It makes perfect sense to treat Donald Trump as the most immediate threat to the future of American democracy. He has an ambitious plan to turn the office of the presidency into an instrument of “revenge” against his political enemies and other supposedly undesirable groups.
But while we keep our eyes on Trump and his allies and enablers, it is also important not to lose sight of the fact that anti-democratic attitudes run deep within the Republican Party. In particular, there appears to be a view among many Republicans that the only vote worth respecting is a vote for the party and its interests. A vote against them is a vote that doesn’t count.
This is not a new phenomenon. We saw a version of it on at least two occasions in 2018. In Florida, a nearly two-thirds majority of voters backed a state constitutional amendment to effectively end felon disenfranchisement. The voters of Florida were as clear as voters could possibly be: If you’ve served your time, you deserve your ballot.
Rather than heed the voice of the people, Florida Republicans immediately set out to render it moot. They passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that more or less nullified the amendment by imposing an almost impossible set of requirements for former felons to meet. Specifically, eligible voters had to pay any outstanding fees or fines that were on the books before their rights could be restored. Except there was no central record of those fees or fines, and the state did not have to tell former felons what they owed, if anything. You could try to vote, but you risked arrest, conviction and even jail time.
In Wisconsin, that same year, voters put Tony Evers, a Democrat, into the governor’s mansion, breaking eight years of Republican control. The Republican-led Legislature did not have the power to overturn the election results, but the impenetrable, ultra-gerrymandered majority could use its authority to strip as much power from the governor as possible, blocking, among other things, his ability to withdraw from a state lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — one of the things he campaigned on. Wisconsin voters would have their new governor, but he’d be as weak as Republicans could possibly make him.
It almost goes without saying that we should include the former president’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election as another example of the willingness of the Republican Party to reject any electoral outcome that doesn’t fall in its favor. And although we’ve only had a few elections this year, it doesn’t take much effort to find more of the same.
I’ve already written about the attempt among Wisconsin Republicans to nullify the results of a heated race for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Voters overwhelmingly backed the more liberal candidate for the seat, Janet Protasiewicz, giving the court the votes needed to overturn the gerrymander that keeps Wisconsin Republicans in power in the Legislature even after they lose the majority of votes statewide.
In response, Wisconsin Republicans floated an effort to impeach the new justice on a trumped-up charge of bias. The party eventually backed down in the face of national outrage — and the danger that any attempt to remove Protasiewicz might backfire electorally in the future — but the party’s reflexive move to attempt to cancel the will of the electorate says everything you need to know about the relationship of the Wisconsin Republican Party to democracy.
Ohio Republicans seem to share the same attitude toward voters who choose not to back Republican priorities.
As in Wisconsin, the Ohio Legislature is so gerrymandered in favor of the Republican Party that it would take a once-in-a-century supermajority of Democratic votes to dislodge it from power. Most lawmakers in the state have nothing to fear from voters who might disagree with their actions.
It was in part because of this gerrymander that abortion rights proponents in the state focused their efforts on a ballot initiative. The Ohio Legislature may have been dead set on ending abortion access in the state — in 2019, the Republican majority passed a so-called heartbeat bill banning abortion after six weeks — but Ohio voters were not.
Aware that most of the voters in their state supported abortion rights, and unwilling to try to persuade them that an abortion ban was the best policy for the state, Ohio Republicans first tried to rig the game. In August, the Legislature asked voters to weigh in on a new supermajority requirement for ballot initiatives to amend the State Constitution. If approved, this requirement would have stopped the abortion rights amendment in its tracks.
It failed. And last week, Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to write reproductive rights into their State Constitution, repudiating their gerrymandered, anti-choice Legislature. Or so they thought.
Not one full day after the vote, four Republican state representatives announced that they intended to do everything in their power to nullify the amendment and give lawmakers total discretion to ban abortion as they see fit. “This initiative failed to mention a single, specific law,” their statement reads. “We will do everything in our power to prevent our laws from being removed upon perception of intent. We were elected to protect the most vulnerable in our state, and we will continue that work.”
Notice the language: “our power” and “our laws.” There is no awareness here that the people of Ohio are sovereign and that their vote to amend the State Constitution holds greater authority than the judgment of a small group of legislators. This group may not like the fact that Ohioans have declared the Republican abortion ban null and void, but that is democracy. If these lawmakers want to advance their efforts to restrict abortion, they first need to persuade the people.
To many Republicans, unfortunately, persuasion is anathema. There is no use making an argument since you might lose. Instead, the game is to create a system in which, heads or tails, you always win.
That’s why Republican legislatures across the country have embraced partisan gerrymanders so powerful that they undermine the claim to democratic government in the states in question. That’s why Republicans in places like North Carolina have adopted novel and dubious legal arguments about state power, the upshot of which is that they concentrate power in the hands of these gerrymandered state legislatures, giving them total authority over elections and electoral outcomes. And that’s why, months before voting begins in the Republican presidential contest, much of the party has already embraced a presidential candidate who promises to prosecute and persecute his political opponents.
One of the basic ideas of democracy is that nothing is final. Defeats can become victories and victories can become defeats. Governments change, laws change and, most important, the people change. No majority is the majority, and there’s always the chance that new configurations of groups and interests will produce new outcomes.
For this to work, however, we — as citizens — have to believe it can work. Cultivating this faith is no easy task. We have to have confidence in our ability to talk to each other, to work with each other, to persuade each other. We have to see each other, in some sense, as equals, each of us entitled to our place in this society.
It seems to me that too many Republicans have lost that faith.