Suppression and Subversion

By now, only the willfully blind are unaware of the aggressive and unconscionable campaign by the Republican Party to undermine the American electoral system and rig it in its favor. 

Unable to win the popular vote in a presidential election (Republicans have done so only once in the last eight elections), and with the nation’s demographics trending heavily against them, the GOP has only two options: 

  1. Change its platform to attract more voters, or
  2. Cheat

(There is actually a third option, which is to go gently into that good night. But we’ll set that aside, for now.)

No one who has observed the GOP’s wanton lack of principle over the past five years ought to be surprised that it has chosen Door Number 2. (I’m being generous. It’s really more like fifty-six years.) But the Republican Party has now embarked on a concerted and unprecedented effort to subvert the will of the people, eviscerate the foundational principles of our representative democracy, and install itself in permanent power. It is doing everything within its considerable power to ensure that Democratic voters cannot make their voices heard in numbers that accurately reflect the polis, to enable its own minions to control the electoral process, and even to give itself the unilateral power to overturn elections that do not go its way. What could possibly be more un-American?

Like they say in the horror movies, we ought to be afraid. We ought to be very afraid.

But the electoral expert Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, recently gave an interview to the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in which he made an important distinction between the two aspects of this campaign, voter suppression and election subversion. Hasen:

(V)oter suppression (involves) things that make it harder for people to register and to vote, like the provision of the Georgia law that says you can’t give water to people waiting on line to vote. That’s a different concern than this idea of election subversion, which is trying to manipulate the rules for who counts the votes in a way that could allow for a partisan official to declare the loser as the winner. This was, for example, a concern when President Trump called the secretary of state of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, in the period after the election, to try to get him to “find” the 11,780 votes.

Suppression and subversion are of course just two sides of the same coin. The former—limiting access to the polls, demanding voter ID, eliminating early and mail-in voting, and perverting of an accurate reflection of the public will via gerrymandering, to name just a few of its techniques—may be a little more sophisticated, while subversion is a little more blunt, but both aim at the same goal, and both still bother with a veneer of legitimacy, however farcical. The next step is outright seizure of power by force, though in most countries where that takes place even that it is still usually cloaked in the mufti of democratic authority, and accompanied by some attempt at claiming legal legitimacy.

In this case, Republicans have seized on the canard of widespread voter fraud: that is to say, the Big Lie as propagated by a certain orange-hued Florida-based retiree, which is really just a metastasized version of a hoax that the GOP has been peddling for years. 

It goes without saying that this is absolute horseshit, unsupported by even a shred of evidence, and a transparent con that only the Kool-Aid drunk denizens of MAGA Nation would buy into. Notice that none of the elected Republicans howling about voter fraud and how Trump wuz robbed think that their own victories on that same Election Day were fraudulent, despite using the same ballots, the same tabulation, and the same certifications.

Prof. Hasen goes on to explain that much of the For the People Act (as well as the less expansive John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) “is aimed at stopping voter suppression. Stopping election subversion requires a different set of tools, and, ideally, you might want to have federal legislation that attacks both.”

But we have seen how hard it is to legislate against even suppression when one side is so venal and so unwilling to protect free and fair elections which it stands to lose. But subversion is even harder to legislate against, as any kind of legislative remedy requires players who are acting in good faith, and institutionalized means of election subversion are bad faith incarnate. In other words, you can make armed robbery illegal, but that won’t stop armed robbers who are willing to break the law…..not to mention armed robbers who are in power and, Nixon-like, change the laws so that it’s not illegal when they do it. 

Hasen notes that “there are some fixes that would make election subversion much more difficult, but, to truly deal with the problem, it requires not just strengthening law but strengthening norms.” Here is where I throw my popcorn into the air and clench the hand of the person sitting next to me in the movie theater, because the whole concept of “norms” is that they are intangible matters of consensus, and not something that can be codified…..and when it comes to what we mean by “democracy,” and the extent to which we as a people collectively believe in it, I fear that consensus is something that is rapidly vanishing in America. 

