My friend P.J. asked me recently if I thought it was possible that the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party had given up on “trying to win a democratic game.” That is, have they decided–finally realized, is perhaps more appropriate–that there really is no hidden conservative majority lurking three standard deviations away from the center of the political distribution, so they’ve said, “screw it, let’s just rewrite the rules to ensure minority governance”?
I’m not sure they’ve consciously done so, but their behavior indicates that at least unconsciously that’s their game. In 1992 Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey drafted a “Contract with America,” which, despite being much-mocked by Democrats, was a purposeful attempt to sway public opinion to their side. Whether they proposed good policy prescriptions or not,* this was very much a democratic effort.
But that’s not what they’re doing these days. Instead we have the following:
- An authoritarian pro-life agenda (as opposed to a democratically responsive pro-life agenda);
- Undermining voting rights;
- Demanding an absolute minority veto over public policy.
First, where they have the majority in state legislatures they are pursuing a pro-life agenda that is so far out of the mainstream that it is a repeated political loser for them. While this can be explained as principle over pragmatics, it is also clear that they are intent on legislatively enacting their principles regardless of whether the Demos agrees with them.† There is, of course, a time and place for standing for principle against a public that is wrong, and given the pro-life position on personhood this is not unreasonably such a time and place. But unlike standing against slavery, genocide, military interventionism, or an out-of-control war on drugs, their principled position requires them to override the basic human dignity of a large portion of the Demos, subjecting them to violations of their personal autonomy and regarding them as mentally incapable of making their own decisions.
Second, they are trying to undermine voting rights in multiple ways. One was their attack on ACORN, which successfully killed it. I haven’t looked too deeply into ACORN, so I don’t know whether or not I care specifically about its demise, but I do know the attacks on their voter registration efforts were fraudulent. They were criticized for turning in fraudulent registrations, but in fact they were required by law to turn in all voter registration forms,‡ and reportedly they had themselves separately compiled and noted the ones they suspected were fraudulent. The attack was simply designed to eliminate an organization that did a bang-up job of registering mostly minority voters, which of course means mostly Democratic voters. In other words, the attack on ACORN was for the purpose of gaining “electoral” victory by diminishing the voting pool in a non-random manner; by ensuring that some eligible citizens would not exercise their right to vote, solely because they would be likely to vote against the Republicans. Their more recent efforts at redefining polling places to limit their availability in minority neighborhoods and at/near college campuses again seeks to reduce the number of citizens exercising their right to vote, and again in a biased, non-random, way. Seeking to persuade your own supporters to get off their duffs and vote is legitimate; seeking to constrain the other side from getting off their duffs and vote is election-rigging.
Finally, there is the latest effort to create an absolute minority veto over public policy: the Republican hardliners in the House say they will refuse to support any budget bill that does not defund PPACA (aka PPACA, ACA, and Obamacare), and they are happy to force a government shutdown to get their way. This is not governing; it is a statement of intent to disallow governing to continue unless their demands are met. They don’t even represent the majority of their own party, much less the majority of the House, and it seems they’ve forgotten that their party itself is the minority in the Senate. Whatever most Republican legislators may privately think of PPACA, it’s clear that between the Republican center and the Democrats the majority of Congress supports keeping government open with PPACA funding. But the right wingers have nothing but disdain for majorities, and are not interested in being bound by them.
Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said, “Sometimes you just have to do the right thing.” Yes, but you also have to do it in the right way. If this were a great moral crusade, like opposing slavery or supporting civil rights or even opposing abortion, he might be justified. But not this. If anything, it’s the supporters of government ensured health care who have the stronger moral argument. When your side has people cheering the slogan of “let him die,” you just can’t successfully claim the moral high ground.** Sometimes acquiescing to democratic outcomes you don’t like–until you can change the Demos’s minds–is in fact doing the right thing.
It’s not impossible, given time and control of key positions in the political architecture, to use the machinery of democracy to undermine democracy. Is this in fact what conservative hardliners are doing in America right now? It sure looks like it.
* The House Republicans celebrated on the Capital steps when they passed a series of bills to put the Contract into statutory policy, but they forgot that the Senate was not a rubber stamp and that even in the House they were nowhere close to a veto-proof majority. In the end, only one part of one item in the Contract became law.
† In part, this is a consequence of partisan gerrymandering. Many of these legislators are in fact being responsive to their own distict’s majority. But the partisan gerrymander–engaged in by both parties–is itself an anti-democratic institution to the extent it dampens government responsiveness to changes in the public mood; or to be more precise changes in the national median voter’s mood.
‡ Imagine if organizations that do voter registration did not have to turn in all their forms. Think of the ease of pumping one’s own party registration up in comparison to the other, and think of the would-be voters who thought they’d registered, only to get turned away at the polls.
** I’m no fan of PPACA, either, but sometimes when you’re in the minority you have to face reality.