"Hey, Democrats,” political theorist Rob Goodman wrote in June, “fighting fair is for suckers." Goodman’s words seem even more relevant now following the fight over Brett Kavanaugh. After multiple women accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Republicans doubled down, turning a Supreme Court confirmation into an opportunity to insult victims of sexual assault and show that the GOP sees partisanship as the only moral guide.
On Oct. 16, President Donald Trump called his former mistress Stormy Daniels “horseface” on Twitter in yet another display of his grotesque sexism. Following his lead, Republicans have proven themselves willing to shred norms and gut democratic principles in order to tighten their grasp on power. They have passed tax cuts for the wealthy, are making it harder and harder for women to have abortions, and shipped migrant children to concentration camps. If Republicans are ruthless in pushing ugly and cruel policies, shouldn't Democrats be at least as ruthless in resisting them?
The answer is yes… and no, according to Greg Sargent's new book, “An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy In an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics.” Sargent, a journalist at the Washington Post, agrees that Democrats need to be more aggressive in countering Republicans. But Democrats also have, and should continue to have, an interest in preserving democracy. Sometimes this requires fighting for institutions, not just destroying them in the pursuit of partisan advantage.
As Sargent chronicles in his book, Republicans have mounted several assaults on voting rights recently, motivated by the razor-thin 2000 election margin and Barack Obama's victory in 2008.
One important example of a norm Democrats need to preserve is voting rights. Shortly after Kavanaugh's confirmation, the now lopsidedly conservative Supreme Court refused to overturn a voter ID law that would make it more difficult for Native Americans to vote in the critical swing state of North Dakota. This change may increase the chances that Republican Kevin Cramer will defeat incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, which would help ensure a Republican majority in the Senate. That majority could in turn put more conservative justices in place, who could uphold more restrictions on Democratic voters, and on and on, shutting Democrats out of power.
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As Sargent chronicles in his book, Republicans have mounted several assaults on voting rights recently, motivated by the razor-thin 2000 election margin and Barack Obama's victory in 2008. "The unprecedented racial diversity of the Obama coalition signaled a set of ongoing changes that were going to be catastrophic to the Republicans over time," Sargent told me by phone. "And in some cases, Republicans explicitly passed voter suppression laws in order to slow that." When it looks like people of color will outvote them, research indicates that white people are much more likely to abandon democracy.
Sargent points to the 2013 North Carolina voter ID law, which targeted the types of voter IDs most commonly used by African Americans and eliminated Sunday early voting — a time when African-Americans were likely to go to the polls. The law was so obviously discriminatory that the Supreme Court struck it down.
If Democrats truly wanted to repay Republicans in kind, they should look to pass laws that would disenfranchise GOP voters, just as the GOP tries to disenfranchise Democratic ones. Democrats could try to craft laws to make it more difficult for rural voters or elderly voters to get to the polls, for example. They could try to shut down polling places in white communities.
Democrats have not advocated for this policy, however. This is not because Democrats are weak or insufficiently ruthless. It's because Democrats are committed to democracy and oppose authoritarianism, both out of principle and because they believe it would harm the people they represent. The GOP seems happy to enable a kleptocracy in which those in power raid the public till and lie shamelessly to avoid accountability when the government fails its citizens. But the answer to authoritarianism can't be equal and opposite authoritarianism.
If Democrats truly wanted to repay Republicans in kind, they should look to pass laws that would disenfranchise GOP voters, just as the GOP tries to disenfranchise Democratic ones.
"We can't go in there essentially saying we're going to follow the right over the cliff into procedural nihilism," Sargent says. "We've got to escalate where it's appropriate, but at the same time we've got to de-escalate where we can for the good of the system long term."
As an example, Sargent points to gerrymandering. Since 2010, Republicans have used new software and research and their control of state legislatures to draw extremely aggressive gerrymanders in states like Wisconsin. That means they've drawn voting district lines so that Democratic voters are spread out between districts, making it easier for Republicans to consolidate power and control more districts. As a result, the GOP won 60 of Wisconsin's 99 state assembly seats in 2012, with only 48.6 percent of the vote; In Pennsylvania, between 2012 and 2016, Republicans won 13 of 18 national Congressional seats, with only 50 percent of the vote.
Democrats desperately need to win governor's seats and state legislatures between now and 2020 in order to prevent Republicans from rigging the system again as they did in 2010, when a wave election gave them control over so many district maps. Democrats have at times drawn extreme gerrymander maps in states like Maryland, and they could use a victory in 2020 to do that on a broader scale, in theory. But Sargent argues, it might ultimately benefit Democrats and democracy more to try to prevent either side from subverting voters in this way. Non-partisan commissions can be set up to draw district lines, for instance. As a bonus, those lines may hold up better to court challenges, without facing the kinds of challenges which struck down Pennsylvania's Republican friendly gerrymander this year.
Democrats have an obligation to fight hard for their voters and their constituents. But Democrats also have an obligation to preserve democracy.
This is not to say that Democrats should never push back in aggressive ways. "We can deescalate on a bunch of fronts; we can improve the system in little ways here and there. But at the same time, you don't want to unilaterally disarm," Sargent says.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is already thinking about ways in which Democrats can tweak Senate rules in order to block future Trump Supreme Court appointments if Democrats win the chamber in November. Democrats in the House promise to continue to investigate Kavanaugh if they win a majority, and they should absolutely do that. Given Republican overreach in blocking Obama Supreme Court appointee Merrick Garland in 2016, discussions on the left about adding liberal justices through court packing seem reasonable and necessary. Democrats have an obligation to fight hard for their voters and their constituents.
But Democrats also have an obligation to preserve democracy, because, again, unaccountable, minoritarian regimes immiserate people. The Republican party has for decades embraced power, propaganda and cruelty. Trump is the logical endpoint of that strategy. Democrats need to fight, but a victory which corrodes democracy wouldn't be a victory at all. Sargent's book is a call to fight, but it also asks us not to forget what we're fighting for.