Republicans Are Not Attacking Democracy

Not every battle over voting is an assault on democratic values.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Has the Republican Party engaged in “a coordinated attack on democracy,” by restricting voting rules, opening the campaign-money spigot, blocking progressive local laws and consumer protections, engaging in partisan gerrymandering, and stacking the courts with judges to give their repressive program a green light?

That’s the provocative thesis of Zachary Roth’s engaging and very readable book, The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. But Roth’s argument is overwrought, painting the picture of a vast right-wing conspiracy with too broad of a brush, and failing to distinguish between normal political competition and political chicanery.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s been plenty of chicanery around the issue of voter fraud by the charlatan members of the fraudulent-fraud squad, who have ginned up false reports of voter fraud to claim Democrats are stealing elections. As Roth demonstrates, Donald Trump’s ranting about people voting 10 times echoes earlier Republican statements, such as then-Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain’s statement during the 2008 campaign that the voter registration group ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

And it goes even deeper. Roth notes what I’ve termed the “new conservative assault on early voting” which is based on an ideological view among some conservatives that voting should be harder, not easier, in order to weed out people who are not educated or invested enough to deserve to cast a ballot.

But this recognition of an ideological disagreement shows that much of what Roth describes in the book as part of “a coordinated attack on democracy” is not quite so nefarious. If conservatives genuinely believe their arguments then it is less a conspiracy than it is a disagreement about what is best for the United States and how to best protect the rights in the Constitution.

This point is most evident in Roth’s discussion of campaign finance. Roth tells the story of the fight over campaign-finance rules, emphasizing the challenge to post-Watergate rules passed by Congress that culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo. In Ross’s reading, it was just Republicans who were fighting for the right to spend unlimited money in politics. Totally absent from his version of the story is the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, which was a leader in arguing against these laws out of fears that limiting campaign money would lead to government censorship.

The ACLU’s role was pivotal, but it doesn’t fit into Roth’s narrative that this is all about Republicans trying to assault democracy. It is only in recent years that campaign finance has become a partisan issue. Remember where John McCain, author of the McCain-Feingold bill, used to be on this issue?

And even when the issue is naked political partisanship leading to gerrymandering legislative districts, Roth tells the story as though only Republicans draw district lines for self-interest and it is never Democrats. In fact, when it comes to drawing districts for partisan advantage, both parties do it. This is not false equivalency; it is a fact.

Why have many Democratic leaders gotten on message to fight partisan gerrymandering? It is not necessarily because that is what they believe is best, but because Republicans control more state legislatures and can engage in more gerrymandering, entrenching themselves and producing Republican control of both state houses and the U.S. House of Representatives. If the tables were turned, I expect we’d see the opposite positions taken by the parties. It’s why Republicans supported the use of nonpartisan redistricting commissions in California (where Democrats controlled the process) but not in Texas (where Republicans still do) or Arizona (where Republicans used to control the process).

Of course, many Republicans fight for less environmental protection, no federal minimum wage, a lifetime ban on felons’ voting, and courts with Republican-appointed judges who uphold their legislative agendas and constitutional vision.  That doesn’t mean they are rigging democracy any more than Democrats are rigging things when they fight for more environmental protection, higher minimum wages, reinstatement of felon voting rights after they complete their sentences, and courts with Democratic-appointed judges who uphold their legislative agendas and constitutional vision.

It’s a mistake to read all Republican efforts to enact their vision into law as assaults on democracy. Some may be, like the ridiculous efforts to make it harder to register and to vote. But legitimate disagreement on policy and ideology does not a conspiracy make.

Democrats can and should fight the Republicans over their ideas, and call them out when they seek to limit access to the ballot. Roth’s book tells compelling stories about disturbing conservative agendas that every progressive should know, and that not only will make those on the left mad but hopefully mobilized into political action.

But labeling every Republican belief and ideological position an assault on democracy will cause further deterioration in Americans’ faith in the democratic process.