“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.

They’ve Got a Great Name for Voter Suppression and One Party Rule

From Fox News last month:

The Republican National Committee is launching a new panel on election integrity that it says is dedicated to restoring transparency and confidence to future elections.

The RNC announced their new Committee on Election Integrity on Wednesday, sharing the news first with Fox News.

Because everybody is in favor of election integrity.

From Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

The New York Times has a remarkable new report that exposes the breadth of Republican voter suppression efforts. Party leaders and their conservative allies are seeking to coordinate the passage of bills — in multiple states — designed to make it harder to vote, justified by mythic voter fraud.

For instance, the Times reports, those efforts played a role in a radical package of bills moving forward in Georgia, which includes ending vote-by-mail for most voters and limiting Sunday voting drives, which are heavily utilized by African Americans.

Republican leaders and their allies plan to export statutory language restricting voting to other states, and in many of them, extensive such efforts are already underway.

“The widespread coordination underscores the extent to which the dogma of voter fraud is embedded in the Republican Party,” the Times reports, bluntly noting that the Republican “views its path to regaining a foothold in Washington” through “an intense focus on re-engineering the voting system in states where it holds control.”

The focus-grouped phrase justifying all this is “election integrity.” That’s the name of the new group, run by the Republican National Committee, that is developing more such proposals for export to states.

But [the former president] has already told us what standing for “election integrity” really means: making it harder to vote for the express purpose of making it easier for Republicans to win future elections.

[He] made this explicit during his Conservative Political Action Conference speech. He declared that the Republican must be the party of “election integrity” and that this means reversing efforts to make it easier to vote wherever possible and that this is an “urgent” matter facing the Republican. . . .

Importantly, this is not [their leader] projecting his own corrupt motives on to what Republicans are doing. Rather, it’s that Republicans are acting on precisely that very same [rationale]:

[According to the Times:]

To head its election integrity committee, the Republican National Committee tapped Joe Gruters, the Florida Republican Party chairman who in January used a #stopthesteal hashtag and advertised ways for Republicans to attend the Jan. 6 rally that ended with a riot at the Capitol. . . .

Like nearly all of the Republicans involved in the party’s voter integrity efforts, Mr. Gruters declined to characterize Mr. Biden’s victory as legitimate, despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud and multiple state audits reaffirming the results. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of questions about the 2020 race.”

The call for “election integrity” is now inseparable from the claim that the election was stolen from Trump. That’s a lie, but the fact that so many Republican base voters believe it — which Trump and Republican officials [got them to believe] — is itself the stated justification to continue.

But we are not obliged to pretend that these Republican officials actually believe their lies about the election. Once we liberate ourselves of that notion, the plain truth comes into view: The same justification used to incite an effort to violently subvert the 2020 election’s conclusion is now being used to manipulate future elections, by preventing as many Democratic-aligned voters, untold numbers of them African American, from voting as possible. . . .

Unquote.

Choosing a positive phrase to describe a blatant power grab is a great bit of marketing. Journalists will tend to adopt the Republican terminology, just like the authors of the Times article when they refer to the “election integrity committee” and “the party’s voter integrity efforts” in the quote above. We need to keep in mind that, in this case, “election integrity” means stuff like making it a crime in Georgia to give food or water to voters standing in line for hours to vote because there are so few polling places in their neighborhoods.

What the Majority Wants vs. the Minority Rule Party

The American Rescue Plan the House of Representatives passed early Saturday morning has so much in it that one amazing provision is hardly being mentioned:

President Biden and Democratic lawmakers want to fight child poverty by giving U.S. families a few hundred dollars every month for every child in their household — no strings attached. A kind of child allowance. . . . Experts say it could cut child poverty nearly in half (NPR).

It’s understandable, therefore, that polls say an overwhelming majority of Americans support the Democrats’ Covid relief bill. One poll says 76% — even 60% of Republicans — support it. But not a single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for it. 

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Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent of The Washington Post both have columns about the bill and the politics. Here’s a mixture from what they wrote:

If I asked you to explain the Republican case against the Covid relief bill, what would you say? Well, they think it’s too expensive, and they’d rather not give too much help to states and localities. But their arguments against it seem halfhearted, anemic, almost resigned. . . .

This ought to be a moment when the GOP is back in its comfort zone. It’s not a party built for governing; Republicans no longer have much of a policy agenda, their leaders have become much more skilled at obstruction than at passing laws, and they have an enormous propaganda machine with a talent for creating fear and outrage. The party’s specialty is opposition.

One of the things they’ve done in the past is cast every new Democratic or liberal move as a harbinger of an impending apocalypse. Obamacare, they said in 2010, would destroy the American health care system. If gay people are allowed to marry, they said in 2004, the result would be the end of families and the breakdown of society. Both predictions proved ludicrously wrong, but at the time, they were highly effective means of motivating opposition. Today you can still find such rhetoric, but you have to look for it. . . .

