Conservatives' Bad Faith Arguments Against Progressive Reforms

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What are they afraid of? A truly representative democracy.

The New Republic, March 22, 2019

If their presidential candidates are any indication, Democrats may finally be getting serious about structural reforms to American democracy. Some proposals, such as packing the court with additional liberal judges, are premature and unpersuasive, as I argued last week. But others are common sense, such as statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. The Electoral College is indefensible under any conceivable metric: Five Americans have won the popular vote for president in my lifetime; only three of them actually held the office. It should be eliminated—as should the filibuster, which, thanks to the Senate’s warped geography, gives sparsely populated states an undeserved veto over the nation’s legislative agenda.

Now conservatives are crying foul over these plans, even after two years of public debate over Trump’s war on American democracy. “Yet for all Trump’s sins, it is the Democrats who are now threatening to abuse power on a much grander scale than anything Trump has tried or even threatened,” The Washington Examiner warned in an editorial. “No sooner has the Democratic party lost control of an institution that it had assumed it would retain in perpetuity than that institution has been denounced as retrograde and unfair,” National Review’s editors opined. Commentary’s Noah Rothman framed it as civic apostasy: “Democrats are now openly pursuing policies that the Constitution implicitly or expressly forbids.”

Many of these critics seem to understand that the current system can’t be defended on its own merits. So they’re portraying reform efforts as a would-be putsch instead. Mitch McConnell, the nihilistic Republican senator from Kentucky, pushed this narrative in January while condemning H.R. 1, the Democrats’ election-reform package. “They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ and doing it ‘For the People,’ but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Is it fair to paint these proposals as a norm-shattering power grab? Yes, and no. The Obama era showed how a small conservative minority can thwart popular liberal policies, while the Trump era has demonstrated how that same minority can exploit the nation’s political system to defy the public will. Democrats’ only choices are to fix the system or break it further. So far, they’ve largely chosen the former over the latter.

And McConnell is a major reason why Democrats are resorting to such measures. As the Republican leader in the Senate, he spent the last decade using every parliamentary tool to obstruct Barack Obama’s agenda, then turned the chamber into a conveyor belt for confirming right-wing judges. Newt Gingrich pulled off a similar feat in the 1980s and 1990s in the House, transforming the people’s chamber from a functional legislative body into a crass partisan arena. Small wonder that Democrats are also warming up to a maximalist approach to wielding power in Washington.

Things are even worse in the states. Republicans rode an anti-Obama wave to victory in the 2010 midterms, then went on a gerrymandering spree that gave them a nearly insurmountable advantage in statehouses and the House of Representatives. (The Democratic wave in last fall’s midterms should have resulted in much worse losses for Republicans, the Associated Press reported on Thursday.) Once in power, GOP lawmakers clamped down on elections across the country by enacting restrictive voter-ID laws, closing polling places, and cutting early-voting days. The right-wing turn towards illiberal democracy may be known as Trumpism today, but its origins long predate the president’s rise to power.

How far does this contempt for popular rule go? When voters in North Carolina and Wisconsin elected Democratic governors in recent years, Republican legislators passed laws to strip the offices of their powers. (A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled against those efforts on Thursday.) Voters in Idaho, Maine, Utah, and other states approved ballot initiatives last fall on progressive issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to marijuana legalization; instead of respecting the electorate’s wishes, some GOP lawmakers in those states immediately worked to reverse the measures over the last few months. These laboratories of oligarchy are a far cry from the democratic norms that Americans expect in their political system. ...
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