The biggest threat to American democracy is it doesn't exist

We should give political equality a try

One of the more puzzling trends I’ve witnessed online over the past week is people lashing out at liberals who praise Liz Cheney’s stance against Donald Trump’s efforts to steal the election by saying, basically, “don’t you understand that she’s bad?”

I certainly do understand that she’s bad.

Indeed, Elise Stefanik’s voting record — which includes opposing Trump’s tax cuts and supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers — is closer to mine on virtually every dimension. There’s a view out there that Stefanik has “changed” from her moderate roots as Trump proved very popular in her district, but the truth is that she has consistently upheld a relatively moderate voting record paired with unflinching support for Trump’s efforts to subvert the rule of law. But maintaining the rule of law requires exactly what Cheney offers, and what Brad Raffensberger and a few other key officials offered last fall — namely a commitment to following the rules that are separate from her policy views.

Philip Bump witnesses the proceedings and proclaims that “refusal to accept reality is doing unquestionable damage to democracy.”

It’s certainly not good. But I would offer three observations.

One is that it’s not like Republicans are confused here. Non-Cheney leaders like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy saw things very clearly on January 6, 2021. And with their words and deeds, they tried to kinda-sorta edge Trump off the stage while hoping the Cheneys and Lisa Murkowskis of the world would throw the harder punches. But now the situation has changed and they’re back on the Trump team — not out of delusion, but out of calculation.

Second is that while the rule of law is certainly threatened by these actions, democracy isn’t, because we don’t have democracy in America.

The final is that these two issues are linked.

The Trump bomb

The key to understanding GOP leaders’ view of the situation is that Trump has convinced them of the following:

  • While he is not a popular or particularly effective face for the party, he’s not so unpopular as to put winning out of reach.

  • He is sufficiently deferential to conservative policy goals so that a Trump presidency is highly preferable to a Biden presidency.

  • He is sufficiently non-deferential to conservative policy goals so that if he gets angry at the GOP, he will commit his energies to destroying the party.

All pandemic, I’ve been looking forward to the release of the “Dune” movie. Near the end of the book, Paul Atreides scores some tactical military victories but could still easily enough be defeated by his rivals. But he’s able to convince them that he’s crazy enough that he really might destroy a natural resource that the whole universe depends on.

“The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it,” he says.

And that’s what Lindsey Graham is saying here. Bernie Sanders could have threatened to run as a third-party wrecker candidate if he didn’t get the nomination, but I think it wouldn’t have been credible. And at any rate, he didn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it! He cares about the issues. Trump, many Republicans think, doesn’t really, and he’d gladly blow them all up for his own amusement.

That’s a chilling calculus. But I also think the first point about Trump being unpopular but survivable is critical and underrated. Because after all, his track record at winning votes is pretty bad. He got 49% of the two-party vote in 2016, and he followed it up with 47% of the two-party vote in 2020. GOP Senate candidates won fewer votes than Democratic Senate candidates in 2016, 2018, and 2020. And GOP House candidates won fewer votes than Democratic House candidates in 2018 and 2020.

He’s an ineffective standard-bearer, and he’s now further tarnished his image. The upshot ought to be more intra-party interest in taking risks to get the monkey off their back, paired with a very high probability that if they don’t, the party goes down to defeat again next time, at which point maybe he’s too old or the party gets even sicker of him. But it doesn’t happen, because Republicans don’t need the most votes to win.

Asymmetrical incentives

Reviewing Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized,” Scott Alexander mostly praises the book while taking issue with the part where Ezra asserts that Republicans are worse.

I have a layer cake of feelings about this question:

  • Just on basic public policy questions, it would be a remarkable coincidence if the two parties were equal. In fact, they are not equal, and my view is that Democrats are quite a bit better. My policy preferences, in other words, are much closer to Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi than to Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and Kevin McCarthy.

  • But in the abstract ether of polarization theory, I don’t think Republicans are “worse” — I just disagree with them. As I wrote in “Is asymmetrical polarization real?” it seems to me there was a particular point in time when you could say Republicans had gone right further and faster than Democrats went left, but that dynamic was short-lived and has gone in the other direction recently.

  • And yet! In the day-to-day question of political party management, the Republicans really are worse. Democrats have Joe Biden trying to ride the tiger of progressive activist passions. In the GOP, the tiger is chewing on everyone’s bones. And this is separate from a policy point. As I said, Stefanik has more moderate policy views than Cheney.

This all cycles back to American political institutions. Even the nuttiest left-wing activists have a side of them that sincerely wants to win elections and wield power, and they just can’t do that while getting fewer votes than the other party.

By contrast, Graham rationally calculates that unifying behind the unpopular Trump might bring electoral success, whereas a divided GOP camp is the only real hope for a Democratic breakthrough. Again, though, this is just a result of dysfunctional electoral institutions.

Democracy in America

The United States has never had a majoritarian political system.

But its various non-majoritarian aspects have also not traditionally served to entrench some specific form of minority rule. It used to be that rural state overrepresentation in the Senate, for example, meant banal stuff like overweighting of farmers’ interests in trade negotiations. We have a lot of weird political institutions and they would create some weird outcomes, like a belief in the transcendent power of ethanol to deliver a presidential nomination.

What we have today, though, is that one party dominates the rural white vote, so they dominate the Senate, which in turn gives them an advantage in the Electoral College as well. Then through a quirk of history, that party gained command of a critical mass of state legislatures in the 2010 midterms and drew a bunch of really savvy gerrymanders.

The upshot is that 48 or 49% of the two-party vote is good enough for Republicans to win and they can afford to just safely ignore the true median voter. That elevates intra-party solidarity and in-group media above everything else. Electoral accountability is supposed to temper political actors’ lust for power with a desire to appear reasonable. And it’s very clear the true median voter does not find the Trump Show to be reasonable. But Republicans can win with it anyway.

