Opinion | Republicans Are Turning America Into a ‘Democracy With Asterisks’

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

Determined to enforce white political dominance in pivotal states like Georgia, Arizona, Texas and North Carolina, Republicans are enacting or trying to enact laws restricting the right to vote, empowering legislatures to reject election outcomes and adopting election rules and procedures designed to block the emergence of multiracial political majorities.

Republicans “see the wave of demography coming and they are just trying to hold up a wall and keep it from smashing them in,” William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings, told CNN’s Ron Brownstein. “It’s the last bastion of their dominance, and they are doing everything they can.”

The actions of Republican state legislators to curtail absentee voting, limit days for early voting and seize control of local election boards have prompted 188 scholars to sign a “Statement of Concern: The Threats to American Democracy and the Need for National Voting and Election Administration Standards,” in which they assert:

We have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures.

Among statutes Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed or are in the process of approving are “laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections” that

could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

The precipitating event driving the current surge of regressive voting legislation in Republican-controlled states is Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 and the widespread acceptance on the right of Trump’s subsequent claim that the presidency was stolen from him. The belief among Republicans that Trump is essential to their drive to slow or halt the growing power of nonwhite voters aligned with the Democratic Party has powered the broad acquiescence to that lie both by people who know better and by people who don’t.

Virginia Gray, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, argued in an email that for Republicans, “the strongest factors are racial animosity, fear of becoming a white minority and the growth of white identity.” She noted that Tucker Carlson of Fox News articulated Republican anxiety during his show on April 8:

In a democracy, one person equals one vote. If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there. So every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter.

Trump, Carlson and their allies in the Republican Party, Gray continued,

see politics as a zero-sum game: as the U.S. becomes a majority-minority nation, white voters will constitute a smaller portion of the voting electorate. So in order to win, the party of whites must use every means at its disposal to restrict the voting electorate to “their people.” Because a multiracial democracy is so threatening, Trump supporters will only fight harder in the next election.

Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, law professors at the University of Chicago, make the case in their 2018 paper, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” that in the United States and other advanced democracies, the erosion of democracy will be gradual and stealthy, not an abrupt shift to authoritarianism.

“Is the United States at risk of democratic backsliding? And would the Constitution prevent such decay?” Huq and Ginsburg ask:

There are two modal paths of democratic decay. We call these authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. A reversion is a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions. Retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion to three institutional predicates of democracy occurring simultaneously: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law. We show that over the past quarter-century, the risk of reversion in democracies around the world has declined, whereas the risk of retrogression has spiked. The United States is neither exceptional nor immune from these changes.

In an email, Ginsburg wrote that there are two forces that lead to the erosion of democracy: “charismatic populism and partisan degradation, in which a party just gives up on the idea of majority rule and seeks to end democratic competition. Obviously the U.S. has faced both forces at the same time in Trumpism.”

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