CHILL OUT

To stop voter suppression, Hasen suggests measures like requiring every state to use a paper ballot (to reduce uncertainly about the outcome), reforming the way Electoral College votes are physically counted and how objections can be raised in Congress (to avoid a repeat of January 6th), and changing the provisions for how the vote count is validated—or can be questioned—in the courts (to streamline and secure the process for adjudicating disputes).

Hasen admits that these measures will not deter Republicans from raising outrageous and unfounded challenges anyway. Of course they won’t. Are you kidding? Republicans will blow through those guardrails like a bazooka round through tissue paper. 

He is optimistic, however, in noting that it was Republicans like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who stood up to Trump and refused to undermine the vote. But with all due respect to the professor’s expertise, which I greatly admire, I think this is naïve in the extreme. Witness the way that the Republican Party at the state level has punished those very members like Raffensperger who refused to comply with Trump’s pressure (and bribery), and has taken draconian steps to ensure that no future GOP Secretaries of State can exercise similar integrity that gets in the way of Project Autocracy. 

And the message has come through loud and clear: Raffensperger himself is now publicly backing Georgia’s new voter suppression laws.

That, folks, is what we call a chilling effect.

Hasen recognizes the implications of the problem, citing Raffensperger’s fate, and raising the alarm:

(T)he biggest concern I have right now is what happened in Georgia, where……the secretary of state has been taken out of any authority as to how the state election board does its job, to be replaced by someone handpicked by the Republican legislature. This board now has the power to do temporary takeovers of up to four counties. You could easily imagine the state boards taking over how the election is run in heavily Democratic Fulton County, and then imposing rules or messing with election counts in ways that could affect the outcome in the now very purple state of Georgia.

Here we see a perfect embodiment of the problem. 

The only reason that Trump was not able to steal the election in 2020 is because individual Republicans in key positions of power stood up to him, exactly as Hasen says. But what kind of system is that? One that relies on the goodwill of the players and has no kind of ironclad provisions to ensure legitimacy and prevent criminality, that’s what. (Perhaps, as Hasen says, that is ultimately impossible, in terms of creating an airtight system impervious to attack.) That is a highly fraught arrangement…..and as we have just seen, the Republican Party is doing everything it possibly can to make sure that no free-thinking, independent people of integrity are in any position to thwart the party’s venal ambitions going forward. 

In other words, Republicans are giving themselves the authority to overturn any election they don’t win. It sounds absurd, like something that would never be allowed to happen in America, and even if it was somehow allowed, something that no political party would dare try for fear of massive public outrage.  

But do you doubt for a New York minute that Republicans would  try to do it? 

Don’t make me laugh. 

Chotiner raises that very point, which Hasen concedes:

Chotiner: But if you did have a party completely set on subverting an election, would it be hard to legislate against it?

Hasen: Sure. Then, of course, that’s the end of the American democratic experiment, and we’re in deep trouble.

THE SLIDING SCALE OF REPUBLICAN HEROISM

At the beginning of June, a group of roughly a hundred esteemed scholars, political scientists, and other experts published an open letter titled “Statement of Concern,” warning of the ongoing threat to US democracy from the GOP. I’m glad they did, but as I have written elsewhere, “Statement of Concern” sounds the like ironic title of a book some future historian will write about how hand-wringing American liberals failed to act to save their democracy. (Alternative title: “Bringing a Strongly Worded Letter to a Gunfight.”)

How far is the GOP willing to go? As far as criminalizing even attempts to make it easier to vote. A lot of press has gone to Georgia for making it illegal to give water to people standing in blistering heat for hours on end while waiting to vote (those deliberately long lines a form of suppression in itself). Less baroque but more pragmatically worse, in Iowathe GOP-controlled state legislature has made it a crime to send out pre-filled out absentee ballots request forms. 

This is hardly “securing the vote,” even by the fake standards of the GOP’s own rationalizations. It is solving a problem that doesn’t exist….unless the problem isn’t “voter fraud” at all but the fact that your party can’t win a fair fight. Another goal of the campaign, clearly, is to dissuade honest citizens from wanting to be election administrators in the first place, so that the GOP can fill those jobs with its own lackeys.

So let us now briefly survey the moral landscape of the Republicans who would put themselves in sole control of American elections. 

