Republicans Are Turning America Into a ‘Democracy With Asterisks’

Forget Trump for a minute. The real action is taking place across the country in state capitols, mostly out of view.,


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Determined to enforce white political dominance in pivotal states like Georgia, Arizona, Texas and North Carolina, Republicans are enacting or trying to enact laws restricting the right to vote, empowering legislatures to reject election outcomes and adopting election rules and procedures designed to block the emergence of multiracial political majorities.

Republicans “see the wave of demography coming and they are just trying to hold up a wall and keep it from smashing them in,” William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings, told CNN’s Ron Brownstein. “It’s the last bastion of their dominance, and they are doing everything they can.”

The actions of Republican state legislators to curtail absentee voting, limit days for early voting and seize control of local election boards have prompted 188 scholars to sign a “Statement of Concern: The Threats to American Democracy and the Need for National Voting and Election Administration Standards,” in which they assert:

We have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures.

Among statutes Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed or are in the process of approving are “laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections” that

could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

The precipitating event driving the current surge of regressive voting legislation in Republican-controlled states is Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 and the widespread acceptance on the right of Trump’s subsequent claim that the presidency was stolen from him. The belief among Republicans that Trump is essential to their drive to slow or halt the growing power of nonwhite voters aligned with the Democratic Party has powered the broad acquiescence to that lie both by people who know better and by people who don’t.

Virginia Gray, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, argued in an email that for Republicans, “the strongest factors are racial animosity, fear of becoming a white minority and the growth of white identity.” She noted that Tucker Carlson of Fox News articulated Republican anxiety during his show on April 8:

In a democracy, one person equals one vote. If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there. So every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter.

Trump, Carlson and their allies in the Republican Party, Gray continued,

see politics as a zero-sum game: as the U.S. becomes a majority-minority nation, white voters will constitute a smaller portion of the voting electorate. So in order to win, the party of whites must use every means at its disposal to restrict the voting electorate to “their people.” Because a multiracial democracy is so threatening, Trump supporters will only fight harder in the next election.

Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, law professors at the University of Chicago, make the case in their 2018 paper, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” that in the United States and other advanced democracies, the erosion of democracy will be gradual and stealthy, not an abrupt shift to authoritarianism.

“Is the United States at risk of democratic backsliding? And would the Constitution prevent such decay?” Huq and Ginsburg ask:

There are two modal paths of democratic decay. We call these authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. A reversion is a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions. Retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion to three institutional predicates of democracy occurring simultaneously: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law. We show that over the past quarter-century, the risk of reversion in democracies around the world has declined, whereas the risk of retrogression has spiked. The United States is neither exceptional nor immune from these changes.

In an email, Ginsburg wrote that there are two forces that lead to the erosion of democracy: “charismatic populism and partisan degradation, in which a party just gives up on the idea of majority rule and seeks to end democratic competition. Obviously the U.S. has faced both forces at the same time in Trumpism.”

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From a different vantage point, Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Barnard, argues that there is a crucial distinction to be drawn in examining the consequences of Republican tampering with election administration, with one more dangerous than the other. In an email, Berman writes:

The downward spiral refers to attempts by Republicans to do two related things. First, effectively making voting more difficult by, for example, restricting voting by mail, shrinking voting times and places, adding ID requirements and so on. The second is injecting partisanship into the electoral oversight process. As potentially harmful as the first is, the latter is even more worrying.

In other circumstances, Berman argues, one could imagine “having a good faith debate about the conditions under which mail-in ballots are distributed and counted, whether ID should be required to vote and if so of what type, etc.”

But in the current contest, “these concerns are not motivated by a general desire to improve the quality of our elections, but rather by false, partisan accusations about the illegitimacy of Biden’s victory and so good faith discussions of reform are impossible.”

