The GOP has rigged the system on every level of government. Is there a path forward?
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“Tell me why you kept kicking him. You had already won.”
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones too.”
When former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich first called politics a “war for power” he spelled out the philosophy of the future of his party. They don’t see politics as a game where “you win some, you lose some,” but as a life-or-death struggle for permanent dominance. The problem is, when one side stops playing the “democracy game,” and ends up permanently on top, the system breaks down and is no longer a democracy.
After the 2008 Presidential Election, the conventional wisdom on the GOP was that they needed to adapt or die. Many pundits believed Republicans needed to change their message, become more inclusive, less reliant on white voters, and generally adapt to America’s shifting demographics and attitudes on social issues. Instead, GOP operatives built a plan, called the REDMAP project, designed to ensure Republicans could win with their base forever at the state and federal level via gerrymandering, court-packing, voter suppression, and other dirty tricks. When Republicans swept state legislatures in 2010, and conducted reapportionment, they gerrymandered Democrats out of existence across much of the U.S. They in effect created single-party states impervious to voting.
A functional democracy requires at least two competing parties committed to playing the democratic game, along with elections that are competitive enough that the composition of the legislative bodies represent how the majority voted. Instead, in states that were taken over by Republicans using the strategies laid out in REDMAP you have politicians picking their voters rather than voters picking their politicians. The Supreme Court looked at this sort of partisan gerrymandering and while seeing it as lamentable, decided that it was outside their jurisdiction to address, thereby enshrining illiberal democracy and sham elections as constitutional.
At the same time Republican politicians are using every means at their disposal ensuring that only people who get to vote share their values. Functionally, this means making it as hard as possible for people who tend to be Democrats to vote. This includes voter-ID laws where the GOP selected forms of ID that Black people are least likely to have, voter-roll purges that mostly affect Black Americans, and limiting the number of polling places in areas where Black voters are concentrated. Since 2013, 17 million Americans have been purged from voting rolls, disproportionately affecting areas with a history of discrimination.
The result is elections that are effectively rigged. In states like Wisconsin and North Carolina where Republicans have gerrymandered the political boundaries using optimizing computer algorithms, there is no plausible path for Democrats to win control of the state legislatures even when Democrats win the popular vote by wide margins. The only reason Virginia flipped in 2019, despite Democrats winning by nearly nine points, was realignment of a district that the courts found to be racially gerrymandered.
Efforts to suppress voters have exploded since the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013. The VRA’s survival appears increasingly precarious as Trump appointees fill the federal court system. They appear inclined to either overturn the VRA, or interpret standing in such a way as to make it unenforceable even when there are clear cases of racial gerrymandering (which remains unconstitutional, for now).
The deck is stacked against Democrats in federal elections as well, making reclaiming the White House or the Senate a difficult even when the public votes for Democrats by a wide margin. The Senate, as provided in the Constitution, mandates non-proportional representation.
Low-population states are much more likely to be Republican-leaning. As a result, Republican senators hold a solid majority, despite representing significantly less than half the population. Because of non-proportional representation, Republicans have a baked-in 20-seat advantage in the Senate that is nearly insurmountable.
Given the increasing polarization of Americans, state-level voter suppression, and the growing concentration of Democrats in deep blue urban areas, it is questionable whether there is a viable path for Democrats to recapture the Senate in the foreseeable future. This concentration of Democrats in deep-blue areas is getting worse in the tech economy, as people with college educations, who increasingly favor Democrats, are more likely to end up in blue urban or suburban areas.
The path to the White House is heavily tilted towards Republicans as well, primarily due to the Electoral College system. Because of this demographic clustering, we see an effect similar to gerrymandering. Democrats are concentrated into a small number of states where they win handily, such as New York and California, while the electoral college votes of the closest states with lots of Electoral College delegates (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio) tilt Republican. It doesn’t help that in smaller, low population states (which tend to be red) individual votes are worth more than in larger population states. Urban shift, and wastage of Democratic votes, are a major factor in why the inevitably shifting demographics of the U.S. may not be enough to save Democrats in presidential elections.
