyper-polarized political context such broad bipartisan support is sadly lacking. Elected Republican leaders have had numerous opportunities to repudiate Trump and his “Stop the Steal” crusade, which led to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Each time, they have sidestepped the truth and enabled the lie to spread.

We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.

Unquote.

The two Democratic senators who seem most reluctant to suspend the filibuster in order to protect democracy should read this statement.

Senator Joseph Manchin
306 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Senator Kyrsten Sinema
317 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

It Can Happen Here

Earlier today, I quoted part of an interview with political scientist David Faris regarding Republican efforts to do make America safe for minority rule. The Washington Monthly’s blog also has a brief article by him. It’s called “The Republican Assault on Democracy Is Worse Than You Think” (note: besides changing the name of the orange-skinned creature to “X”, I’m changing all references to the “GOP” to “GQP” to reflect the party’s mass descent into the conspiratorial abyss):

Despite the palpable relief of Joe Biden’s election, American democracy is experiencing an ongoing crisis. With Republicans likely to end the Democratic hold on the House next year with an aggressive gerrymander, GQP-led states enacting voter suppression laws and Republicans laying the groundwork for a more successful version of [President X’s] post-hoc effort to steal the 2020 election, the threat to democracy is clear and present.

That widely felt, crisis-like sense of urgency is why the Democratic House passed the For the People Act, which among many other things would end gerrymandering and make it easier for adults to vote, and then made history by forwarding a D.C. statehood bill to the Senate, which would rectify a longstanding injustice and help keep Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, the leader of the minority rather than the majority.

Unfortunately, a handful of Democratic senators led by and possibly limited to Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, may unwittingly usher in a long era of de facto authoritarianism by blocking the reforms needed to preserve democracy. Both insist that they won’t abolish the filibuster, which is the gateway drug to doing anything at all.

Consequently, Democrats must avert both the looming carnage in the midterm elections as well as a post-election putsch in 2024. There’s really only three things they can do, and none of them will be easy, but it’s worth considering because the alternatives are worse.

First, Biden and Harris could win re-election by a margin beyond dispute. The 2020 election was extremely close. A small shift in votes across three battleground states could have thrown the election to [X] despite Biden’s significant margin in the national popular vote. A more substantial Biden win in the critical states might ensure that [GQP] coup plotters won’t be able to pull off an electoral vote heist.

Barring that, it is critical that Democrats cling to one branch of Congress in both 2022 and 2024. The [GQP] gambit to object to electoral votes and throw the election into the House failed in large part because they needed a majority in both chambers to toss out the electoral votes from a particular state. While a majority of Republican senators never signed on to this malevolent project, the guess here is that this can mostly be attributed to the futility of the effort. If Republicans had the votes, many of the senators who refused to object would almost certainly have come around if they believed that the maneuver could have secured another term for [X].

Democrats must also win gubernatorial (and secretary of state) races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, and others. Another factor in the coup is that Democrats controlled the election machinery in the Midwest battlegrounds, and Republican officials in Arizona and Georgia, to their credit, refused to play their part in [X’s] plot. We may not be so lucky in 2024.

It is hard to overstate how unlikely it is that even one of these three things might happen if Democrats can’t muster the votes to pass democracy reform.

They don’t call them midterm losses for nothing. The president’s party has taken a beating in nearly every post-WWII midterm election, losing an average of 26 seats in the House and four in the Senate. The out-party’s voters are extra motivated to deliver a rebuke to the president’s party, while the president’s party gets complacent. To make matters worse, in the absence of mandatory non-partisan redistricting, Republicans are going to add a significant number of safe or Republican-leaning seats to the House, making their path to a majority even easier.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, must hold onto precious seats in what will be tough races in Georgia (Raphael Warnock), Arizona (Mark Kelly), Nevada (Catherine Cortez-Masto), and New Hampshire (Maggie Hassan). Democrats have only three realistic pickup opportunities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, maybe Florida. That math is not great.

As for those governor races, Democrats again begin the cycle struggling against history’s headwinds. The president’s party has lost governorships in 16 of the last 19 midterms. In just one midterm since WWII (1986) has the party in power increased its gubernatorial numbers. . . . 

