Continuing with Dana Milbank’s The Destructionists, this post discusses the remaining two of the anti-democratic impulses he associates with the Republican Party in recent decades.
Sabotaging institutions and norms
Here again, Milbank attributes a leading role to House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. “The slash-and-burn politics he brought to the Capitol made it ungovernable, and the zealots he brought into the Republican Party had no wish to govern. It has been that way ever since.”
All presidents face challenges in getting their legislative agendas adopted, especially if the opposition party holds a majority in one or both houses of Congress. Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan certainly had that problem. But President Clinton, and later Obama, encountered an unprecedented level of resistance. Presidential legislative victories dropped to the lowest levels since recordkeeping began in 1953. Strict party-line voting soared, while the number of actual laws passed plummeted. Congress could no longer even pass an annual budget:
Since the modern budgeting practice was created in 1974, Congress had managed to pass a budget every year—until Gingrich. In 1998, Republicans couldn’t agree on a budget, a new failure of government that would be repeated ten times in the years that followed.
Another disturbing development was that when Republicans couldn’t get their way, they threatened to shut down the government, or actually did so. They didn’t seem to care very much whether anything got done, as long as little the administration wanted got done.
Once Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995, they took steps to exclude Democrats from the legislative process. In the K-Street Project organized by Speaker Gingrich, along with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Republican activist Grover Norquist, lobbying firms seeking to influence legislation were expected to contribute to Republicans and hire Republicans. Milbank characterizes it as “a new incarnation of old-fashioned, pay-to-play politics” that “made corruption into a science.”
Gingrich’s successor, Dennis Hastert, proclaimed that he would allow no bill to come to a vote without the support of a majority of Republicans. That precluded the Democratic minority from passing any legislation with the help of moderate Republicans, thus strengthening the stranglehold of the Republican right on Congress. (Hastert later went to jail for banking violations, as a result of trying to cover up bank withdrawals he was using to pay hush money to victims of his sexual abuse.)
The 2000 presidential election was marred not only by the anomaly of having the Supreme Court stop a state recount and declare the winner, but also by irregularities that could easily have affected Florida’s razor-thin vote margin:
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that Florida officials, led by the president’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush, were “grossly derelict” in conducting the election. The commission concluded that “countless” eligible voters “were wrongfully purged from the voter registration rolls, turned away from the polls, and by various other means prevented from exercising the franchise…”
[T]he Republicans had learned from Florida an insidious, antidemocratic lesson: with the Supreme Court in its corner, and with the ability to suppress the opposition’s vote in GOP-run states, Republicans didn’t necessarily need a majority to win. All they had to do was howl about election fraud.
In many states, Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in highly urbanized areas. That makes it rather easy for a Republican-controlled legislature to draw voting district boundaries in such a way as to give Democrats a smaller share of legislative or Congressional seats than their share of voters. A state government can also use the location of polling places to produce longer lines in some locations than others. Milbank describes the scheme concocted by Karl Rove and Tom DeLay to replace seven House Democrats with Republicans. First DeLay collected large corporate donations that were supposedly illegal under Texas law, channeling them to Texas candidates by way of the Republican National Committee to disguise their true origin. Enough of his candidates won to take control of the Texas legislature. Then he got Governor Rick Perry to call special legislative sessions to immediately redistrict the state, something normally done only every ten years. Then he persuaded the lieutenant governor to suspend the normal requirement of a two-thirds vote in the Texas Senate, so that the redistricting could pass by a simple majority. The scheme worked, although DeLay was later sentenced to three years in prison for money laundering. But no matter; Republicans on the appeals court overturned his conviction.
After the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court substantially weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Texas was one state that immediately passed more restrictive voting laws that impacted negatively on minority and Democratic voters.
Both major parties have resorted to gerrymandering and other unfair tactics in some places, but the Republicans have been the main beneficiaries. In the House of Representatives and in many state legislatures, they can win a majority of the seats without winning a majority of the actual votes.
During the Obama administration, Mitch McConnell routinely used the filibuster to block the President’s judicial appointments. Democrats eventually had to change the rules in order to get vacancies filled. When Obama nominated the moderate Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, McConnell made up his own rule, that no such nominee could even be considered in an election year, thus holding open the vacancy from February 2016 until Obama left office in 2017. Later, with Trump in office and Republicans in control the Senate, he had no problem rushing to confirm Amy Coney Barrett eight days before the 2020 election. He had also decided that eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations was a good idea, making it easier for President Trump to appoint extreme conservatives. McConnell’s success in manipulating the rules is one big reason we have a judiciary far more conservative than the general population.