High polarization also means there’s a decreasing ability to move states one way or another or to flip voters. Some election theorists, most notably Rachel Bitecofer, have arrived at the conclusion that swing voters are an entirely insignificant portion of the population, and that elections are entirely determined by existing population ratios and “Get Out The Vote” efforts. Because younger, more liberal voters are more likely to have jobs and children, it is more difficult for them to vote than seniors, who tend to be more conservative. Republicans have steadfastly resisted efforts to make it easier for younger people to vote, making it much more difficult to follow Bitecofer’s proposed path to electoral success.
This does not bode well for Democrats, given the highly effective Republican strategies to suppress turnout, which now includes deliberate and sustained disinformation campaigns. Paul Weyrich, the founder of the highly influential conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, identified this strategy decades ago, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
On the flip side of the coin, GOP efforts to maximize the turnout of their base, have been wildly successful. By playing on the fears and grievances of white evangelicals about immigrants, Muslims, and transgender people they have boosted turn out of their core demographic. As a result, in 2004 white evangelicals were 23 percent of the population and 23 percent of people who voted. In 2018, they were 15 percent of the population, and 26 percent of voters.
We have entered a death spiral of electing politicians who select judges who let the politicians pick their voters in order to put them back in place to pick more judges, and so on. How Republicans and Democrats respond to losing statewide elections is telling. When Democrats won control of the governor’s offices in the heavily gerrymandered states of North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Republican legislatures with super-majorities passed bills stripping those governors of their powers during the lame-duck session. However, when faced with the same situation, Democratic legislatures in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey did not reciprocate.
Republicans have also decided they are uninterested in following through with voter-initiated ballot initiatives. When 65 percent of Florida voters approved for a state constitutional measure allowing ex-felons to vote, Republicans put a poll tax on them to ensure none of them could without potentially facing new felony charges. When Utahns passed a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid, Republican legislators made the expansion so narrow that almost no-one qualified. Arizona Republicans have waged a two-decade long battle to take away the ability for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot because they had the temerity to mandate independent districting commissions to prevent gerrymandering. Michigan Republicans succeeded in making ballot initiatives nearly impossible after a Democrat gained control of the governor’s office in 2018.
It is far worse when you consider what the white evangelical base of the Republican party wants. No major group supports the President more strongly, and no group is a bigger outlier in its views on every major issue in American politics. Whether it is guns, LGBT rights, race relations, climate change, immigration, Muslims, abortion, or wealth inequality white evangelicals stand out as the most conservative group measured, and far to the right of the American public as a whole.
The motivations of Trump supporters bode poorly for both democracy and most Americans who disagree with them. A study in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology found that Trump supporters tend to be motivated by authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, prejudice, lack of contact with people different from themselves, and declining economic factors. Other more recent studies have found that racism and fear were more significant motivators than economics.
Both the system, and the base that created it, are driving the system itself further and further to the right. Primaries are the only elections that matter to most Republicans legislators, and this encourages Republican politicians to even more extreme positions by catering to the base. Those who won’t go along with the extreme elements of the base are generally replaced by people who will. As a result, the Republican party has shifted dramatically to the right over the past 30 years. Since the game is rigged for the GOP, most of the rest of us are just along for the ride now. Only 10 percent of House seats and 15 percent of Senate races are competitive.
As a result, many progressive prognosticators dread the implications of a second Trump term, beyond just a president who has realized there are no tangible political consequences to his actions. It means a lifetime of Trump appointed justices dominating the American legal system, including two more justices on the Supreme Court to give conservatives an unassailable 7-2 majority. It means rolling back civil rights we take for granted and giving corporations powers we haven’t seen since the infamous case of Lochner v. New York.
The Supreme Court will decide whether to strike down the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, potentially depriving millions of people of health insurance, particularly younger people on their parents plans and those with pre-existing conditions. It means granting religious employers and institutions a broad right to ignore civil rights and labor laws, while forcing the federal government to provide such discriminatory institutions with taxpayer dollars. Indeed, the administration is already arguing that organizations receiving federal funding have a constitutionally guaranteed right to that money while refusing to serve Jews. Federal courts are also more likely to sign off on further GOP attempts to use gerrymandering and voter suppression to ensure they remain in power.