The Republican initiatives to inject partisanship into the oversight process, in her view,

are even more straightforwardly dangerous: elections are democracy’s backbone, anything that subjects them to partisan manipulation will fatally injure its functioning and legitimacy. The officials who oversee elections are democracy’s referees — once they lose their objectivity, the entire game loses its legitimacy. Republican attempts, accordingly, to diminish the objectivity of the electoral oversight process by, for example, giving more power to legislative branches and elected politicians over it, are direct attempts to rig the game so that, should Democrats win another election that Republicans consider contested, the outcome can be manipulated. There is simply no way democracy can function if those designated to oversee its most basic institution are motivated by partisan rather than legal and constitutional concerns.

Among those I consulted for this column, there was wide agreement that democratic backsliding is a process difficult for the average voter to detect — and that one of the crucial factors enabling the current procedural undermining of democracy in the states is that voters have little interest in or understanding of election rules and regulations.

“Democratic erosion is subtle and slow, often nearly imperceptible until it’s too late,” Robert Blair, a political scientist at Brown, wrote in an email:

The U.S. will not become an autocracy. Political parties will not be banned; elections will not be canceled or overturned willy nilly. But the U.S. may increasingly become a “democracy with asterisks,” one in which the playing field is tilted heavily in favor of whichever party writes the rules of the game.

Blair is decidedly pessimistic about the likelihood that American voters will succeed in opposing the degradation of the system:

I have very little faith in the American public as a bulwark against these threats. In general Americans do not prioritize democratic principles in our vote choices, and we are alarmingly willing to tolerate antidemocratic ideas and actions by co-partisans. Polarization seems to make this worse. If American democracy is at risk, citizens will not save it.

Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, stressed this point in an email:

“We all grow up knowing that the person who wins more votes should win the election,” Hopkins continued,

but none of us grow up knowing anything about how to handle provisional ballots or which allegations of voter fraud are credible. Relatively few people are equipped to directly evaluate claims that an election was fraudulent, so voters necessarily rely on politicians, media commentators and other elites to tell them if something ran afoul. In fact, it’s precisely the public’s general commitment to democracy that can be used against democracy by political leaders willing to lie about elections.

The low visibility and lack of public understanding of arcane shifts in election law — for example, the shift of responsibility for determining winners and losers from election officials to state legislatures — greatly empowers partisan elites.

Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank and one of the organizers of New America’s “Statement of Concern,” wrote by email:

A longstanding finding in political science is that it is elites who preserve democracy, and elites who destroy democracy. Overwhelming majorities of voters support democracy in the abstract, but if they are told by elites that “the other party is trying to destroy democracy and these emergency measures are needed to preserve democracy by keeping the other side out of power,” most partisan voters are going to follow their leaders and support anti-democratic changes. This is especially the case in a highly-polarized binary political system in which the thought of the opposing party taking power seems especially odious and even existential.

Like many of the co-signers of the “Statement of Concern,” Drutman has no expectation that the Supreme Court would step in to block states from tilting the partisan balance by tinkering with election rules and procedures:

The conservative Supreme Court has given states wide latitude to change electoral laws. I don’t see how a 6-3 conservative court does much to interfere with the ability of states to choose their own electoral arrangements. The conservative majority on the Court has clearly decided it is not the role of the Supreme Court to place reasonable boundaries on the ability of partisan legislatures to stack elections in their favor.

Laura Gamboa, a political scientist at the University of Utah, is less harsh in her assessment of the citizenry, but she too does not place much hope in the ability of the American electorate to protect democratic institutions from assault:

I don’t think Americans (or most other people) have a normative preference for dictatorship. Overall, people prefer democracy over authoritarianism. Having said that, polarization and misinformation can lead people to support power grabs. Research has shown that when a society is severely polarized and sees the out-group (in this case out-party) as “enemies” (not opponents), they are willing to support anti-democratic moves in order to prevent them from attaining power. More so, when they are misled to believe that these rules are put in place to protect elections from fraud.