Perhaps the most alarming breach of democratic norms is the Republican flirtation with right-wing militias and other violence-prone groups. While they have grown in number since the 1990s, Republican leaders from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump have refused to repudiate them. Threats of violence against Congressional Democrats increased after Congress passed Obamacare, and more recently after Congress certified the 2020 election as a Biden victory. Responsible Republicans who resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the election were also at risk. The January 6 attack on the capitol was not entirely without precedent. During the dispute over the 2000 election, a mob stormed the offices of the Miami-Dade County election board and intimidated the board enough to halt the recount. The riot turned out to be led by Republican operatives flown in from Washington and funded by Karl Rove’s political operation. I have read elsewhere that one of the people taking credit for organizing the event was none other than Roger Stone! One more example of Trumpism before Trump.
Exploitation of racism and white supremacy
The expansion of civil rights to include historically disadvantaged groups is an obvious goal of a democratic society. Long before the recent period described by Milbank, the parties had split over this issue. The Democratic Party had risen above its Southern racist past and assumed a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement, while the GOP, originally the anti-slavery party, was moving more slowly. As the party believing in a more limited federal government, Republicans were more skeptical that government could do very much to address racial inequality. They wanted disadvantaged minorities to work their way out of poverty rather than rely on government assistance. They encouraged businesses and colleges to adopt racially neutral hiring and admissions standards, but did not want to impose any particular targets or timetables for achieving greater diversity.
A survey finding reported by Milbank dramatizes the difference in attitudes and the dilemma it poses. In 2020, 71 percent of white Republicans agreed with the statement, “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.” Only 13 percent of Democrats agreed. While Republicans might defend the statement as an affirmation of the traditional work ethic and the equal opportunity society, it also perpetuates the racist stereotype of lazy Blacks whose problems are their own fault. The line between complacency in the face of racial injustice and just plain racism is a fine one.
Republicans face both a moral and political dilemma. Should they broaden their appeal to disadvantaged groups by supporting programs that help them, like Obamacare? Or should they write off those segments of the electorate and double down on being the party of white people? For political operatives, it has been too often a question of whatever they think will get the most votes. One of Newt Gingrich’s campaign officials was quoted saying, “We went after every rural southern prejudice we could think of.” And early in George W. Bush’s presidency, his campaign coordinator Matthew Dowd persuaded Karl Rove that a highly motivated base was more important than a broad base. A great way to fire up white people is encouraging them to believe that undeserving minorities and immigrants are coming to take their jobs or tax dollars. Appealing to white fear is an effective but dangerous tactic. It can set off a downward spiral, where the most prejudiced voters turn out for your party, while those with more moderate views leave. The result is a base that becomes ever narrower and less rational.
The election of the country’s first (half-) Black president only increased the divide.
The parties had been realigning themselves according to race and racial attitudes for decades, but the Obama presidency, and the Trump-led racial backlash against it, dramatically accelerated the trend—drawing those with racial resentment into the Republican Party and repelling those who welcome a multiracial America.
The Tea Party movement brought together antigovernment Republicans and white nationalists particularly hostile to the new president. Fox News heavily promoted the rumor that Obama was not an American citizen. Glenn Beck said that Obama “has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
Like Tim Miller, Milbank discusses the “autopsy” commissioned by the RNC after the 2012 election, which advised the party to broaden its base if it wanted to win future elections. Two developments the following year suggested that many leaders weren’t listening. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives refused even to debate a compromise immigration bill that had passed the Senate with a two-thirds majority. The bill contained a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, but also increased spending on border security. The second development went to the heart of the democratic process, as Republicans withdrew their longstanding support of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act had gone a long way to reduce the racial disparity in voting. That was mainly due to the requirement that states with a history of voter suppression get approval from the Justice Department for any changes to their voting rules. In 2013, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court eliminated that requirement on the grounds that the data used to justify it were outdated. Despite the strong bipartisan support the bill had enjoyed in the past, Republicans now refused to support Democratic efforts to update and reauthorize the bill, leaving Republican-controlled state legislatures freer to enact restrictions that impacted negatively on Black voting.
Once again, Donald Trump only magnified trends that were already underway. He delighted the Republican base with his explicit attacks on immigrants as criminals and Black Lives Matter protesters as thugs, while at the same time embracing white supremacist insurrectionists as patriots.
After so many years of choosing power over principle, self-interest over country, Republican leaders had lost their way. They stood for nothing but gaining and holding power. Then, in 2015, along came a man who showed them a way to gain and hold power. They swallowed what was left of their integrity, and they followed him.
Milbank’s detailed account of politics in the last quarter century makes a pretty good case that the Republican Party’s commitment to democratic principles has been eroding for some time. But the questions I posed at the outset, “Why the Republican Party, and why in our particular era?” are still hanging out there not entirely answered. I will try to go a little deeper next time.