Beyond just the courts, the administration itself appears poised to take many more actions deeply unpopular with the American public but supported by their base. Social safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will be cut in order to provide additional tax cuts, thereby worsening the corrosive effects of wealth inequality. The new head of ICE has indicated he plans to deport hundreds of thousands of Dreamers if the Supreme Court overturns DACA as expected. Trump’s influential allies in the Christian right are even urging him to bring back “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” if his transgender troop ban survives in court.
The forecast gets even worse when you consider the economic circumstances that will surround all of this. The US is well past due for another recession, and when it comes it will be devastating. The usual methods for helping a distressed economy are unavailable due to decisions made by the Trump administration. The U.S. is already at record low tax rates, deficits are above $1 trillion per year, and lending rates are near zero. However, when (not if) the next recession occurs members of Gen Z and Millennials will be hit the hardest. They have no savings, no wealth compared to previous generations, and may not even have health insurance.
These factors combined create a highly unstable situation. Put another way, imagine a population of severely economically depressed young people who widely despise the minoritarian government. This government cannot be voted out of office, represents a minority of the population, and the values of the people the government represents are completely antithetical to most of the country, and especially to young people. State governments will have to make hard decisions as well: for instance, what will California do when the federal government attempts to begin mass deportations of the 200,000 Dreamers living in the state?
The question is: What can be done to avoid arriving at this end-state for our democracy? The good news is that there is a relatively simple path to avoiding the worst cases here. The bad news is that this path is so narrow that the odds of pulling it off are almost nil.
First, Democrats must win back both the White House and the Senate in 2020, while holding on to the House. One without the other is insufficient. Without the Senate, they cannot pass legislation, stop judges dedicated to democracy only in the abstract, or put judges in place who will make the decisions necessary to avoid ending up in dystopia. Democrats must have the White House to nominate the judges, and to enact laws and policies meant to reverse this slide into illiberal democracy.
If Democrats achieve this highly improbable trifecta, then they must abolish the filibuster. At best, there will be 51 Democrats in the 2021 Senate. The odds that nine Republicans will join them in passing civil-rights legislation unpopular with the base or designed to undercut their advantage in elections is zero. Without abolishing the filibuster, it will not be possible to pass the legislation necessary reverse course, including tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, and restoring the VRA. However, as necessary as this is, many democratic leaders simply want to put things back the way they were, and appear reluctant to take this step.
Finally, if they do all of the above, Democrats need to accept that adding two justices to the Supreme Court is the only viable way to save our democracy from itself. Without it gerrymandering and voter suppression will continue to run amok. Civil rights are already eroding, and decades of progress are being reversed. The conservative Supreme Court justices in place (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch) will be there for at least another decade and it will take decades more to overturn their precedents. Conservatives will continue to use the court system that the Trump Administration packed to block policy and legislative efforts to reverse the decline into single-party rule. Thus, without an additional two justices, any effort to restore democracy is likely doomed from the start. However, even if we elect a Democratic president and Senate, adding two justices looks highly improbable. Both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden oppose the idea outright.
Even the effort to recapture the Supreme Court may be a moot point, however, if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passes away and is replaced by Mitch McConnell’s Senate before January 21, 2021. Given Ginsburg’s failing health, this outcome has a non-trivial probability of coming to pass. A 6-3 conservative advantage would be effectively insurmountable regardless of who is elected. Worse, Trump’s presumptive pick to replace Ginsburg has signaled that she is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, as well as others cases she believes, were erroneously decided, which would presumably include foundational modern cases such as Obergefell, Lawrence v. Texas, and Griswold v. Connecticut, Engel v. Vitale, and Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises.
In the book Ender’s Game the protagonist Ender Wiggins is a tactical and strategic genius who will win an interstellar war for humanity. The recurring theme of the book is that when you fight a war, you must destroy your enemy so thoroughly that they will never be capable of opposing you again. This analogy describes the modern Republican approach to politics: They have Democrats beaten down, and they are systematically ensuring that they will never get up again.
So, in the final analysis, are we doomed to decades of eroding civil rights, rising wealth inequality, doing nothing about climate change, civil unrest, and racial and religious minoritarian rule in an illiberal democracy?
Several other scholars on authoritarianism assert that we are well on our way towards that end, and 2020 may be the last free election in the United States for the foreseeable future. Where I differ from them is in the belief that we are almost certainly already well beyond the event horizon for a return to democracy, and that our last meaningful election likely came and went in 2016.
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