Democracy in the United States of America is under withering assault, and Republicans are the sole prosecutors of this pitiless campaign.
That is the narrative taking hold in the mainstream press. Thus, we’re treated to op-eds defining ours as a time of such “existential” political peril that it rivals the Civil War and World War II. This, we are told, is a “now-or-never moment”—a time when little “r” republicans of good conscience must rise up against the big “r” sort. And when even Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin refuse to support efforts to rein in the GOP’s wretchedly autocratic impulses on the grounds that those very reforms represent a threat to democracy, they, too, are deemed seditionists bent on democracy’s destruction.
Clearly, when the terms of engagement are this broad, we need to better define those terms. These and other agitated observers are describing what they view as two troubling trends: the first, as exemplified by the reckless and theatrical attempt by some Republican legislators to block the certification of 2020’s election results, is a trend against ratifying the legitimacy of events that the GOP’s Trumpified base doesn’t like. The second is what these advocates regard as restricting access to the franchise for certain demographics that traditionally vote Democratic.
These are distinct issues with varying degrees of salience, but their distinctions are often elided when they are bound up together in an overbroad incitement of Republican politics. Washington Post opinion columnist Perry Bacon Jr.’s May 20 essay on democracy’s peril is illustrative of this instinct.
In his piece, Bacon describes four “huge problems” that are inextricable and may yet doom the republic. The first is the very real assault on proper democratic outcomes that contributed to the assault on the Capitol Building on January 6. There’s no arguing against the fact that GOP lawmakers’ efforts to ingratiate themselves with their most unhinged base voters represent a real threat to American institutions. As Liz Cheney has alleged, some Republicans confessed they could not support Donald Trump’s impeachment out of the fear that his most rabid supporters would target them or their families with violence. That is an appalling abrogation of the American civic compact. If legislators’ votes are subject to a veto by a violent mob, we are indeed witnessing a mature democracy in decline.
But Bacon went on to allege that Republicans are “laying the groundwork” to decline to certify the results of the 2024 election, whatever they may be. That, too, is a valid concern given how tightly some continue to cling to the ponderous notion that some sort of malfeasance resulted in Joe Biden’s victory. But if you click through to the link that justifies Bacon’s claim, it brings you to an item in the Week authored by Ryan Cooper, who maintains that the tool Republicans will wield to destroy democracy is the quotidian process of decennial reapportionment in the states where voters saw fit to provide Republicans with legislative majorities. Republican gerrymanders have somehow become a force multiplier in the GOP’s war on democracy, which is an accusation that long predates Trump and is never applied to Democrats when they engage in partisan efforts to shore up their congressional majorities.
The banality of constitutionally mandated redistricting doesn’t add much to Bacon’s thesis, which is perhaps why his litany of assaults on democracy doesn’t end there.
Republicans at the state level are engaged in something so sordid that one expert told Bacon it’s indicative of “apartheid South Africa more than a functioning multiracial democracy.” That is, GOP-led legislatures trying to block “cities from implementing new politics and reversing old ones,” particularly as they relate to voting rights. Follow that link, and you end up at a New York Times report on legislation in Texas that seeks to codify many of the efforts to make voting easier during the pandemic but also to pare back some emergency measures that should disappear along with the emergency that spawned them. Namely, a move by Harris County that allowed 24-hour and drive-through voting. “The provisions of this bill apply equally across the board,” said Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes. Indeed, if this provision seems like it’s just targeting one city, it’s only because one city—Houston—implemented these measures.
The GOP’s assault on municipalities, plural, is not well supported. And while the allusion to South African Apartheid is a notable departure from Jim Crow as a metaphor to disparage Republican initiatives as a species of de jure segregation and discrimination, that, too, doesn’t pass muster. While Texas’s initiative is worthy of criticism in some ways—among them, forcing early voting places on Sundays to begin only at 1 p.m., which puts an undue burden on churchgoers’ tradition of driving “souls to the polls”—the bill would extend the early voting period to 20 days (longer than many Northeastern states allow) and lower the population threshold for minimum open polling hours. That bill also imposes an ID requirement on mail-in ballots to eliminate the subjective signature matching requirements, which the Wall Street Journal notes had resulted in a disproportionate rejection of black voters’ ballots in Georgia’s 2018 elections.
A similar controversy surrounded Georgia’s efforts to reform its post-pandemic voting statutes—a constitutional liberty afforded the states. President Joe Biden called the Peach State’s voting-reform law “sick” and “un-American” because it ends “voting at five o’clock when people are just getting off work.” But it didn’t do anything of the sort. Much like Texas’s law, the bill largely sought to make permanent pandemic-related emergency measures. Perry Bacon insists that yet another sign of the GOP’s commitment to authoritarianism is that even its moderates, such as Sen. Mitt Romney, declined to uncritically repeat Joe Biden’s lie.
Which brings us to another alleged threat to democracy: Voters are just not turning out in droves to eject Republicans from elected office. “The Republicans are the favorites to win the House next year and could also win the Senate, as well as key gubernatorial and secretary of state races, putting them in charge of the election process in Michigan and other states,” Bacon writes. So, the threat to democracy is the very working of democracy itself—the election of Republicans deemed by Bacon unworthy of the honor.
This is a species of the very mentality Bacon sets out to condemn—the notion that the voters are ill-equipped to know what’s best for them and would vote themselves into a scaffold if left to their own devices. That’s a view of democracy that would be familiar to the Founders. They were suspicious enough of the Athenian mob that they erected various anti-majoritarian obstacles in the path of fashionable manias, no matter whose minds they addle. Indeed, if the evidence Bacon provides is all that suffices to demonstrate American democracy’s “existential” vulnerability, we’re going to be okay.