Scare talk on steroids
The Democrats’ hyperbolic rhetoric about the return of Jim Crow laws risks exacerbates the problem they claim to want to fix
This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Joe Manchin is used to friendly fire. As a proudly independent Democrat in a 50-50 Senate, the West Virginian is seen by his progressive colleagues as the biggest roadblock on the road to social democratic Nirvana. That makes him the target of much opprobrium.
But the attacks on Manchin reached a new level of ferocity last month when he announced that he did not support, and would not be voting for, the For The People Act, a sweeping set of election-related reforms that Joe Biden has identified as one of his administration’s top legislative priorities.
Jamaal Bowman, a left-wing Congressman from New York, said that his colleague was, “the new Mitch McConnell” (the comparison to the top-ranking Republican in the Senate was not meant as a compliment) and accused Manchin of “doing everything in his power to stop democracy”.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, also a New York representative and maybe the most influential progressive in America, said Manchin’s opposition to the bill demonstrated his support for “voter suppression”. Mondaire Jones, a third elected New Yorker, said that the op-ed in which Manchin affirmed his opposition to the bill “might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll Vote to Preserve Jim Crow’”, referring to the post-reconstruction system laws that maintained racial segregation and disenfranchised African Americans. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, described the bill as necessary to “respect the sanctity of the vote, which is the basis of our democracy”.
If the anti-Manchin backlash was at odds with the reality of the bill, it was in keeping with Democrats’ increasingly hyperbolic tone
Far from being essential to the survival of America as we know it, or all that stands in between the country and a return to the systemic disenfranchisement of the past, the For the People Act started life last year as what is called a signalling bill: the sort of legislation parties propose knowing it will never become law. It is written as such, which is why several of its measures are flatly unconstitutional and therefore opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Also, as Manchin himself has pointed out, there is good reason to be circumspect about legislation that relies on only one party’s votes to improve the efficacy and legitimacy of the electoral process.
But if the anti-Manchin backlash was at odds with the reality of the bill, it was in keeping with the increasingly hyperbolic way in which Democrats and the left more generally talk about the state of American democracy. It was also a reminder that Donald Trump’s departure in January has not led to the kind of calm normality which Joe Biden promised.
Too often, it is the president himself reaching for alarmist language. When lawmakers in Georgia introduced new voting laws in March, Biden described them as “Jim Crow on steroids”. The president repeatedly exaggerated and misrepresented the package — a melange of measures (some fine, some bad) that in many instances simply reverted the state to the rules that existed before changes were made to deal with the challenge of voting during the pandemic — and called them “sick” and “un-American”. Stacey Abrams, the unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate turned voting rights poster girl, opted for a different metaphor: “a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie”.
In the Washington Post, expert voices are invoked to claim that Republican voting reforms resemble “apartheid South Africa more than a functioning multiracial democracy”. The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argues we are “in the eye of the storm of American Democratic collapse … a brief interregnum before American Democracy is strangled for a generation.” State level Republican-backed voting measures would “effectively disembowel or kill democracy”, according to liberal columnist David Rothkopf.
In June, a group of self-styled “scholars of democracy” issued a “letter of concern” in which they argued that state-level election reforms proposed by Republicans were “transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.”
In other words, the message from the left on American democracy is simple: This is an emergency. This warning is, among other things, unhelpfully broad. And Democrats are eliding two things into one big argument about the Republican Party as a threat to the Republic. The first is the slew of state-level changes to voting laws. The second is the worry that Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election was a foretaste of a more successful, or at least more damaging, attempt to refuse to certify a presidential election result in four or eight years.
The former is a more serious problem than the latter (though even here, warnings of an imminent coup are overblown). And a more responsible Democratic administration would be clear about the distinction between the two, rather than using every opportunity to do the opposite.
At the time of writing, more than 30 weeks after election day, election officials in Arizona are still recounting ballots as part of a long-winded and futile indulgence of Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him. The former president reportedly believes not only that he was the real winner last November, but that he will be reinstated as president some time this summer.
These views are not nearly as fringe as you might hope. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, nearly a third of GOP voters think it is either somewhat or very likely that Trump will be restored to the presidency this year and just 40 per cent of Republicans had at least “some” confidence in the US electoral system. Other polls find that around half of Republicans think Trump lost because of electoral fraud or vote rigging.
Safeguards against election subversion would be possible in federal legislation that insisted on nonpartisan administration and minimum standards for vote counts and certification. And there would very likely be enough Republican support for such measures in Congress for legislation to pass. After all, only a fraction of the Republican Party in the Senate was willing to contemplate refusing to certify states’ electoral college results in January. But instead of building from common ground, Democrats are determined to bundle voting rules and election certification into one indivisible, and far more contentious whole.
However sacred the right to vote, it should also be possible to have a good-faith disagreement on voting rules. It should also be possible to acknowledge bad-faith rule changes without claiming that American democracy is on its deathbed.
A system that leaves it up to the states to decide election rules is one in which access to the ballot box will necessarily vary across the country. Surely it would be better for American democracy to allow room for polite differences of opinion on whether, say, early voting sites need to be open 24 hours a day while passing legislation that shores up the electoral process against chaotic and damaging attempts to overturn the will of the people of the sort America just survived.
One area where those sounding the alarm about American democracy undeniably have a point is the idea that democracies don’t die overnight, but rather erode gradually. That is the case with what weakening of electoral legitimacy has taken place in America. And Republicans aren’t solely to blame.
A 2001 Gallup poll found that just seven in ten Americans accepted George W. Bush as a “legitimate” president after 2000’s razor-edge election. Seventeen per cent of Americans thought Bush had “stolen” the election and just 15 per cent of Democrats thought Bush had won “fair and square”. After the Supreme Court settled the matter, Hillary Clinton was fond of saying that Bush was “selected, not elected”.
Democrats’ overblown rhetoric on voting rights exacerbates the exact problem they claim to be trying to solve
When it comes to suspecting the worst of the other side of the aisle, consider a 2006 University of Ohio poll which found that half of Democrats thought it either very likely or likely that “people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East”.
An ABC/Washington Post poll conducted shortly after the 2016 election found that only a small majority of Clinton voters accepted Trump’s win as legitimate. More recently, Nancy Pelosi described Amy Coney Barrett as an “illegitimate supreme court justice”, presumably because she was nominated in an election year. Even if Trump’s election lie has taken things to a new low, questioning the legitimacy of the other side’s wins is a bipartisan habit.
Perhaps the most maddening thing about Democrats’ overblown rhetoric on voting rights is the way in which it exacerbates the exact problem they claim to be trying to solve. If the rules by which Republicans are elected are, in the president’s words, “sick” or “un-American” or “Jim Crow on steroids”, why should Democrats be expected to accept those results?
It is no coincidence that the most high-profile candidate to refuse to concede an election before Donald Trump last November was the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who blamed the “erosion of democracy” when she lost the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018 and refused to acknowledge her opponent Brian Kemp as the legitimate governor.
Trump’s stolen election lie is undoubtedly a more flagrant and damaging falsehood than the over-hyped way in which some on the left have taken to talking about voting laws. But Democrats appear no more serious about breaking the vicious cycle of crying foul after they lose. The encouragement of deepening cynicism among voters renders the system a little less functional with every election cycle.
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