(Bloomberg Opinion) – In the 1990s a Republican explained to me why “the Democratic Party” was his preferred term for the opposition: “You are not more democratic than us.” This is very controversial these days.
In recent years, and particularly in recent months, progressives have become increasingly convinced that the Republican Party is a threat to democracy. this hostility to democracy is now their organizing passion; that it can only survive by thwarting democracy; and that democratizing reforms are the only way to defeat them. A number of conservatives have come to the same conclusions, and in some cases have departed from conservatism.
These conclusions are exaggerated to the point of error. But they are not unfounded, and even the exaggerations have superficial plausibility. There has long been a strain of conservatism that is at least suspicious of democracy – so long that it can be said that the strain is older than what it fears. Former President Donald Trump and his allies have tried to get the legislature and Congress to reject the results of a presidential election without showing that those results were fraudulent. Some of his followers tried to force their way through.
And there is more. Only once in the last three decades have Republicans won more votes than Democrats in a presidential election. The electoral college allowed them to win three presidential elections despite this fact. Republicans defend the institution. Other features of the U.S. political system that run counter to pure democracy – such as the equal representation of states in the Senate and the filibuster at the federal level, and the wandering of legislative districts in some states – currently bolster the strength of Republicans, and Republicans oppose it pronounced to change them. The Republican legislature eventually seeks changes to electoral procedures that would make voting more difficult, while the Republican federal legislature opposes a law designed to make it easier.
The criticism of the Republicans as an anti-democratic party is too much to immediately reject. However, the persuasiveness of criticism often depends on misunderstandings. Take the outrage greeted by Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah when he tweeted in October that democracy is not our government’s goal: “We want the human constitution to flourish. The democracy of rank can thwart that. “It was widely believed that the Senator was revealing the authoritarian nature of his party – to“ say the quiet part out loud, ”as the cliché goes.
However, Lee’s underlying point wasn’t particularly controversial, as he later explained. Much (if not all) of the value we place on democracy is significant: we believe it promotes freedom, prosperity and peace. We are ready to restrict democracy in the service of such goods, for example by protecting certain individual rights against majorities. Lee’s comment has been skewed both because it was made in a partisan context – just weeks before the elections – and because we too seldom acknowledge that the limits we set on democracy are just that.
The intellectual skepticism of the right about democracy was once robust and even alarming. But after centuries of experience with its representative and constitutional form, it has largely shrunk to the anodyne version expressed by Lee. It is worrying that majorities can go too far, a feeling that not every step towards greater democracy should be taken just because it promotes democracy, a reminder that democratic outcomes are not necessarily right or even right. To the extent that these feelings are in tension with democracy, this is a useful tension.
You can find one or the other monarchist on the internet, but American Conservatives, including Lee, are generally self-governing. Sometimes they are more committed to it than to progressives: it is conservatives like Lee who want public policies on controversial moral issues like abortion that are governed by voters and lawmakers, rather than unelected judges. When the Senate voted on whether the Pennsylvania Biden voters should be decertified, Lee voted “hell no”.
This place seems to spring to mind the Senator: He recently said that the House Democratic bill known as the “For the People Act” was “written by the devil himself in hell.” Strong words.
However, strong resistance is required. The Democrats achieved a public relations coup by getting the press to label it a “voting law”, but to oppose it hardly means to oppose voting rights or democracy. The law gives the federal election commission more power and makes its structure more partisan. It creates new disclosure rules for nonprofits that the American Civil Liberties Union says could raise constitutional concerns and have a troubling advocacy effect. It is a radical step to abolish the traditional power of all state legislators to set the county boundaries.
Even the provisions of the bill that deal more directly with voting rights are questionable. It prohibits states from requiring photo identification of voters – a policy that is hugely popular and supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. This could be relevant when considering what is democratic and what is not. It also deprives states of their power to determine whether and under what conditions ex-criminals should be able to vote. Sometimes it is true that, as with the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the federal government must intervene and override state decisions about how elections are conducted. However, this proposal is just a liberal wish-list to be imposed on states, no worry about federalism.
However, some of the news might suggest that we are facing a 1965-style emergency in the States. The Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive group, has spread the claim that states are considering 253 bills to “restrict access to voting.” That they are also considering 704 invoices to expand access to voting according to the Group’s own standards has not become so widespread. (Some bills are on both lists.) Most bills in either category, like most bills, go nowhere.
Many of the “restrictive” bills tighten or introduce requirements for voter identification. Some studies have found that voter registration or turnout requirements do not decrease. Some of them attribute pandemic innovations to voting procedures, such as the widespread use of postal ballot papers without the need to provide an apology. This may or may not be a good idea, but a return to 2019 politics should not be portrayed as an attack on civil rights.
Other Republican-backed bills are harder to defend. A Georgia House committee briefly considered considering banning an early vote on Sunday. This proposal clearly appears to be designed to reduce democratic votes by hindering the mobilization of voters by African American churches. In general, Republican legislation reflects the background assumption that high voter turnout affects the GOP’s chances of voting and that the 2020 liberalized rules will follow this pattern.
However, the correct conclusion from the 2020 election results is not that Republicans’ hopes depend on the suppression of voter turnout. It is that the assumptions are wrong.
Republicans did reasonably well in high-turnout elections. Washington Post’s Aaron Blake calculated that Republicans got within 90,000 votes of winning the House, Senate, and Presidency. There is ample evidence that Democrats voted disproportionately by mail while Republicans voted in person, not least because Trump spent months criticizing the postal vote. Evidence that the move to postal voting resulted in a net benefit for the Democrats, however, is sparse and countered by the strong, if ultimately inadequate, results of the Republicans. Nor is there compelling evidence that mail-in polls led to an increase in fraud (though the inability to prove the negative will keep conspiracy theorists in business).
The old republican election acceptance was based on the old structure of party coalitions. Republicans got the most votes from college graduates, while they fell behind among non-college voters. The first group was and is more willing to attend elections regularly, and so the GOP’s partisan interest in low turnout was understandable, if not posh: the regular voters were more republican than the irregular voters, so one would higher turnout tends to help the Democrats.
But the old pattern no longer applies as the class composition of the parties has changed. Nowadays, more affluent regulars vote for Democrats, and more voters with lower turnouts tend to vote Republicans. Trump has done a lot to bring about this shift. But his lies about his electoral defeat masked one of their implications.
Even the most transformative changes in our political system may not have the partisan effects that proponents and opponents alike expect. It was only nine years ago that the electoral college gave the Democrats an advantage: President Barack Obama won the electoral states by a larger margin than nationally. And while I wouldn’t bet on Republicans to win the referendum in 2024, today just a fool would rule out the possibility.
There can also be a difference between ideological and party-political interests. Let’s assume that a number of changes in the political structure – such as the addition of new states where most residents vote for Democrats – have shifted the political focus to the left. Maybe that would create a permanent democratic majority. But it seems at least as likely that both parties would move to the left, the Republicans because they had to and the Democrats because they could, while the partisan balance stayed roughly the same.
Republicans, by and large, do not see themselves as opponents of democracy. Their institutional interest in ensuring that the turnout is low is less than they themselves think, and it is getting smaller. And they do not pursue a war against democracy in state legislation. Republicans believe US democracy is threatened by democratic fraud. Democrats believe it is threatened by republican authoritarianism. Someday, both of you may have to face the good news that none of these things are true.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or of Bloomberg LP or its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. He is senior editor at National Review and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.