Bill Barr is another whom some have cited as a shining example of Republicans who refused to go along with the Big Lie. In an eye-opening piece in The Atlantic, Barr himself told reporter Jonathan Karl: “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.” 

(The account of how a furious red-faced Trump screamed at Barr and berated him over his stance, referring to himself in the third person—“You must hate Trump!”—makes for astonishing reading. Barr himself compared it to a scene from Dr. Strangelove.)

Karl notes the irony that it was Barr’s very reputation as a toadying mob consigliere for Trump that lent power to his surprising refusal to back the Lie. “Nobody seriously questioned Barr’s conservative credentials or whether he had been among Trump’s most loyal Cabinet secretaries. His conclusion sent a definitive message that the effort to overturn the election was without merit.”

But as Charlie Sykes writes in The Bulwark, “Recognizing that the Jenna Ellis/Rudy Giuliani/My Pillow Guy conspiracy theories were a shit show in a clown car was the bare minimum level of responsibility we should expect from an attorney general.” 

Apropos of this revisionism that casts Bill Barr as a great American hero, CNN’s Elie Honig also reminds us, “Barr tells tales of denying the big lie after the election, but he omits that he aggressively promoted that lie in the crucial months before the election.”

Even more to the point, per Sykes: “Despite the credibility that Barr had built up as a Trump loyalist, his open and forceful rejection of the lies about the election seems to have little or no impact on opinion the MAGAverse.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

Karl’s piece also contains surprising reportage about Mitch McConnell pleading with Barr to help stop the Big Lie as early as mid-November…..but not on principle, only because McConnell thought the insanity of the Lie would hurt the GOP’s chances of holding onto the Senate in the upcoming January runoff in Georgia, which it did. He himself declined to disavow it because he feared angering Trump, whom he needed to rally Georgia voters.

That’s what passes for integrity in the modern GOP.

So the notion that we can relax because principled, patriotic Republicans who would never dream of cheating are at the electoral wheel is risible. As Hasen himself says, “just imagine if Kevin McCarthy had been the Majority Leader rather than the Minority Leader on January 6, 2021.”

CHTO DELAT?

So what do we do about all this?

As Prof. Hasen says, there are some practical measures we can take, including the voter protections that Congressional Democrats are fighting for and that Republicans are opposing tooth and nail. (Unless one is an uncritical, pinwheel-eyed consumer of Fox News propaganda, does that not say it all about who’s on the side of the angels here?) Along with that we need to raise the alarm about what’s going on, and well before the midterms. We need to make it clear that we, the majority, will not stand for this perversion of our democracy. We need to pressure powerful corporations to bring their might to bear against these efforts (looking at you, Toyota, the number one corporate contributor to Republicans who objected to certifying the 2020 election). And, if need be, we have to be prepared to get out in streets and make our voices heard. This is very much the same playbook that was under discussion when, several months ago, when we were concerned that Trump would succeed in stealing the 2020 election. 

Luckily, we are getting some help. The voting rights protections before Congress face an uphill battle, but the DOJ is beginning to push back, as in Georgia, where it is suing over the new voting laws, charging that they are deliberately discriminatory on the basis of race. 

Hasen also notes the pressure that is on the Supreme Court:

It is now pretty clear that there’s not going to be comprehensive voting legislation coming out of Congress. You’ve got hundreds of suppressive bills that are in the wings in various states. If the courts are not going to serve as the backstop, you’re losing a major tool that could be used to stop voter suppression. The Supreme Court has got to be aware of what the stakes are.

But does he mean it’s “got to be aware” in the sense that it’s impossible that the Court could be unaware? Or does he mean it prescriptively, as in, “Hey Supreme Court, wake the fuck up”?

(“You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.”)

Where we can’t stop voter suppression at the state level, we need to find ways to outflank it so that the right wing’s never-ceasing efforts to skew the playing field are consistently met with never-ceasing countermeasures to make it level again. A prime example is voter ID.

As the Washington Post notes, voter ID—like many other suppression measures, predicated on the aforementioned lie of non-existent voter fraud—is indeed “an insidious method of keeping minorities from the ballot box.” But it’s a losing battle in the PR war. Most Americans instinctively think having to show an ID to vote is common sense, and don’t grasp the obstacles for the poor, elderly, people of color, the disabled, and others. I myself did not grasp that when the issue first arose decades ago, until I got educated me on that fact. 