If Democrats lose both chambers of Congress, cough up multiple governorships, and the 2024 election is another squeaker, we know the playbook. [GQP] governors will certify Republican electors no matter what the voters want, and Republican congressional majorities will try to deliver the presidency to their party’s candidate. State legislatures, which used to pick senators, will supplant secretaries of state where Republicans detect any wobbling. Wherever it goes from there is anyone’s guess, but democracy as we know it will be gone. . . . 

That means figuring out how to get Manchin and Sinema to nuke, or at the very least curtail, the filibuster should consume every waking minute of Chuck Schumer’s life. The alternative is to either hope for a series of electoral miracles or watch helplessly as an authoritarian mob ushers in the catastrophe. We may never get another chance to fix this peacefully.

More Good News, Bad News

There’s good news about the economy, which means good news about people’s lives. From Paul Krugman:

At the beginning of this year, the United States was still very much in the depths of the pandemic. Daily deaths were higher than ever, with Covid-19 taking more than 3,500 lives in the country every day. Parts of the economy that depend on close physical contact were largely frozen. . . .

Then came an extraordinarily successful vaccination campaign. Deaths have plunged more than 85 percent and are still dropping. As fear recedes, the economy is surging, in what may end up being the fastest recovery ever. . . . 

Why would anyone imagine us able to achieve that kind of sudden acceleration without leaving a few skid marks, and maybe even burning some rubber?

So yes, sawmill operators, who expected a longer slump, got caught short, leading to sky-high lumber prices. Rental car companies, which sold off a large part of their fleets last year, are now scrambling to buy vehicles again, helping to send used-car prices soaring. And so on.

What about those reports of labor shortages? Some of this is what always happens after a period of high unemployment: Businesses grow accustomed to having job applicants lined up at their doors, and get cranky when the buyers’ market ends. . . .

Mainly, however, we’re just seeing the problems you’d expect when the economy tries to roar ahead from a standing start, which means that we’re calling on suppliers to ramp up production incredibly fast and expecting employers to quickly attract a large number of new workers. These problems are real, but they’ll mostly resolve themselves in a few months.

So what do these probably temporary problems say about the longer term, and in particular about President Biden’s economic plans? That’s easy: nothing. Politicians gonna politician, and Biden’s opponents are seizing on every negative bit of news as proof that his entire agenda is doomed. But none of it should be taken seriously. . . . None of this tells you anything at all about how much we should worry about overheating, let alone how much more we should be spending on infrastructure and family support (answer: a lot) or how we should pay for these initiatives (answer: tax corporations and the rich).

. . . There is some bad news out there, but most of it is a temporary byproduct of extraordinary good news: The virus is losing, and the economy is winning.

Or more succinctly, from the White House:

Untitled

On the other hand — and it’s a giant hand with about twelve dangerous fingers — one side is trying to rig the game even more than it already is. This is part of an interview from Vox:

Sean Illing

You were urging Democrats in 2018 to pass the sorts of reforms that are still on the table today, like packing the courts or granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico. Are we beyond that now?

David Faris (political scientist and author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty)

What needs to be done has gotten more complex. The structural problems are even worse than I anticipated. I also didn’t fully anticipate the unapologetically authoritarian turn in Republican politics. But the fixes are still there. You have to abolish the filibuster in the Senate, you have to mandate national nonpartisan redistricting, you have to make voting easier, and you have to outlaw some of these Republican voter suppression tactics.

Sean Illing

I’ve had conversations with some Democrats and when these ideas about nuking the filibuster or court-packing or granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico come up, the argument is often that it’s a nonstarter because [senators] Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema simply won’t do it. What’s wrong with that thinking?

David Faris

Certainly the laws that you can pass are contingent on getting the most moderate member of your caucus on board. . . .

Where Manchin seems to be very far away from what House Democrats want to do is on the democracy reform stuff. It’s maddening because nothing that Manchin wants to do policy-wise can get done without abolishing the filibuster. Democrats are not going to have a majority after next year if they don’t do some of these things now. So it’s a mistake to assume Manchin can’t be moved. That’s the job of leadership. That’s Joe Biden’s job. That’s Chuck Schumer’s job.

