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When a Bill to Revive Democracy Is Called an Ode to Socialism

The Republican response to the For the People Act is ultimately about white supremacy, argues Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

March 12, 2019

The New York Times’ editorialists last week called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the only “roadblock” preventing a vote on the For the People Act, the sweeping voting, ethics, and election rights legislation House Democrats passed on Friday. That’s true. But the fight is broader than that. The early Republican response to the popular bill suggests the GOP sees it as an existential threat to white supremacy in an era of changing demographics. This helps explain why they would so eagerly oppose a measure that would make it easier for American citizens to vote and harder for their elected officials to hoard power.

For now, McConnell and company are trying to frame the debate over the bill as an ordinary partisan battle over a piece of traditional legislation. But that’s not what the bill is. Yes, it raises legitimate constitutional questions of campaign finance and election law. But it’s a form of meta legislation that would affect the way all subsequent federal legislation is debated and enacted. And, if enacted, the For the People Act would force Republicans to compete for votes on the merits of their ideas: Republican policy choices like opposing background checks on gun sales or opposing the fight against climate change that are historically unpopular.

The GOP’s initial line of attack won’t last long beyond the corridors of the White House and Fox News. It can’t. It’s just not strong enough and it insults the intelligence of the American people. I mean, for example, there is no rational policy argument at this point not to make Election Day a federal holiday. And so, sometime soon, I bet we start seeing darker attacks on this legislation. Attacks aimed at the white Republican base; one that explicitly seeks to frame the bill as an attempt to transfer power from white Americans to Americans of color. That’s precisely the “power” McConnell has in mind when he calls the bill a “power grab.”

Republicans like McConnell could have responded to the legislation by acknowledging how broken our current political system has become or by conceding their role in making it so. They could have responded to the bill by suggesting their own reforms to fix some of the more obvious problems — like the fact that countless Americans have to stand in line for hours to vote on Election Day. Instead, for now, the GOP is fighting the bill with the old, familiar hodge-podge of buzzwords — “federal takeover!” “taxpayer-funded bailout!” “socialism!” — and hoping those words scare enough of their constituents into opposing the measure.

Here’s the video Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader, offered up last week before the House passed the measure. It’s a masterwork of doubletalk, dubious assertions, and hypocrisy from a leader of a party that has embraced the Trump administration in virtually all of its forms. Democrats “want the government to interfere in our free and fair elections,” McCarthy tells us, without mentioning all of the ways in which state and local officials have failed recently to protect the rights of citizens to vote. “Future voters might be dead, underage or illegal immigrants,” McCarthy warns, echoing the tired mantra of the voter fraud mythsters.

McCarthy then also falsely asserts that the For the People Act “would legalize voting for convicted felons all over the country, even if they were convicted of election fraud”—an event which he calls “not only dangerous” but “unconstitutional.” This is nonsense on many levels, beginning with the fact that the law would only legalize voting for ex-offenders who have served all of their time, including probation and parole. There is nothing dangerous or inherently unconstitutional about allowing people who have served their punishment to participate in society upon the completion of their sentence.

McCarthy ends his brief online speech by telling us that the bill passed last Friday is “designed to put a thumb on the scale of every election in America and keep the swamp swampy.” It takes a lot of stones for Trump toadies to call a reform bill a sly means to “keep the swamp swampy.” It takes stones for the party that has put a “thumb on the scale of every election in America in the past decade or so to bemoan legislation that would make it easier for citizens to vote. It takes stones to call a bill that would subject policy choices to the marketplace of ideas, and the will of voters in a democracy, an exercise in “socialism.” 

The GOP’s Twitter ad also is something to behold. Federal legislation that is designed to make it harder for incumbents to keep their gerrymandered seats, and that will encourage fairer redistricting, morphs into what the GOP calls “a taxpayer-funded bailout of the permanent political class.” A bill that would begin to restore campaign finance boundaries and restrict corruption is spun as a law that “would funnel millions of tax dollars to campaigns and candidates you may not agree with.” A measure that would hold federal officials more accountable would instead “turn the FEC into a political weapon.”

Along the same lines, the party that continuously defends the corrupt and unauthorized excesses of the president, the same folks who said “boo” over the weekend when we learned more about the administration’s drive to investigate Hillary Clinton in 2017, warns us that the For the People Act would “allow the president’s party to choose who to investigate and punish.” And the party that overwhelmingly endorses a president who calls journalists “enemies of the people” says the new bill if enacted would “impose vague and ambiguous restrictions on free speech.”

McConnell and company call the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and think the nickname is a riot. “Democrat” instead of “Democratic,” get it? But the only thing that is remotely funny about their opposition to the measure is how much “projection” it represents. Every threat the Republicans warn against in the bill exists today under a political system crafted in large part by McConnell and his fellow travelers on the U.S. Supreme Court. They make these arguments because it’s the best they have. They make them hoping that the right-wing media chamber will repeat them.

Bereft of substantive ideas, tethered to a corrupt, unpopular president, aware that their own political futures depend on the durability of the status quo, congressional Republicans beyond McConnell and McCarthy understand what is at stake over the For the People Act. They have to stop it. Otherwise they’ll face what they consider an impossible choice: losing more elections as they lose the demographic war or endorsing more of the popular and vital policies they so gleefully oppose today. That this is a terribly cynical approach to politics at a time when the nation faces a desperate crisis of democracy makes it no less true.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Hero Images/Getty)