Back in 2009, [Republican congressman Paul Ryan] made a very public case against a stimulus a fraction this big, making an actual argument (if a fraudulent one) about what debt Armageddon would mean for American society.

These days it’s harder to make that case. Republicans blew up the deficit with a huge tax cut for the rich, and cheered along as the pre-Covid economy was rocket-fueled with stimulus. Economists no longer fear the long-term risks of massive deficit spending amid big crises.

As a result, there’s nothing close to the same kind of public argument this time. As Paul Krugman points out:

Republicans appear to be losing the economic argument in part because they aren’t even bothering to show up

It’s as if they know they don’t have to.

They may well fully expect Democrats to . . . get the economy booming again, even as the vaccine rollout and other policies successfully tame the pandemic.

Yet Republicans know that even if this happens, they still have a good chance at recapturing the House at a minimum, helped along by a combination of voter suppression and other counter-majoritarian tactics and built-in advantages.

[Outside of Washington] they’re racing forward with an extraordinary array of new voter suppression efforts. Such measures are advancing in Georgia, Florida and Iowa, and in many other states.

In a good roundup of all these new efforts, Ari Berman notes:

After record turnout in 2020, Republican-controlled states appear to be in a race to the bottom to see who can pass the most egregious new barriers to voting.

On top of that, Republicans are openly boasting that their ability to take back the House next year will gain a big lift from extreme gerrymanders. Some experts believe they can do that even if Democrats win the national House popular vote by a margin similar to that of 2020.

So is there any reason to doubt that they’re primarily counting on more of the same as their path back to power this time?

[But controlling the White House and both houses of Congress] presents an extraordinary opportunity for Biden and congressional Democrats if they can see their way clear to take advantage of it.

Right now, Democrats are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to increase the minimum wage, something President Biden ran on, their entire party believes in, and which is overwhelmingly popular with the public. Some want $15 an hour, while others would prefer $11.

Yet the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a straight minimum wage increase can’t pass via the reconciliation process — the only way to pass a bill with a simple majority vote — the details of which are incomprehensible, or endlessly maddening, or both.

So Democrats have to find some kind of fiscal somersault to try to get the minimum wage increase into the Covid relief bill. 

This is no way to make laws. And what’s even worse is that it’s happening at a moment when Republicans — who in the past have been nothing if not skilled at undermining, vilifying, and sabotaging Democratic presidents — have seldom looked more feckless.

Republicans just haven’t been able to take the hatred and fear their hardcore base feels for Biden and scale it up and out, which then affects their ability to whip up frenzied opposition to the things he’s trying to do. And the broader context matters, too: When we’re caught in a pandemic and an economic crisis, only so many people will get worked up about whether a transgender girl is allowed to play softball.

That gives Democrats the chance to move forward confidently with their agenda, an agenda that is enormously popular. Yet some in the party are still in the grip of the nonsensical belief that it’s more important to retain a Senate procedure whose purpose is to thwart progress than to pass laws that solve problems.

In every American state legislature and in most every legislature around the world, if there’s majority support for a bill, it passes. In almost all cases supermajorities are only required, if ever, on things like constitutional amendments.

And every argument the filibuster’s defenders make about it — that it produces deliberative debate, that it encourages bipartisanship, that it makes for cooperation and compromise — is simply wrong, as anyone who has been awake for the last couple of decades knows perfectly well.

The Covid relief bill will pass, because it’s the only thing Democrats can do without a supermajority. It’s a vital, popular bill that could have been done in cooperation with Republicans had they wanted, but instead they’ve decided to oppose it. Which is their right, but it also shows how a simple majority should be the requirement for more legislating — which can only happen if the filibuster is eliminated.

The first weeks of the Biden presidency show the path Democrats can take: Push forward with the popular and consequential parts of your agenda, don’t be distracted by bleating from Republicans, act as though the public is behind you (because it is), and you might find that the Republican opposition machine isn’t as potent as it used to be.

But none of that will be possible unless Democrats can deliver on their promises. If they let themselves be handcuffed by the filibuster, the Biden presidency will fail and Republicans will take control of Congress. In other words, Democrats will have done the job Republicans couldn’t do themselves.

Unquote.

Neither of the columnists mentioned two key parts of the Democratic agenda.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would protect voters from racial discrimination and voter suppression.

The For the People Act would expand voting rights, overhaul our campaign finance system, and end extreme partisan gerrymandering.

All that stands in the way of these bills becoming law is the current requirement that ten Republican senators vote for them. That’s why the 50 Democratic senators need to end or severely limit the filibuster, thereby restoring majority rule to the US Senate. That’s how we can help restore majority rule to the United States of America.

