Opinion | Republicans Are Turning America Into a ‘Democracy With Asterisks’

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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.



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