Republicans say they would like to move on from the 2020 election.
“A lot of our members, and I think this is true of a lot of House Republicans, want to be moving forward and not looking backward,” John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, told CNN on May 19. “Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 elections I think is a day lost on being able to draw a contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda.”
After Thune and 34 of his Republican colleagues used the filibuster last week to block a vote on creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol riot, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Republicans of fearing the wrath of former President Donald Trump. “Shame on the Republican Party for trying to sweep the horrors of that day under the rug because they’re afraid of Donald Trump,” Schumer said on the floor.
But Republicans are not blocking a bipartisan January 6 commission because they fear Trump, or because they want to “move on” from 2020. They are blocking a January 6 commission because they agree with the underlying ideological claim of the rioters, which is that Democratic electoral victories should not be recognized. Because they regard such victories as inherently illegitimate—the result of fraud, manipulation, or the votes of people who are not truly American—they believe that the law should be changed to ensure that elections more accurately reflect the will of Real Americans, who by definition vote Republican. They believe that there is nothing for them to investigate, because the actual problem is not the riot itself but the unjust usurpation of power that occurred when Democrats won. Absent that provocation, the rioters would have stayed home.
Americans have suffered through a pandemic, an economic crisis, and a presidential election in the past year; it’s understandable that many would want to disengage from politics. With Trump gone from the White House and banned from his favorite social-media platform, the most visible symbol of the nation’s democratic backsliding is out of office. But Trump’s absence has not arrested the Republican Party’s illiberal turn—on the contrary, he is now a martyr to an election that he falsely claims was rigged. If anything, though, our electoral system is rigged in favor of Republicans; Democrats had to overcome a significant structural bias in the Electoral College, meaning Trump almost prevailed again even as his opponent won 7 million more votes.
As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote, the “accommodation” that Republicans “have reached between their violent and nonviolent wings is a legal regimen designed to ensure that the next time a Trump rejects the election result, he won’t need a mob to prevail.” Trump did not impose this belief that elections are valid only if they result in Republican victory on the conservative rank and file; he was a manifestation of it. Nor are Republican officials held hostage by a base they fear; falsehoods about election fraud have been deliberately stoked by Republican elites who then insist that they must bow to the demands of the very misinformed constituents they have been lying to. The last thing ambitious Republicans want is to let this fire go out.
Trump infamously refused to concede the 2020 election until after the mob he had incited ransacked the Capitol in an effort to overturn the outcome. But even afterward, most Republicans in the House, and several in the Senate, refused to vote to certify the results. The rioters were outliers in the sense that they employed political violence and intimidation in an attempt to overturn the election. But the rioters fell squarely within the Republican mainstream in sharing Trump’s belief that his defeat meant the election was inherently illegitimate. The main ideological cleavage within the GOP is not whether election laws should be changed to better ensure Republican victory, but whether political violence is necessary to achieve that objective.
The large majority of Republicans are content with simply changing the rules to make it harder for Democrats to win elections, but figures beloved by the party fringe, such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Representatives Matt Gaetz and Majorie Taylor Greene, openly flirt with the possibility of seizing power by force.
Greene has warned that freedom is “earned with the price of blood”; over the weekend, Flynn backtracked on a public call for a military coup; and Gaetz, on tour with Greene, told a receptive audience that “the Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government, if that becomes necessary.” As far as these three are concerned, this is the idle talk of studio gangsters. The issue is that it reflects a very real rejection of liberal democracy and the peaceful transfer of power among Republican voters.
Republicans are not “moving on” from the 2020 election. In state after state, Republican-controlled legislatures have passed laws making it more difficult to vote, in some cases explicitly targeting Democratic constituencies. Over the weekend, Texas Democrats temporarily blocked one such measure that would have not only outlawed methods that Democratic-led counties have used to increase turnout, but also curtailed early Sunday voting, a tradition for many Black churches. The Texas Republican state legislator Travis Clardy later insisted that the limitation on Sunday voting was a “typo”; if lawmakers can’t draw up legislation dealing with Americans’ fundamental rights without egregiously discriminating on the basis of race, they shouldn’t hold office to begin with.
Texas joins 14 other states in attempting to curtail voting rights in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Some Republican-controlled states have purged officials who refused to obey Trump’s instructions not to certify the election results; a few are considering measures that would allow state legislatures to overturn such results outright.
