State of Disunion

Democrats Have to Break the GOP to Win

Republicans, who are on the losing side of nearly every political equation, would be completely disempowered if Democrats decided they didn't matter.

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Despite the utter failure of their efforts, there is something admirable in Democratic attempts at peace. It is both charitable and honorable to hold respect for the instruments and norms of democracy, to seek out consensus and unity when they are in short supply, to dutifully ignore all the temptations of power that can so easily run amok. The war we are in may have been inevitable, but no one can say that it wasn’t because Democrats didn’t try hard enough to avoid it.

In fact, the magnanimity and grace offered by Democratic leadership over the last 30 years has obscured not only the depth of the break between the parties, but how easily it could be fixed. Democratic restraint has often been interpreted—both inside and outside the party—as weakness. In reality, as the surprising deal for the Inflation Reduction Act demonstrates, Republicans would be completely helpless if Democrats decided that they didn’t matter.

For all the strategy and subterfuge, the Republican Party is on the losing side of nearly every political equation. They have fewer voters supporting unpopular policies while holding onto a philosophical framework so thin and unsteady that it requires relentless propaganda to be believed. The Party of Eisenhower and WWII veterans Nixon and Bush Sr. cannot bring itself to denounce Nazis because it can’t afford to lose their votes. And while the victory of the Dobbs decision was initially perceived as a crowning achievement, it has instead revealed the terrifying fragility of the GOP.

The Democrats, in contrast, are a behemoth waiting to be released.

Every political advantage is available to the Democratic Party if only they would seek it. Their policies are broadly popular, even with constant disinformation campaigns; their coalition is expansive, diverse, and reliable save for aggressive voter suppression laws. Year after year, Democratic governance at the national and state level leads far and away on almost any meaningful metric of quality of life, presiding over stronger economies, broader benefits, freer citizens, better national and international relationships, and more efficient governments than almost all of their GOP counterparts, and even further when compared to unified GOP governance. And, of course, the party is gifted with an extraordinary electoral majority that must be actively suppressed with either outrageous gerrymandering or the archaic brokenness of the Electoral College. Freed from constraints, the Democratic Party could likely build an electoral empire to reshape a century.

This is a known fact for anyone who pays any kind of attention to politics, and it is both the driving force behind the GOP desperation to co-opt any mechanism of power they can grab and the bleeding heart of Democratic restraint and pleading for bipartisan cooperation. Regardless of all the gamesmanship and horse race, all of the plotting and propaganda, the Republican Party is holding on by a thread. At any moment, the Democratic Party could simply choose to dominate democracy, and it would be so.

And yet the ease of domination is precisely what has Democratic elites so concerned. This is why Nancy Pelosi talks up the idea of a strong Republican Party, and why Joe Biden keeps involving us in his bipartisanship fetish. Absent any boundaries, the Democrats could quickly be consumed by their own excesses. It is not hard to see a country where every institution reflects Democratic preferences, from the courts to the legislature to the presidency—with no immediate hope of change. Pack the Supreme Court, expand the House of Representatives, abolish the Senate and end the Electoral College, and what chance could any Republican have?

This is no small consideration—the truth that power corrupts is disinterested in good intentions (which already comes with its own warning label). Restrained, they may suffer a handful of defeats. Unfettered, the Democratic Party could very easily become the monster it had set out to slay.

But this forgets our history and denies our capacity for change. In the wake of the Civil War, Republican presidents would dominate the Oval Office for 56 of 72 years, with only two Democrats breaking through (Cleveland and Wilson) for a total of four terms combined. During the same period, Republicans would hold unified control of Congress for 46 years—slightly less than two-thirds of the time. Against this incredible run of dominance, Democrats, powered by their Southern faction, would hold unified control of Congress for a mere 10 years between 1861 and 1933, from Lincoln to FDR.

This was the earned punishment of a party that had furnished sedition and delivered treason to the nation. Democrats of the 19th and early 20th century abandoned governance and found that voters abandoned them in return. It is worth mentioning that this extraordinary span of single-party dominance could have been even longer if the illegal voter suppression and opportunistic terrorism of the Democratic South had been met with serious answers rather than carefully ignored. 

There is a potent lesson if we choose to understand our past rather than repeat it: In a functioning democracy, a party must prove itself worthy of power to acquire or retain it.

Recognizing this, Democratic aggression wouldn’t be a power grab that permanently tilts the field; it would be a restoration of balance. The electoral and legislative maneuvers of the GOP have been designed to avoid the consequences of democracy; it is time to remove their buffer. Instead of making their case and winning over voters, Republicans have created echo chamber districts to hold legislative power. Rather than appoint respected scholars of law and life with impeccable reasoning and open logic, Republicans have funded the Federalist Society to usurp the judiciary by stacking it with rigid and incurious ideologues whose arguments could be dismantled by a precocious high school junior. And instead of offering voters a fair hearing and a fair vote, they have repeatedly dehumanized and delegitimized the opposition, while refusing to participate in debates or acknowledge the results of elections. The Republican Party is not building an apparatus to win free elections with the consent of the governed; they are designing an aristocracy to rule like kings.

It is said that the best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy, and so it’s fitting for the party that carries the name to also carry the banner. The Democratic Party must use its advantages to restore self-government or lose it altogether. Yes, that will certainly mean an extended period of one-party dominance, but honestly, the republic has survived this before and will do so again. It is not a question of fairness or unfairness, balance or favor, peace or war. It is a question of popular sovereignty or the whim of tyrants. After this blistering summer, the Democratic Party must craft an autumn campaign around one simple choice: whether the United States will be ruled by one—or by all.

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