That’s the threat to American democracy — we don’t have democracy.

Fear of a Democratic country

What’s particularly unfortunate about this is that so many basically fair-minded conservatives seem to me to have genuinely convinced themselves that this is all just some kind of sad-sack whining on the part of liberals. And a lot of the less-reasonable conservatives have convinced themselves that procedural reforms to establish something that fair political equality would mean perpetual Democratic Party rule.

Neither of those things is true.

It is true that lots of countries’ electoral systems allow for occasional mismatches between the popular vote and electoral outcomes. In the most recent Canadian federal election, for example, the Conservative opposition won more votes than the Liberal incumbents but the Liberals got more seats and Justin Trudeau remained Prime Minister.

But this is a lot less similar to the Trump situation than that description suggests. In the 2019 Canadian federal election, 16% of the vote went to the left-wing NDP and another 6.5% went to the also-left-wing Greens. The median voter backed Trudeau, and Trudeau’s party holds the median seat in parliament. And while Trudeau is prime minister, he’s got a minority government and can’t enact legislation without some cross-party support. In other words, it’s not a situation where Trudeau can afford to just blow off majority opinion — it’s quite the opposite.

But it’s also not true that if Republicans had to care about majority opinion they would constantly lose. They are very close to winning while being led by a total shitshow. In a fair system, they would probably need to try to nominate popular people, and maybe imitate every other center-right party in the universe and stop trying to yank people’s health insurance away. But these are very obtainable goals!

Democratic competition should reduce polarization

If you ever want to feel better about American politics, it’s good to look at governors.

Lots of moderate Republicans win gubernatorial elections in the northeast on a platform of basically “provide competent administration and don’t really change much of anything.” Eventually, they will be replaced by Democrats who do change stuff. And eventually, that change will create backlash, and a moderate Republican will come back in. It’s a beautiful, natural political cycle that rewards sane, competent people and creates an opportunity for constructive progressive change while also warning of the risks of going too far or messing things up.

In red states, we have Laura Kelly (Kansas), Jon Bel Edwards (Louisiana), and Andy Beshear (Kentucky) as our models — showing you can toss the progressive cultural agenda overboard and focus on things like trying to make progress on healthcare. And, of course, we have moderate Democrats governing places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina, and sensible Republicans in Ohio and Maryland. The system really can work!

But in actual state politics, it’s all-too-often undermined by gerrymanders, with state legislatures insulated from public opinion doing the bulk of the governing.

It’s easy to forget though that in the very recent past, political parties really tried to put their best feet forward in presidential campaigns. Gallup records the late-October favorable ratings for every major party nominee:

  • In 2004, Democrats faced the tough task of trying to knock off a wartime incumbent, so they went with a moderate decorated war hero John Kerry who lost despite a 57% approval rating.

  • In 2008, Republicans faced the tough task of trying to slough off the unpopular GOP incumbent so they went with a moderate decorated war hero John McCain who lost despite a 63% approval rating.

  • In 2012, Republicans didn’t have a war hero available, so they went with a former blue-state governor who lost despite a 55% approval rating.

Democrats misfired in 2016 by nominating the very unpopular Hillary Clinton, but in their defense, they were tricked in part by her sky-high numbers as Secretary of State.

Then in 2020, Democrats returned to form by nominating the most popular candidate available.

The traditional dynamic where both parties try to identify well-liked figures has a lot to be said for it in terms of creating a healthy society and healthy politics. But it also just follows from the basic logic of partisan self-interest. Except that interest has been broken by Republicans’ ability to win while losing. Indeed, one of the big learnings of the Trump years was that due to the truly massive skew of the Senate, it’s directly beneficial to the GOP to try to turn every possible issue into a highly nationalized, highly polarized culture-war battle. That’s just playing the game by the rules, but the rules are bad.

The politics of illegitimacy

In the spring and summer of 2020, we had a fair amount of rioting in American cities, which I was not a fan of. I was also against the small amount of anti-Trump rioting we saw in 2016.

Violence is categorically bad in my view.

Something that we did not see much of, but that I think is much more legitimate, is something like disciplined civil disobedience. Not just protests or marches, but deliberate disorderly acts like we associate with the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement or environmentalists chaining themselves to trees to protest logging.

Unlike looting, I’m not at all against real campaigns of non-violent resistance. That said, what any normal person hopes for is to live in a society where there isn’t a lot of need to resort to that kind of thing. It’s nice to be able to be a politically engaged citizen without putting yourself out there like John Lewis to have your head bashed in. And it’s nice to be able to go about your day as an apolitical person without marchers stopping traffic or disrupting business.

This is to say that it’s nice to live in a pleasant, well-functioning democracy where people vote in elections and send emails to their elected officials. But part of how you get a system like that is that the political process needs to be legitimate. What the Capitol rioters did on January 6 was terrible, but they did it for a reason — people they trusted told them the election wasn’t on the level, and they responded in an at least somewhat reasonable way to that lie.

There’s a lot of focus right now on what happens if Biden wins in 2024 but the GOP tries harder to steal the election. But we should also think about a scenario where the popular vote splits 52-48 in favor of the Democrats resulting in unified Republican Party control of the government based on biases that are, if anything, only expanding over time. Is that legitimate? Why should American citizens need to live under a regime that denies them equal rights?

You could find a half dozen Slow Boring posts urging Democrats to adjust their messaging to the lines that exist on the actual map. But the people who think it’s unfair to be asked to do politics in that way are not wrong. I don’t see how a political order like that stays stable, and more to the point, I don’t see why a political order like that should stay stable. There isn’t a single uniquely justifiable way to run a government, but what we’ve got is way outside the bounds of reason.