This article was originally published in The Hill, December 23, 2018.
A realignment of America’s two major parties is under way. It will not be mostly defined by demographics, as some analysts have suggested. Rather, it will be defined by ideas about democracy and the rule of law. To put it simply, we are headed for an era in which America may well have a Democratic Party and an Anti-democratic Party.
This realignment, in large part, was driven by a crucial strategic choice the Republican Party made over the past decade, as described in a recent piece for The Atlantic by Vann Newkirk II. Soon after the GOP’s 2012 presidential defeat, Reince Priebus, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, led a post-mortem analysis that was unusually blunt and prescient. It said the GOP must make big reforms in its outlook and agenda or risk electoral marginalization. In particular, it called for the GOP to support comprehensive immigration reform, liberalize its views on gay rights, demand reforms on corporate governance, and stop talking like a bunch of “stuffy old men” who leave younger voters “rolling their eyes at what the party represents.”
The GOP did virtually none of this. Instead, it relied on tactics aimed at preserving power for a party that represented a steadily shrinking share of the population, mostly defined by non-urban, lower-educated whites. These tactics included gerrymandering, voter suppression, manipulation of the census process and efforts to stack the federal judiciary with like-minded jurists.
If Republicans after 2012 decided to go outside democratic norms to preserve their power, rather than to reform and align with the values of a majority of the rising American electorate, Donald Trump in 2016 put that strategy on steroids. His presidential candidacy — built on racially-charged language, offensive comments about women, nationalism and appeals to less-educated whites — snugly fit the imperatives of a party that was drifting away from a majority of the public. So, too, the recent power-grabs by Republican legislatures in North Carolina, Wisconsinand Michigan, which have moved to strip incoming Democratic governors or attorneys general of traditional powers, simply to preserve Republican power, even in the face of a popular vote for change.
But the Trump-era moves to preserve Republicans’ power may have crossed an important line — a legal line. Disclosures by special counsel Robert Mueller and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New Yorksuggest that some on the GOP team lied, during and/or after the 2016 election, about their interactions with the Russians, and Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has pleaded guilty to his part in a hush-money scheme during the campaign involving two women who say they had extramarital affairs with Trump.
The march to apparent illegality was not confined to the 2016 presidential race. In the 2018 race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, it now appears that the campaign of GOP candidate Mark Harris, the uncertified winner, may have run an illegal scheme to skew absentee ballots in his favor.
The new legislative power-grab schemes in Wisconsin and Michigan almost certainly will face court challenges. Many Republicans who themselves are not breaking electoral laws or subverting democratic institutions are still condoning their party’s anti-democratic bent by refusing to condemn such actions.
The slide toward extra-constitutional, illegal and anti-democratic tactics to preserve GOP power is becoming its new brand. Not coincidentally, Trump and the GOP have applied that brand to their foreign policy, abandoning the emphasis on democracy promotion that Ronald Reagan championed and replacing it with outspoken openness toward anti-democratic strongmen in places such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China and Turkey.
Some analysts suggest issues of race, gender and education will be dominant drivers in upcoming elections, since those demographic fault lines were so visible in recent voting. But another dynamic may define 2020 even more strongly. Should the various Trump investigationsproduce more evidence of law-breaking, a defining dividing line between the parties could become the question of democracy — which party is for it, and which is trying to subvert it.
Already, the incoming Democratic majority in the House has vowed that its first major bill will focus on democracy — making it easier to vote, limiting big money in politics and ensuring presidential candidates are more transparent about their finances.
All this mirrors what happened after Watergate. A year before Nixon’s resignation, the dominant issues were the economy and the oil embargo. By the 1974 midterm, a focus on campaign finance reform helped to sweep in the 49-seat Democratic gain that became known as the “Watergate babies.” And two years later, the focus on ethics and reform was enough to sweep in a moral reformer and Washington outsider from Georgia.
It could be that Republicans in coming months will begin to change path on issues tied to democracy and the rule of law, as new revelations emerge about Trump and as they ponder the extent of their losses in the recent House elections. They might finally begin to act on Reince Priebus’s post-2012 urgings to adjust their policies and outlook. But if they continue to double down on preserving their power by any means, even as their voter base shrinks, their anti-democratic brand could become even more pronounced.