Majority Rule Would Reveal How United We Are

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post has given up on the Republican Party (“How Do We Hold the Traitors to Democracy Accountable?”):

The degree to which the Republican Party embraced an attempted coup is both chilling and unsurprising given the GOP’s descent into authoritarianism. It should prompt some soul-searching by Republicans who did not join the coup. Is this a party I should be associated with? Is this a party that can be trusted with power? If the answer to either question is no, they should form a new party whose only requirement is loyalty to the Constitution.

But she sees positive possibilities ahead (“America Isn’t Hopelessly Divided. It Only Looks That Way Because of Our Constitution”):

I get it — and agree with it to some extent: Americans are deeply divided, inhabiting two parallel political universes, ingesting different media and adhering to contradictory visions of America. One increasingly defines the United States as a bastion of White Christianity; the other sees a creedal nation defined by its founding documents. But perhaps the “civil war” perspective is overwrought and distorted.

First, let’s get some perspective. Yes, a shift of a mere 39,000 votes in a few close swing states in 2016 would have made Hillary Clinton president. And yes, an even slimmer shift of about 33,000 votes would have kept President Txxxx in office this year. But a shift of 269 votes in Florida in 2000 would have given the election to Al Gore. Were we more divided then?

More generally, we can see that it is the Electoral College that transforms President-elect Joe Biden’s margin of 7 million votes into a multistate nail-biter. But forget the Electoral College for a moment: Democrats have won the popular vote in the past four consecutive elections with margins ranging from 2.9 million (Clinton in 2016) to 10 million (Obama in 2008). And Al Gore, by the way, won by more than half a million votes nationally. One “solution” to the deep division problem, then, would be to junk the Electoral College.

A similar lack of majority rule gives Republicans control of the Senate, despite having support from a minority of the population. The disproportionate power of lightly populated states turns significant majority rule by Democrats into persistent minority rule by Republicans. Gerrymandering offers many Republicans a similar artificial advantage in their House seats.

In other words, we have an enduring and significant majority in favor of Democrats nationally, but our constitutional system consistently hands that advantage over to a Republican Party that is increasingly radical, irrational and racist. (As The Post’s Dan Balz writes, “For Txxxx supporters, cultural preservation of an America long dominated by a White, Christian majority remains a cornerstone of their beliefs.” That is the definition of white supremacy.)

We could get rid of the Electoral College by constitutional amendment or through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (which would instruct each state’s electors to cast their votes for the national popular vote winner). But there is an alternative answer, which is also a function of our constitutional system.

One positive aspect of the Txxxx era is that it made many Democrats understand the value of federalism. State lawmakers and election officials prevented a coup by the Txxxx campaign. State attorneys general, over the course of 138 cases, also blocked Txxxx on an array of issues. As NBC News reported, this includes: “the ‘travel ban’; the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA; family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border; the ‘national emergency’ declaration to build the border wall; international student visas; student loan protections; clean water rules; transgender health care protections; automobile emissions; a citizenship question on the 2020 census; U.S. Postal Service operations; and Obamacare.”

Federalism is not an unalloyed benefit to progressives, as we saw when states banned same-sex marriage, access to abortion and common sense precautions to prevent the spread of covid-19. But, if you combine the “laboratories of democracy” with local activism (which prevailed in one state after another on same-sex marriage) and a Democratic president’s persuasion, you might make real progress on everything from police reform to health care to education.

The other benefit of pushing decision-making down to the states is that state governments are less polarized and more functional than the federal government. Democratic governors work with Republican legislatures; Republican governors work with Democrats. Budgets get passed and balanced — without the backstop of printing money.

So where does that leave us? Our divisions are considerable — aggravated not solely by “polarization,” but also by the descent of one party into nuttery and by a Constitution that gives that party disproportionate power. Where possible, lawmakers should reduce that distortion (e.g., the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact) and deploy federalism.

Finally, our politics is more fluid than we imagine. Virginia and Colorado used to be dependable red states. No more. Stacey Abrams showed Georgia politics can shift as well. We need not accept that states are fated to remain in one partisan column. Activism, outreach and demography can change the electorate, and hence the result of elections.

The bottom line: Democrats have a small but stubborn national popular vote majority. The electorate as a whole agrees with their positions on gun safety, climate change and health care. The trick is expanding democracy, maximizing the benefits of federalism and working hard to create an electorate that resembles the increasingly diverse — and progressive — population.

Unquote.

Ms. Rubin doesn’t mention statehood for Washington, D.C. (pop. 685,000) and Puerto Rico (3.2 million), but giving full voting rights to citizens there would help restore majority rule to the Senate.