Why the G.O.P. Has Turned Against Democracy

November 14,  2019

As I have commented in some of my recent posts, the last two decades have witnessed a disturbing and recurring pattern, in which Republican politicians have increasingly turned their backs on democratic values, and at times have actively undermined the democratic process. An early sign of this undemocratic tendency was House Republicans’ attempt to overturn the results of the 1996 election by impeaching Bill Clinton over a triviality. The disastrous 2003 war against Iraq marked another milestone in the degradation of our democracy, as the Bush administration outright lied about Saddam Hussein being connected with the 9/11 attacks, and heavily pressured the intelligence community to produce “proof” that Iraq was seeking to produce nuclear weapons. This antidemocratic tendency among Republican politicians blossomed after the 2010 census and their victory in the congressional elections of that year. The census gave Republicans in state governments the opportunity to take partisan gerrymandering to a new level, just as they increasingly sought ways – for example through voter ID laws and purging the voter rolls – to take the vote away from Americans who might not support them.

Not content with rigging elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republican politicians have also striven to make elections less important for making and enforcing the laws. Trump and his congressional allies do this by packing the courts with conservative judges, vetted by the Federalist Society, who can interpret the laws as they please without ever having to face the voters. Stealing Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat was only the most conspicuous result of this court-packing scheme. As Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell slow-walked Barack Obama’s judicial appointments, creating a backlog of empty posts on the federal bench, and now is filling these posts by pushing through Donald Trump’s judicial nominations at a breakneck pace. But why these antidemocratic policies? Why has the G.O.P., in many ways, turned its back on the democratic values that define our nationhood, the values which have made this country great, which once made us an inspiration to freedom-loving people the world over?

A plausible short answer is that since the 1990s, the Republican Party has stood for policies which are unpopular with the American people. If elections were fought fairly, and if the voters fully understood the policies which the G.O.P. supports, Republicans would consistently lose elections. In a thoughtful op-ed piece about Republicans’ stance toward impeachment, Columbia University scholar Nicole Hemmer traces this pattern of Republican politicians supporting unpopular policies. An early example was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which two thirds of the American people opposed. “It was a pattern,” Hemmer observes, “that would repeat itself over the next two decades [since the 2000 elections]. Republicans didn’t win every election — in fact, they’ve won the popular vote for president only once in the last 30 years. But they’ve commandeered the government repeatedly despite their unpopularity. Republican policy during the Obama administration made this clear: From debt-ceiling crises to Obamacare repeal to Medicare cuts to government shutdowns to tax cuts for the wealthy, the Republican Party chose the unpopular side of most major policy fights.” In a healthy, functioning democracy, you win power by offering policies which are popular among the voters. But if your policies are unpopular and you still want to gain power, the natural next step is to make the political system less democratic. And this is what Republican politicians have been doing, more and more with each passing year.

A final question is why Republicans have been supporting policies which most Americans reject. Any explanation has to be enormously complex, and for the moment I will focus on only one obvious part of the answer: campaign finance. While politicians in both parties desperately need corporations and wealthy individuals to pay for their election campaigns, Democratic donors are less exclusively focused on corporate profits and believe to some degree in social welfare spending which benefits Americans less fortunate than themselves. While Democratic donors have steadily pulled the party to the right (remember Bill Clinton saying “the era of big government is over”?), their views are not radically right-wing, like, say, the politics of hardline libertarians like the Koch brothers.

Being dependent on wealthy donors whose views are often radically conservative, Republicans have embraced policies that are at odds with the opinions and interests of most Americans. To take just one example, as a recent poll demonstrates, about 8 in 10 Americans think that human activity is driving climate change, nearly 4 in 10 call climate change a “crisis,” and two thirds think President Trump is doing too little to address the problem. Meanwhile, the President and most elected members of his party deny, in the face of the consensus of the scientific community, that burning fossil fuels drives global warming. Why? Because these Republicans can claim superior expertise in climate science? A more obvious reason is that since 1990, the oil and gas industry has given more than two-thirds of its political donations to Republicans, with the G.O.P.’s share of the industry’s donations increasing steeply over time. In the 2018 congressional election, for example, of the over $49 million which the industry gave to individual candidates (as opposed to political committees), 87% went to Republicans.

Unpopular policies like denying climate change or giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and the way such unpopular policies encourage the G.O.P. to undermine democracy, demonstrate why the most important item on the American political agenda ought to be campaign finance reform. As I have argued in several recent posts – see especially my post of October 5 – the democracy dollars model of public financing of elections would break the power of wealthy donors and restore this power to the voters, where it belongs in a democracy. This would let politicians in both parties serve the voters instead of the donors, and let Republicans support policies that are genuinely popular, so they can stop undermining the democratic values which define the proper essence of American patriotism. The terrible dysfunction of our political system often seems too complicated to understand, but sometimes it is very simple: it’s all about the Benjamins.