Sean Illing

Let’s just say that Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, for whatever reason, refuse to respond to the realities of the moment — then what?

David Faris

It’s bleak. I don’t know what else to say.

Democrats have to get extremely lucky next year. They either need to luck into the most favorable environment for the president’s party that we haven’t ever had for a midterm election or … I don’t know. There’s not much else they can do. None of these democracy reforms can get through on a reconciliation bill. If Democrats don’t pass nonpartisan redistricting, they’re going to be fighting at a huge disadvantage in the House. That’s the ballgame.

Progressive activists are going to pour a billion dollars into the Florida Senate race and then [Marco] Rubio is going to win by 10 points. So if they don’t act, it’s very simple. The Democrats will have to fight on this extremely unfair playing field against a newly radicalized Republican Party that is going to pull out all the stops in terms of voter suppression to win these elections, on top of the situation where they’re making other changes to state laws that could allow them to mess around with results in other ways, like what we’re seeing in Georgia now.

There’s a very circular structure to this kind of proto-authoritarianism. You have anti-democratic practices at the state level that produce minority Republican governments that pass anti-democratic laws that end up in front of courts that are appointed by a minoritarian president and approved by a minoritarian Senate that will then rule to uphold these anti-democratic practices at the state level.

And so there is no path to beating some of these laws through the courts. The Supreme Court has already said it’s not going to touch gerrymandering. And so there’s nothing left except Congress using its constitutional authority under the elections clause to do some regulation to the elections. I just don’t see another way.

Sean Illing

It feels like we’re sleepwalking into a real crisis here, but it’s hard to convey the urgency because it’s not dramatic and it’s happening in slow motion and so much of life feels so normal. And yet our democratic system is losing any semblance of legitimacy and down that road is a range of possibilities no one wants to seriously consider. …

David Faris

When people think of democracy dying, they think of some very dramatic event like Trump riding down Pennsylvania Avenue in a tank or something. That’s not the reality here.

Take the scenario where Republicans don’t have to steal the 2024 election. They just use their built-in advantages in which Biden wins the popular vote by three points but still loses the Electoral College. Democrats win the House vote but lose the House. Democrats win the Senate vote, but they lose the Senate.

That’s a situation where the citizens of the country fundamentally don’t have control of the agenda and they don’t have the ability to change the leadership. Those are two core features of democracy, and without them, you’re living in competitive authoritarianism. People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone. . . .

The Biggest Issue Today

The biggest issue in the world is climate change, but the biggest issue in American politics is the descent of the Republican Party into authoritarianism (which, given who Republicans are, is itself part of the climate change problem). Here are parts of two opinion columns.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

When it came to the brazenness and sheer volume of his dishonesty, [the former president] was unique among politicians in American history and perhaps even in world history. So when he left office and found the vital propaganda pipelines of Twitter and Facebook closed to him, one might have hoped that his party would begin to rebuild its relationship to the truth.

But if anything, the Republican Party today is even more committed to myths, falsehoods and a shared hostility to the very idea of an objective reality . . . than they were when [their guy] was still president.

Things are not getting better. They’re getting worse. And it’s almost impossible to see a way out. A quick rundown of news just from the past couple of days:

  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson are vaguely suggesting that Anthony S. Fauci is to blame for creation of the coronavirus, based on a convoluted stew of half-truths and speculation about international virology research and the hypothesis that the virus originated in a lab in China. Carlson has been telling his viewers that covid vaccines have been killing people by the thousands. He’s the highest-rated host on cable news.
  • Republican members of Congress are trying to recast the Jan. 6 insurrection as a gentle stroll through the Capitol by people who may or may not have been [Dear Leader’s] supporters. Meanwhile, the purging of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) [from her leadership position] shows that the lie that [someone else] won the 2020 election has become the central organizing principle of the GOP.
  • The very act of fact-checking work is so offensive to Republicans that a group of GOP state legislators in Michigan have filed a bill called the “Fact Checker Registration Act.” It would require fact-checkers to register with the state and acquire a million-dollar insurance policy, and fine them if their fact-checks are displeasing to the government.

From Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine:

The fate of American democracy is the biggest issue in American politics. . .[It’s] not an issue you can simply put aside, or even weigh alongside all the other issues. It’s a foundational issue — the one decision that has to be settled before any other political question can be considered.

A majority of Republican voters believe [the] lie that the election was stolen, and this belief has been the most important driver of their post-election behavior. Republican-controlled states are implementing voting restrictions to placate this lie; Republican officials who refused to go along with [their leader’s] autogolpe are being removed from their positions [“autogolpe” = Spanish word for “a self-coup, or autocoup, . . . a form of coup d’état or putsch in which a nation’s leader, having come to power through legal means, dissolves or renders powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers not granted under normal circumstances”].

The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last recently argued that “Republicans are already well on their way to marshaling the political will to do whatever the law even theoretically might allow in pursuit of power,” [for example,] use the full extent of their power to overturn the result and either assign electoral votes to their party using their control of state government, or throw the contest to the House . . . .

The primary argument in How Democracies Die, by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, is that the survival of a democratic regime against an authoritarian threat usually comes down to choices made by ideological allies of the authoritarian side. They can decide either to support an authoritarian party or leader that advances their policy agenda, or break from their natural allies and defend the system. According to their historical study of threats against democratic regimes, when the authoritarian candidate’s allies defect and join with their natural ideological opponents to save the system, democracies survive.

When they stay loyal to their normal partners, on the other hand, democracy perishes. The term Ziblatt and Levitsky borrow for this fateful latter decision is “ideological collusion” — choosing to win by subverting democracy rather than saving the system by joining with their ideological opponents.

Rep. Liz Cheney’s Republican critics are mostly willing to let her continue to disagree with [the Big Lie]. What they cannot abide is her vocalizing her belief. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-South Carolina), reportedly complained in a caucus meeting about her “defiant attitude” and failure to be a “team player.”

Eliana Johnson, editor of the Washington Free Beacon, perfectly explains the mainstream view within the party. The party’s operatives and politicians [want] Cheney to put aside her concern about the survival of democracy in America and instead focus on matters that unite the Republican party’s authoritarian and democratic wings. They’re demanding, in so many words, ideological collusion. . . . [Cheney was officially purged from the Republican leadership in the House this week.]

The Republican Party is sliding into authoritarianism at a terrifyingly rapid clip. To stand by is to let it happen. Republicans who have reservations about this trend have tried quiet hand-wringing for five years. It hasn’t worked. . . .

[A group of Republicans has announced they’ll try to change the party’s direction or else start a third party: “the Republican Party is broken. It’s time for a resistance of the ‘rationals’ against the ‘radicals'”. It’s quite late for them to join the resistance, but it’s something.]

resist 2

Understanding Their Perspective, and Thus Their Agenda

Jay Rosen of New York University recently listed the things he spends “most time puzzling about these days”. Here are his top two, although I’ve reversed the order, because one of them describes the world as most Republicans see it, a perspective that helps generate their warped political agenda:

        1) The Republican Party is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled . . . minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military. 

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainstream media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives. 

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. 

Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three. A counter-majoritarian [political party] thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures. 

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias. 

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the [journalistic] playbook about that.

        2) We have a two-party system and one of the two is [against democracy].

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the Big Lie that [somebody else] actually won

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that [the loser] won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership. 

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. 

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do . . . 

Unquote.

A thought occurred to me after reading Prof. Rosen’s post, so I left a comment:

It seems that the two biggest purveyors of right-wing propaganda and disinformation in the US are Fox News (the Murdochs) and Facebook (Zuckerberg). Do we have to accept the present behavior of these two institutions — actually, the behavior of these individuals — as facts of nature or are there practical ways to reduce their negative influence? Ways to address the problem have been suggested, but maybe there needs to be a more organized, targeted approach.

What do you do to sociopathic billionaires in order to get them to cease and desist? I don’t know, but that’s why people tried to assassinate Hitler.