But since most of our countrymen don’t see it that way, and insisting otherwise only reinforces the stereotype of progressives as wild-eyed radicals—a stereotype the right is keen to spread— perhaps we should approach this in a smarter way.

Hasen writes that a voter-ID requirement “could be fine if it were implemented fairly, the way most advanced democracies do, not the way most American states do it.” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) concurs, and summarized it well

I don’t know anybody who believes that people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are. But what has happened over the years is people have played with common sense identification and put into place restrictive measures intended not to preserve the integrity of the outcome, but to select certain voters. That’s what I oppose.

So this may be one battleground where we would be well-advised to beat a strategic retreat. It may make sense to concede this point and put our efforts and our resources into getting everyone an ID card of some kind, thereby obviating this Republican objection. (P.S. A national ID card is the exact kind of thing conservatives would normally decry as “governmental intrusion” and the first step toward autocracy, except when it serves their purposes. In fact, they have historically done just that.) 

Once we have leapfrogged over this latest attempt keep Democrats from voting with a thinly disguised 21st century poll tax, we can then focus on the next transparently dishonest and self-serving obstacle Republicans will inevitably come up with to try to suppress the will of the people. 

And we can be certain that they will. 

Note that after coming out against the For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) included voter ID in his compromise voting rights bill, as a sop to Republicans. Even Stacey Abrams was willing to support that. But Republicans, predictably, were unswayed. Are we surprised? We could give them everything they ask for—as Democrats did in the proposal for a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection—and they would still refuse to take yes for an answer, because none of their demands are serious nor intended to achieve any reasonable protection of voting integrity—only to nullify Democratic votes.

Some on the right have objected to the For the People Act as “federal overreach,” that infringes on “states’ rights.” How 1860. If the act is overstuffed, the GOP has shown zero interest in compromise or paring it back to something it finds acceptable, as its rejection of Manchin’s counterproposal has shown. And there is a reason for that: because there is nothing in the area of protecting voting rights that it finds acceptable. Their entire goal is quite the opposite, to disenfranchise a huge swath of the electorate for their own partisan gain. That is why the federal government must step in, as it did in the Fifties and Sixties when various southern states wanted to carry on with segregation and Jim Crow efforts to keep Black citizens from voting. 

Rather than talking about the alleged overreach of the FTPA, we ought to be discussing this fundamentally un-American crusade by the GOP. For there is no end to Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism. 

POGO WAS RIGHT

But as bad as it is, Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism is not the heart of the matter, only a manifestation of it. In order to truly face down the right wing attack on the vote, first we have to understand the real problem—and the real problem is not that a small cabal of Republican mandarins are trying to Ocean’s Eleven US democracy. 

The real problem is that tens of millions of Americans are totally fine with that. 

It became a truism (but that makes it no less true) that Trump was but a symptom, not the cause, of the sickness that took hold of America in the last six years. No shit. Much as some “mainstream” Republicans—but not enough—would like us to believe he was an aberration, it is painfully clear that he is in fact the natural result of decades of moral debasement among conservatives, which is itself a manifestation of a longstanding cancer in the American soul. It is a strain that pre-dates our founding as a country, one that has surfaced and gone dormant and re-surfaced again multiple times in our history: from slaveholding to Andrew Jackson to the Civil War, from America First to nativism to the rebirth of the Klan, from Jim Crow to segregation, McCarthyism, Reaganism, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and now Trump. It has been periodically stronger and weaker and stronger again, but it has never been fully eradicated and never will be, barring some exponential evolution in the nature of humankind. 

In its latest incarnation, as we speak, a significant number of our fellow Americans are fully onboard with a wholesale obliteration of basic principles of democracy. They are a minority, lest we forget, but a worryingly large number nonetheless, and terrifyingly well-placed in key positions. 

Voter suppression has long been with us in the United States, and is terrible enough, but open electoral subversion is relatively new, and portends a dark future for American democracy if it is allowed to take hold. If Prof. Hasen is correct, and he surely is, subversion is difficult to combat—and impossible fully eradicate—so long as there are nefarious forces willing to engage in it, backed by a significant swath of the American people.

Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin puts it well when she says, “The truth about many in the GOP base (is) they prefer authoritarianism to democracy.” Rubin quotes a poll in the Morning Consult, in a piece with the even more alarming headline, “US Conservatives Are Uniquely Inclined Toward Right-Wing Authoritarianism Compared to Western Peers.”

A scale measuring propensity toward right-wing authoritarian tendencies found right-leaning Americans scored higher than their counterparts in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. 26% of the U.S. population qualified as highly right-wing authoritarian, Morning Consult research found, twice the share of the No. 2 countries, Canada and Australia.

Rubin also reports that the American right’s “descent into authoritarianism to a large degree is religiously-based,” and quotes Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity:

The most striking difference between right-wing politics in the US and other countries such as Australia, Canada, and [Britain] is the dominance and influence of white evangelical Protestants, who have a theological proclivity toward authoritarianism. The evangelical worldview in America has historically been built on a set of hierarchies that have been defended as divinely ordained—Christian over non-Christian, Protestant over Catholic, white over non-white, men over women. In its strongest forms, this worldview is fundamentally anti-democratic and theocratic….It demands deference particularly to white male charismatic leaders (even when they themselves violate communal norms) and builds identity through a politics of aggression to a shifting array of perceived out groups.

Most notably it gives no quarter to critical thought or dissent, defending its own views as divinely ordained and beyond question.

Sound familiar? Someone call Margaret Atwood.

In order to keep the American experiment alive, we will eventually have to reckon with this pro-authoritarian strain in our nation’s soul, the one that facilitates and gives oxygen to efforts like Republican Party’s campaign for countermajoritarian power. And the future, as George Allen used to say, is now.

Rubin correctly concludes that “if a significant faction of the Republican Party adheres to Christian nationalism rather than the democratic civic religion (equality, the rule of law and the aspiration to perfect the American experiment), the rest of us cannot embrace them as good-faith partners in democracy. As disturbing as it may seem, today’s GOP cannot be entrusted with power and cannot play the role of the ‘loyal opposition’ if it continues to operate outside the democratic compact.”

Preach.

FUTURE SHOCK

Should the GOP succeed in putting a chokehold on the vote that renders our elections a charade and establishes permanent, minoritarian Republican rule, we will be in a position that political scientists technically refer to as “fucked.” What we will do then is a tough question. Ideally, the measures we take now will prevent that grim outcome in the first place and preclude the need to contemplate even more drastic action. 

But what if they don’t?

It would of course be a very difficult position to find ourselves in, which is part of what is so insidious about the Republican campaign. For us to howl in 2022 or 2024 that the election was stolen, and to take any measures at all to combat that theft, would invite charges of hypocrisy, with the right wing furiously denying us the very means of recourse that it eagerly embraced in 2020. (The right is itself completely immune to and unbothered by charges of hypocrisy—one of the chief advantages of being absolutely without a shred of shame.)

I am by no means advocating violence or a left-wing version of the January 6th insurrection, even if such a thing were prompted by a truly stolen election rather than a total falsehood like the Big Lie. For anyone who is really interested in democracy, that sort of recourse is self-defeating, at least in the United States of the early 21st century. But I do think we need to be prepared to get out on the barricades in peaceful, but forceful, sustained protest, the kind that people suffering under other autocracies have successfully used to free themselves.  

For many of us, Biden’s victory last November felt like a massive sigh of relief—a bullet-dodging in the extreme. It was, in many ways. But it was far from the final word. My fear is that, if things go badly, we may look back on the Biden period as only a brief respite in between periods of pitch darkness…..and the one to come may be even worse than the one from which we just emerged.

Let’s give Prof. Hasen the last word, as his New Yorker interview, and the distinction he raised between suppression and subversion, was the impetus for this whole piece:

The No. 1 thing is having fair and transparent vote counting with independent review by the judiciary, to assure that fair accounting is taking place. It’s really a sad commentary on American politics that we even have to have this discussion about vote counts in the United States in 2021.

********

Photo: A heartwarming moment from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

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