The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Republicans no longer small-d democrats?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Michael Brendan Dougherty is challenging the claim that Republicans are generally abandoning democracy. Because his piece is a comprehensive effort to develop this counter-argument, it should be engaged.

Dougherty’s case is a response to John Ganz’s argument that Republicans are jettisoning any meaningful commitment to majority rule, "either through open rejection of its legitimacy or a more subtle redefinition of democracy into something unrecognizable.”

Dougherty says this is “overstated.” But in defending this, Dougherty simply doesn’t engage with important ongoing trends and events that are central to our politics right now.

Dougherty argues that Ganz’s claim largely is empirically false:

Republicans run in democratic elections, and when they win, they take office and exercise the powers of those offices. When they lose, they don’t. And they begin positioning for the next election.

To buttress that idea, he says:

The January 6 riot was a disgrace. But it’s hardly fair to imply that “the GOP candidate’s supporters” were all for it. A small rabble of Donald Trump’s supporters did it, at Trump’s instigation. Most Republicans have shrugged at the arrests of those participating in the riot. Wherever material help was solicited in overturning the result of the election for Trump, elected Republicans balked.

Yes, Republicans have mostly condemned the rioters. Yes, it’s unfair to conflate the rioters with all Trump supporters. Yes, many Republicans do accept electoral losses. Yes, some Republicans rebuffed Donald Trump’s pressure to subvert the 2020 election’s outcome. In fact, those Republicans were instrumental in preventing it.

But Dougherty’s framing evades a great deal. Many Republican lawmakers declined to contest Trump’s claim that the outcome was illegitimate for many weeks, which probably helped inspire the rioters. They’re refusing a commission that would place the riot and the role of Trump’s election lies (and the GOP nurturing of them) at the center of its investigation.

Meanwhile, Republicans who did vouch for the integrity of Trump’s loss are facing purges, censure and primary challenges. And the House GOP just elevated someone who strengthened her case for a leadership position precisely through her public questioning of the legitimacy of that loss and through her support of active efforts to further delegitimize it.

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It’s hard to gauge the degree to which such activities define an entire party. But they plainly represent a serious retreat on commitments to democracy. They clearly raise valid concerns about how far Republicans will go in disregarding the idea that future electoral outcomes are binding and in seeking to invalidate them.

But Dougherty declines to engage with the real meaning of all that.

Dougherty also insists liberal Democrats confuse conservative suspicion of unchecked majoritarianism and faith in “republican institutions” with hostility toward democracy. Dougherty grants that conservatives don’t support “unqualified majority rule,” but calls on critics to acknowledge “different types of conservative resistance to democracy,” noting that conservatives take cues from James Madison’s suspicions about democracy.

But as Steven Taylor notes, this confuses the meaning of Madison’s suspicions of direct democracy (as opposed to representative) and allows these to overshadow his more germane belief that majority rule is the core of republicanism.

What’s more, no one claims Republicans should commit to “unqualified” majority rule. Ganz certainly does not, as his reply to Dougherty clarifies.

Liberal Democrats do dislike some less majoritarian features of our system (the electoral college, Senate apportionment) that conservative Republicans embrace. But the former do support liberal democracy’s commitment to safeguarding individual rights against majority encroachment. There are ongoing arguments about the content and definition of these rights — as there should be — but the liberal Democratic position is not to favor pure majoritarianism.

Indeed, it’s true, as Dougherty says, that liberal Democrats cheer certain court decisions overruling majoritarian legislative decisions. But again, this just reflects differing conceptions of things like the proper content of rights and the reading of the law. In some cases, liberals favor judicial limits on how far majoritarian legislative decisions can go in burdening rights. In others, conservatives do. We differ over specifics. (Yes, there’s motivated reasoning on both sides.)

But those arguments aren’t the ones driving our democracy debate. These are over how our representatives are chosen and over the rules of political competition structuring those contests. They are over how far one can go in manipulating those rules for partisan ends — and in contesting or subverting outcomes in those contests over representation — while still remaining faithful to liberal democratic commitments.

Liberal Democrats increasingly believe the electoral college and Senate flout fundamental majoritarian principles of representation. Conservative Republicans don’t find that concerning. The former think voting should be as easy as possible. The latter think restrictions are good and are escalating them in many states.

It’s hard to specify the point where such GOP stances cross over from legitimate views of how the rules of political competition should be structured into something more fundamentally hostile to democracy. That itself will be perpetually contested.

But it seems obvious Republicans are moving on a spectrum toward greater reliance on anti-majoritarian tactics, and toward increasing manipulation of those rules toward that end. And it’s fair to worry that Republicans are moving toward maximal tactics in resisting hated electoral outcomes.

I think those who sympathize with conservative populism — as Dougherty does — should acknowledge that such sympathies demand a more forceful challenge to these developments, and if they disagree, to defend that position.

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