In the 1990s, a Republican explained to me why “the Democrat party” was his preferred term for the opposition: “They’re no more democratic than we are.” Nowadays that is very much a subject of dispute.
In recent years, and especially in recent months, progressives have increasingly become convinced that the Republican Party is a threat to democracy; that hostility to democracy is now its organizing passion; that it can survive only by thwarting democracy; and that democratizing reforms are the only way to defeat it. A number of conservatives have reached the same conclusions and, in some cases, exited conservatism as a result.
These conclusions are exaggerated to the point of error. But they are not baseless, and even the exaggerations have a surface plausibility. There has long been a strain of conservatism that is at least wary of democracy — so long, in fact, that the strain may be said to predate what it fears. Former President Donald Trump and his allies did try to get state legislatures and Congress to throw out the results of a presidential election without coming close to showing that those results were fraudulent. Some of his supporters tried to get their way through force.
And there’s more. Only once in the last three decades have Republicans won more votes than the Democrats in a presidential election. The Electoral College has allowed them to win three presidential elections notwithstanding that fact. Republicans defend the institution. Other features of the U.S. political system at odds with pure democracy — such as the equal representation of states in the Senate and the filibuster at the federal level, and the gerrymandering of state legislative districts in some states — are currently boosting Republican strength, and Republicans have opposed changing them. Republican state legislators, finally, are seeking changes to election procedures that would make voting more difficult while Republican federal legislators are resisting a bill that is supposed to make it easier.
There is too much to the critique of the Republicans as an anti-democratic party to dismiss out of hand. But the critique’s persuasive force frequently depends on misunderstandings. Take the outrage that greeted Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, when he tweeted in October that democracy is not the objective of our government: “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” The senator was widely taken to have revealed the authoritarian nature of his party — to have “said the quiet part out loud,” as the cliché has it.
Lee’s underlying point, though, was not especially controversial, as he later explained. A lot (though not all) of the value we place on democracy is instrumental: We think it promotes freedom, prosperity and peace. We are willing to limit democracy in the service of such goods, for example by guarding certain individual rights against majorities. Lee’s comment was distorted both because it was made in a partisan context — just a few weeks before the election — and because we too rarely acknowledge that the limits we place on democracy are just that.
The right’s intellectual skepticism of democracy was once robust, even alarmist. But it has, after centuries of experience with its representative and constitutional form, largely dwindled to the anodyne version Lee expressed. It is a concern that majorities can go too far, a sense that not every move in the direction of greater democracy should proceed just because it advances democracy, a reminder that democratic outcomes are not necessarily right or just ones. To the extent these sentiments are in tension with democracy, it is a useful tension.
You can find the odd monarchist on the internet, but American conservatives, including Lee, are generally committed to self-government. Sometimes, they are more committed to it than progressives: It is conservatives such as Lee who want public policy on controversial moral issues such as abortion settled by voters and legislators rather than unelected judges. When the Senate voted on whether to decertify the Biden electors from Pennsylvania, Lee voted “Hell no.”
That place seems to be on the senator’s mind a lot: He recently said that the bill passed by Democrats in the House of Representatives dubbed the “For the People Act” was “written in Hell by the Devil himself.” Strong words.
But strong opposition is warranted. The Democrats have scored a public relations coup in getting the press to call it a “voting rights bill,” but opposing it hardly amounts to opposing voting rights or democracy. The bill gives the Federal Elections Commission more power and makes its structure more partisan. It creates new disclosure rules for nonprofit groups that the American Civil Liberties Union says raise constitutional concerns and could have a chilling effect on advocacy. It takes the radical step of abolishing all state legislatures’ traditional power to set district lines.
Even those provisions of the bill that are more directly concerned with voting rights are questionable. It forbids states from requiring photo identification from voters — a policy that happens to be extremely popular, with majority support from Democrats and Republicans alike, which might be relevant when we’re considering what is and isn’t democratic. It strips states, too, of their power to determine whether and under what conditions ex-felons should be able to vote. Sometimes, it’s true, the federal government has to step in and override state decisions about the conduct of elections, as with the original Voting Rights Act in 1965. This proposal, though, is just a liberal wish list to be imposed on the states with no concern for federalism.
Some of the news coverage, though, might make you think that we face a 1965-style emergency in the states. The Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive group, has broadcast the claim that states are considering 253 bills to “restrict voting access.” That they are also considering 704 bills to “expand voting access,” by the group’s own standards, has not registered as widely. (Some bills are on both of its lists.) Most bills in both categories, like most bills period, aren’t going anywhere.
Many of the “restrictive” bills tighten or introduce requirements for voter identification, requirements that some studies have found do not reduce voter registration or turnout rates. Some of them roll back pandemic innovations in voting procedures, such as the wide use of absentee ballots without any need for listing an excuse. That may or may not be a good idea, but a return to the policies of 2019 should not be portrayed as an assault on civil rights.
Other Republican-backed bills are harder to defend. A committee of the Georgia house briefly considered banning early voting on Sundays, a proposal that seems plainly designed to reduce Democratic votes by impeding voter-mobilization by Black churches. More generally, Republican legislation has reflected the background assumptions that high voter turnout hurts the GOP’s chances in elections and that the liberalized rules of 2020 followed that pattern.
But the correct conclusion from the results of the 2020 election is not that Republican hopes depend on suppressing voter turnout. It’s that the assumptions are wrong.
Republicans performed reasonably well in a high-turnout election. Aaron Blake of The Washington Post calculated that Republicans came within 90,000 votes of winning the House, the Senate and the presidency. There is abundant evidence that Democrats disproportionately voted by mail while Republicans voted in person, not least because Trump spent months criticizing voting by mail. The evidence that the shift to voting by mail led to a net advantage for Democrats is, on the other hand, scant, and countered by the Republicans’ strong, if ultimately insufficient, showing. Nor is there compelling evidence that mail-in voting facilitated an increase in fraud (although the impossibility of proving the negative will keep the conspiracy theorists in business).
The old Republican assumption about voting was based on the old structure of the parties’ coalitions. Republicans used to get most of the votes of college-educated professionals while lagging among voters without college degrees. The first group was and is more likely to show up consistently for elections, and so the GOP’s partisan interest in low turnout was, if not exactly noble, at least understandable: Regular voters were more Republican than irregular voters, so higher turnout would tend to help the Democrats.
But the old pattern no longer holds now that the class composition of the parties has changed. More of the affluent regulars vote for Democrats these days, and more of the lower-turnout voters lean toward the Republicans. Trump did a lot to bring about this shift. But his lies about his election defeat obscured one of its implications.
Even the most transformative changes to our political system might not have the partisan effects that proponents and opponents alike expect. It was only nine years ago that the Electoral College gave an edge to the Democrats: President Barack Obama won the electorally decisive states by a larger margin than he won nationally. And while I wouldn’t bet on the Republicans winning the popular vote in 2024, only a fool would rule out the possibility today.
There may also be a difference between ideological and partisan interests. Let’s assume that a set of changes to the political structure — say, the addition of new states where most residents vote for Democrats — moved the center of political gravity to the left. Maybe that would create an enduring Democratic majority. But it seems at least as likely that both parties would move leftward, the Republicans because they would have to do so and the Democrats because they could, while the partisan balance stayed roughly the same as it was.
Republicans do not, by and large, see themselves as opponents of democracy. Their institutional interest in making sure voter turnout is low is smaller than even they think, and it’s getting smaller. And they are not prosecuting a war against democracy in the state legislatures. Republicans think U.S. democracy is threatened by Democratic fraud; Democrats think it’s threatened by Republican authoritarianism. One day they both may have to face the good news that neither of these things is true.