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Do Republicans Believe in Democracy? The press needs to start asking.
“Do Republicans believe in democracy?” It is a question that on the surface might seem dismissive or even divisive. Certainly the answer for many Republicans is a resounding yes. However, the facts are what they are. And as journalists we need to follow trails of inquiry, even if they lead to uncomfortable places. One of those places right now--and it has been for some time-- is voter suppression and questions around the national commitment to majority rule through elections.
The Washington press corps has operated for decades under one basic assumption: both Democrats and Republicans, whatever their ideological differences, ultimately believe in the norms and tenets of America’s constitutional government. Sadly, this assumption is no longer a given. What that means for the future of American journalism, and for the country as a whole, is not entirely clear. We are living in dangerous times that cannot be normalized or ignored.
Over the years, we all have seen plenty of examples when Democratic and Republican orthodoxies have proven to be right, and wrong. We’ve seen corrupt politicians in both parties. From issues of war, to economics, to domestic and social policy, no one party has had a monopoly on wisdom, or the truth. To write this is to risk wading into "false equivalence," that treacherous phrase which has rightly become a topic of fervent discussion over the last several years. To be sure, there have been major differences between the parties, and you could argue that Democrats have tended to be more progressive on important issues like equity and justice around race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Although even there, the record has been mixed. Others will surely argue that Republicans have been better on a range of issues.
Regardless of how you might assign praise and blame to the parties on policy, a fundamental thing to remember is this: for most of our history, how American politics was supposed to work was that you had honest competition between the parties for votes. This competition could be fierce and even dirty, but it was ultimately rooted in a belief that elections had consequences and thus should be won. Once elections were over, the winners took office in a peaceful transfer of power. That was a given. Reporting then turned to what politicians did with the authority bestowed by voters. The press corps was expected to probe, investigate, and explain that to the public.
Where we stand now in 2021 is very different. No analysis of the political climate of the present can ignore what we have seen. We had an attempt to steal a presidential election that wasn't even close. Wow. It still boggles the mind. To make matters even worse, this effort was conceived and promoted by the president of the United States himself. It was based on lies and intimidation. When presented in courts, even before Republican judges, the arguments of the president and his enablers were readily dismissed, often with thinly-veiled derision. The merits of this anti-democratic crusade would have been laughable, if they weren’t so dangerous.
Having lost legally, the battleground then turned to the streets, namely the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. It was, in effect, an attempted coup; a violent insurrection, incited by the president and his willing accomplices, that left dozens of police officers wounded and one, Brian Sicknick, dead. The bloodshed for those inside the historic building could have been even worse. Politicians of both parties, including the sitting vice president of the man who sent the thugs, were almost overrun by a mob hellbent on retribution--and on stopping final certification by Congress of the Presidential election results. Bad as it was, one shudders at what might have happened.
But even after all of that, a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives promoted the Big Lie and sought to delegitimize what was by all accounts a remarkably secure, free, fair, and high-turnout election. They particularly focused on throwing out millions of votes, mostly of Black and brown citizens. They sought to install their dear leader instead of his duly elected successor.
This effort was not as egregious in the Senate, but even one vote for authoritarianism is one vote too many. And let's remember what led up to January 6, week after week of even so-called "moderate" Republican elected officials refusing to acknowledge the overwhelming victory of Joe Biden. None of this has been put to rest. All one has to witness is the pilgrimage to CPAC and the fact that Mitch McConnell gave Trump his full endorsement if he is chosen as the Republican nominee in 2024. At this point Trump must be considered the frontrunner.
It isn’t just actions in Washington. Throughout the country, Republicans are doubling down on anti-democratic measures just because they see them as anti-Democratic (small “d” suppressing big “D”). Most egregious are the naked and overtly racist attempts in statehouses across the nation to undermine the vote (as I wrote about last week in our Sunday essay “Jim Crow Is Not Dead”). This movement isn't about some mythic “fraud.” It’s about winning elections, even if the majority of the electorate is against you. The lawyer for Arizona Republicans admitted as much in oral arguments at the Supreme Court this week.
Expect a partisan showdown on a voting rights bill that will soon emerge in Congress. Already the Republicans are demonizing an effort to make elections more fair with the usual fear mongering and lies. To them, the sanctity of the vote only matters when it is advantageous for their hold on power.
And that brings us back to the question that inspired this essay. “Do Republicans believe in democracy?” As journalists, there are a suite of questions we must ask any of the elected officials who have either actively spread the Big Lie or refused to vocally denounce it (inaction or silence is a form of complicity). Here are a few suggestions for my peers, submitted respectfully for whatever if anything they may be worth:
Did Joe Biden win the election?
Is there widespread voter fraud? If the answer is yes, demand that they point to verifiable examples (hint: there are none)
Do you support voter suppression efforts? If they hem and haw or try to reframe it, follow up with specific remedies they are seeking to fix and examples of the problems they claim exist (hint #2: there are none)
Why are you trying to limit people’s access to the polls?
Why do your claims of voter problems often focus on Black communities and others with racial diversity?
Do you support your colleagues who spread the Big Lie?
Did President Trump foment the attack on the Capitol?
What should be done with your colleagues who egged on the mob?
Let’s be clear about something else. There is nothing in journalistic standards that says you have to give a platform for someone to spread lies, even if they are a senator or representative (or even the president). In live interviews, even if one attempts to fact-check, lies are still heard by millions of viewers. If someone is spreading the Big Lie do they deserve to be on television? We do not need to reward bad behavior with airtime. We need to cut off the oxygen to the fire before it spreads and destroys our democracy further. If there are no consequences, how will we teach that this behavior is reprehensible?
These very same senators and representatives desperately want to be treated as if none of this context matters, even as many continue to go on right-wing media platforms and undermine democracy. They believe they should be allowed to go on the Sunday talk shows and appear in newspaper profiles in ways that paint them as the “loyal opposition” to the Biden administration. They seek a framing of normalcy. But many have not earned that right.
Again, let’s be clear. This is not about going easy on the Democrats in Congress or the Biden administration. They deserve the full scrutiny of the national press. They must be forced to answer hard questions and defend inconvenient truths. This is how our constitutional system with a free press is supposed to work. The problem is that many Republicans, with their votes, their rhetoric, and their actions, are at best playing a cynical game with our democratic norms. At worst, many are actively trying to undermine them. One must conclude that they believe the reckless, authoritarian madness. For them, power and party trumps (excuse the pun) fidelity to our constitution and the democratic gears of government.
The press must get every Republican elected official on the record about the Big Lie. If a journalist’s questions are met with smaller lies, stonewalling, or obfuscations, the proper response is to ask the questions again, not drop the topic and move on. We can’t debate policy when we have politicians calling into question the underpinnings of American democracy that have girded our nation since its founding. I don’t care what some senator says about a particular nominee if that same senator is telling supporters that the election was stolen.
The role of the press in American society is to be guardians of the truth, authors of the first drafts of history, and sentinels of accountability. By those criteria, what is more important now than reckoning with the gravest internal threat to our national civic health since the Civil War? There can be no false equivalence or whataboutism. We cannot hesitate, cower, or waver. The comity that many yearn for in Washington only works in a world where fair elections aren’t questioned, where the peaceful transfer of power is a given, where voting is promoted, and where insurrections aren’t fomented. What sayest you, Republicans?
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