More important, Gamboa argued that the corrosion of political norms that protect democratic governance

can definitively evolve into a broader rejection of the rule of law. Institutions do not survive by themselves, they need people to stand by them. This type of manipulation of electoral laws undermines the legitimacy of elections. Rules and norms that were once sacred become part of the political game: things to be changed if and when it serves the political purpose of those in power. Once that happens, these norms lose their value. They become unreliable and thus unable to serve as channels to adjudicate political differences, in this case, to determine who attains and who does not attain power.

The fact that public attention has been focused on Trump’s claim that the election was stolen, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and Republican stonewalling against the creation of a commission to investigate the attack on Congress, helps mask the fact that the crucial action is taking place across the country in state capitols, with only intermittent national coverage, especially on network television.

These Republican-controlled state governments have become, in the words of Jacob Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, “Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding,” the title of his April paper.

Grumbach developed 61 indicators of the level of adherence to democratic procedures and practices — what he calls a “State Democracy Index” — and tracked those measures in the states over the period from 2000 to 2018. The indicators include registration and absentee voting requirements, restrictions on voter registration drives and gerrymandering practices.

Grumbach’s conclusion: “Republican control of state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period.”

The results, he writes,

are remarkably clear: Republican control of state government reduces democratic performance. The magnitude of democratic contraction from Republican control is surprisingly large, about one-half of a standard deviation. Much of this effect is driven by gerrymandering and electoral policy changes following Republican gains in state legislatures and governorships in the 2010 election.

In terms of specific states and regions, Grumbach found that “states on the West Coast and in the Northeast score higher on the democracy measures than states in the South,” which lost ground over the 18 years of the study. At the same time, “states like North Carolina and Wisconsin were among the most democratic states in the year 2000, but by 2018 they are close to the bottom. Illinois and Vermont move from the middle of the pack in 2000 to among the top democratic performers in 2018.”

Grumbach contends that there are two sets of motivating factors that drive key elements of the Republican coalition to support anti-democratic policies:

The modern Republican Party, which, at its elite level, is a coalition of the very wealthy, has incentives to limit the expansion of the electorate with new voters with very different class interests. The G.O.P.’s electoral base, by contrast, is considerably less interested in the Republican economic agenda of top-heavy tax cuts and reductions in government spending. However, their preferences with respect to race and partisan identity provide the Republican electoral base with reason to oppose democracy in a diversifying country.

At one level, the Republican anti-democratic drive is clearly a holding action. A detailed Brookings study, “America’s electoral future: The coming generational transformation,” by Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixeira and Frey, argues that Republicans have reason to fear the future:

Millennials and Generation Z appear to be far more Democratic leaning than their predecessors were at the same age. Even if today’s youngest generations do grow more conservative as they age, it’s not at all clear they would end up as conservative as older generations are today.

In addition, the three authors write, “America’s youngest generations are more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations.”

As a result, Griffin, Teixeira and Frey contend,

the underlying demographic changes our country is likely to experience over the next several elections generally favor the Democratic Party. The projected growth of groups by race, age, education, gender and state tends to be more robust among Democratic-leaning groups, creating a consistent and growing headwind for the Republican Party.

From 2020 to 2036, the authors project that the percentage of eligible voters who identify as nonwhite in Texas will grow from 50 to 60 percent, in Georgia from 43 to 50 percent, in Arizona from 38 to 48 percent.

As these percentages grow, Republicans will be under constant pressure to enact state legislation to further restrict registration and voting. The question will become: How far are they willing to go?

I posed that question to Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford. His reply:

As for whether this electoral manipulation will “devolve into a broader rejection of the rule of law,” I would say that the Republican Party has already crossed the Rubicon. For four years during the Trump presidency, they defended or ignored his blatant abuses of power, his violations of democratic norms, and his attacks on our democratic institutions, and they routinely circled the wagons to protect him. They had countless opportunities to stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law, and they consistently failed to do so.

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