How Republicans became anti-democratic
Republicans aren't carrying out the wishes of a democratic majority — they're subverting them
As right-wing populism spreads across the Western world, some say we're witnessing a democratic rebellion of the people against an anti-democratic, technocratic, elitist establishment. In Europe, where the EU superimposes an often anti-democratic, transnational bureaucracy on top of national electorates, and where anti-Brussels populists have formed majority coalition governments with established center-right parties in several countries, this story has some plausibility.
But this isn't the situation in the United States. Despite what the anti-liberal right has told itself for decades and all the way down to the present, its positions are not supported by a majority of the electorate. On the contrary, Republican electoral victories are increasingly dependent on gaming the system, and especially its multitude of counter-majoritarian veto points, to bring about outcomes that would be unachievable using democratic means.
The result is the transformation of the Republican Party into a blatantly anti-democratic force.
As recently as a decade ago, conservatives had a strong, or at least plausible, case that a majority of Americans — a silent majority, perhaps, or maybe a distinctly moral majority — stood with and behind their political aims. Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 with nearly 59 percent of the vote, after all.
George W. Bush experienced the first real sign of trouble ahead for the GOP, winning the presidency in 2000 with the help of two counter-majoritarian institutions (the Electoral College and the Supreme Court) while losing the popular vote with just under 48 percent, which was significantly lower than Democrat Bill Clinton managed to poll (49.2 percent) in a three-way race with Bob Dole and Ross Perot just four years earlier.
Bush did win a majority in 2004 (51 percent), and Barack Obama managed to win the presidency and re-election with 53 and 51 percent of the popular vote, respectively. But in 2016, Donald Trump prevailed in his contest against Hillary Clinton despite pulling in a mere 46.1 percent, which was a total of nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. Add in the 2012 vote in the House, when Republicans won a majority of the seats despite winning 1.5 million fewer votes than the Democrats, and the possibility of an even more dramatic electoral discrepancy preventing Democrats from taking control of the chamber in this November's midterm elections, and we're left with a vision of the GOP as a party willing and able to win and hold political power without democratic legitimacy.
But the anti-democratic tendency of the Republicans isn't limited to elections. It extends to policymaking. And that is where things become even more ominous.
In a recent controversial op-ed, former Trump aide Michael Anton gave us a glimpse of where the anti-democratic tendencies of the Republican Party are headed. Writing against birthright citizenship (the automatic conferral of citizenship on any child born in the United States), Anton declared, on the basis of highly questionable assumptions, as well as shoddy and dishonestly presented evidence, that the passage of the 14th Amendment on which birthright citizenship is based has been fundamentally misinterpreted. (Here is Anton responding to his critics.) On the basis of this (mis)interpretation, President Trump supposedly has it within his power, using an executive order alone, to direct federal agencies to stop conferring citizenship on children born in the country.
In this view, the Constitution's guarantee of birthright citizenship can be gutted by presidential fiat with the stroke of a pen.
Relatively few countries in the world (only about one-sixth of them) have a birthright citizenship policy. Responsible public policy intellectuals and activists can and have made the case for change here in the U.S. If the American people favored amending the Constitution to end the practice, that would be democratically legitimate, even if many of us disagreed with the wisdom of making the change.
What Anton proposed, however, is something different — and very much in line with what we see from today's GOP. It's not an execution of the majority's wishes, but a subversion of them. Anton proposed executive action to overturn part of the 14th Amendment with no reference at all to the proper constitutional mechanism for making such a change to the country's fundamental law. He also made no reference to public opinion, which is sharply opposed to President Trump's anti-immigrant agenda, and becoming more so every day. Indeed, aside from a few passing swipes at how birthright citizenship encourages parasitic foreigners to come to the U.S. to have babies and take advantage of our generosity, Anton did nothing to try and persuade the country's citizens to favor abolishing birthright citizenship. Instead, his argument was aimed at persuading those who already support ending the practice that the president is entitled to give them what they want without needing to persuade anyone at all.
That would be, quite simply, an act of Caesarism — a tyrannical usurpation of political power in contravention of the views of the American majority.
It's important that people recognize where the Trumpified Republican Party is headed — or rather, where (at the level of ideas) it has already arrived. It considers itself right without regard for democratic public opinion. It views with contempt those who disagree with it (even those who consider themselves conservatives). It is perfectly content to advocate actions (backed up by the thinnest of evidence) that would actively subvert democracy, majority rule, and constitutional procedure.
This isn't democracy. If anything, Republicans are proving themselves to be enemies of democratic governance.