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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)