The risks of such measures are obvious. Between the effectiveness of gerrymandering and the partisan polarization of urban and rural districts, in some states winning a legislative majority is well-nigh impossible for the Democratic Party as currently constituted. In the event that the electorate fails to produce the necessary Republican victory in a presidential election, impervious Republican majorities would be able to hand the state’s electoral votes to their candidate, regardless of whom their state’s voters actually chose. On Tuesday, an open letter from scholars published by the New America Foundation warned that “these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”
The most immediate threat to American democracy was removed once Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election failed. But with Trump gone, the Republican Party has focused on the long-term project of engineering the electorate to preserve its hold on power. This won’t necessarily lead to one party rule, but it would ensure that conservative ideological priorities take precedence no matter which party is in office, by enhancing the power of the most conservative elements of the American polity.
The closest historical analogue is perhaps the Gilded Age, when both parties worked to restrict American democracy to its “best men.” In the North, this meant seeking to blunt the influence of immigrants and workers; in the South, it meant disenfranchising Black men and the white poor. The result was a country with widening inequality, and one with an emerging bipartisan consensus on the justness of white supremacy. In Brechtian terms, they dissolved the people and elected another—but at least things grew more civil and less polarized.
In the more traditional corners of conservative media, writers at outlets like National Review argue for a more restricted electorate. In the more explicitly Trumpist corners of the internet, writers argue that secession or civil war is preferable to sharing power with those they consider “citizen-aliens.” The broad consensus they delimit, which you can see in the actions of Republican-controlled state legislatures and in Congress, is that if Americans choose the wrong political party, they should be coerced by the machinery of the state into choosing the correct one.
The same racial and religious polarization that is fueling the Republican turn against democracy has turned the Democratic Party into an institution that is potentially incapable of confronting the problem. The relative homogeneity of the GOP has left Republicans short of a national majority and reliant on minoritarian institutions to wield power. But conversely, because the Democrats remain a racially and ideologically diverse coalition, they lack their rivals’ unity of action. The mostly white party can be ruthless, but it does not represent a majority; the diverse party represents a majority, but coalition politics prevents it from being ruthless.
Many partisans view the other side as heartlessly efficient and their own side as weak of will. Yet the asymmetries between the parties and their coalitions are a matter of record: There is a reason Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is announcing that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” which is what he said of the previous Democratic administration, while President Joe Biden is fruitlessly seeking bipartisan support for an infrastructure bill after his prediction of a Republican “epiphany” following Trump’s loss did not materialize. The reason is that they serve different constituencies with distinct expectations.
Although Democrats retain slim majorities in the House and the Senate, the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus are loath to abolish the filibuster, which would allow them to establish a January 6 commission and use the federal government to prevent partisan power grabs in the states, if they chose to do so. Most of the attention has focused on Senators Joe Machin and Kyrsten Sinema, but as The New York Times reports, there are likely more Democrats opposed to scrapping the filibuster who are content to allow Manchin and Sinema to take the brunt of the criticism for retaining it. Ironically, preserving the filibuster gives Republicans no incentive to negotiate, as they can simply block most legislation outright; if bills were likely to pass, Republicans would gain more reasons to bargain.
Political coalitions are inherently unstable, and Republicans’ efforts to insulate their power from the majority may not be as effective as they hope. But future Republican defeats will simply fuel greater demand to rig the rules to their advantage. Democrats, if they are not shut out of power entirely, may find themselves desperately trying to win over an unrepresentative minority of the population whose political power has been enhanced by artificial means. The reverse is also true: A fairer electoral landscape would compel the Republican Party to moderate to win votes. If it were forced to appeal to a more diverse constituency, that longed-for “epiphany” might actually occur.
These are not morally equivalent outcomes; attacking Americans’ ability to choose their leaders because you fear their choice is not the same as ensuring that they have the right to do so. Unlike their counterparts in the GOP, Democrats are not seeking to disenfranchise voters on the grounds that they are ignorant or do not accept American values as liberals understand them.
For the Trumpist base, defined by the sense that a country that belongs to them is slipping away, a future full of elections contested by a right-wing party and a slightly less right-wing party would be an ideal outcome. Trump’s election was, among other things, a gesture of outrage from his supporters at having to share the country with those unlike them. Successfully restricting democracy so as to minimize the political power of rival constituencies would mean, at least as far as governing the country is concerned, that they would not have to. Most elected Republicans have repudiated the violence of the Capitol riot, but they share the belief of the rank and file that the rioters’ hearts were in the right place.