Seeing Double: A Legitimate Political Party

The GOP: Increasingly Illegitimate Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22

When Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt searched through history to distinguish failed democracies from those like the United States, they found a crucial factor that prevented backsliding: strong political norms. Their book, “How Democracies Die,” starts with the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, the United States’ first political parties. In 1798, the Federalists passed the Sedition Act to target opposition newspapers and activists. According to the professors, each side of the early political divide “aimed for permanent victory — to put the other party out of business permanently.” At that point, the newly formed United States hadn’t yet developed the political norms that would allow for effective democracy.

Since then, the U.S. has developed strong guardrails against potential violations of our norms. For example, in 1937, when President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court with loyalists in order to secure judicial support for his New Deal legislation, bipartisan opposition in Congress stopped his plan. Importantly, FDR’s scheme wasn’t unconstitutional; the Constitution doesn’t specify the court’s size. Instead, when Democrats stood up against their party leader and refused to resize the court, they were defending political norms rather than merely following the letter of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the modern Republican party hasn’t managed to do the same. After a landslide Democratic victory in 2018, the lame-duck Republican legislature in Wisconsin passed laws “aimed at undermining Democrats,” according to The New York Times. The laws limited early voting, moved important appointments from the incoming Democratic governor to the Republican legislature, blocked the governor from withdrawing from lawsuits against federal legislation and otherwise disempowered the new administration. The Republican who lost the election signed the bills some days later. When asked about the changes, the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly said, “We are going to stand like bedrock to guarantee that Wisconsin does not go back” — meaning back to Democratic control, which was affirmed in a free and fair election.

The Wisconsin Republicans followed the example of North Carolina Republicans “who took full control of the executive and legislative branches [in 2012] for the first time in more than a century, have audaciously remade rules and flouted norms,” according to the The New York Times.

That article was written in 2016, when the nonpartisan Electoral Integrity Project found North Carolina’s election integrity score to be on par with flawed pseudo-democracies such as Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Most recently, in a session held on the anniversary of 9/11, North Carolina Republicans rammed through a budget bill in a surprise vote only made possible because Democrats were absent honoring our nation’s fallen.

Federal Republicans also use destructive tactics. When Senator Mitch McConnell refused to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, he effectively packed the court for over a year. In the current Congress, he’s refused to hold debates on bills passed by the House of Representatves, including bipartisan bills instituting popular background checks on gun purchases and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. He’s bragged about being a legislative “Grim Reaper.” All of McConnell’s tricks are arguably constitutional, but they chip away at the norms that maintain our democracy.

I don’t contend that Republicans everywhere engage in such ruinous behavior: in my home state of Minnesota, both parties respect the norms guiding our democracy. Still, there’s a trend, being workshopped in the states and adopted nationally, of Republicans abusing our democracy.

Instead of vying for votes in elections, Republicans are distorting our electoral and legislative systems to cling to power. They’re demolishing the democratic process, ignoring their opponents’ right to exist and aiming for, in the words of Levitsky and Ziblatt, “permanent victory.” These norm-breaking tactics aren’t the actions of a legitimate political party. Legitimate parties are empowered by the voice of the people, not sick tricks, gaslighting and illegal campaign tactics.

Over and over, Republican politicians have proven that they’re no longer interested in being a political party. Instead, they want to be an authoritarian oligarchy, content to watch democracy crumble under the weight of their rule.

The GOP: Still Legitimate Thomas Brodey ’22

The problems pointed out by my fellow columnist (and roomate) are personal. I live in North Carolina, one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, so I’ve seen the damage caused by gerrymandering and voter suppression.

I agree that these methods and other ways of gaining electoral advantages are immoral. Yet some immoral action is not enough to strip away a party’s legitimacy. Deeming a party illegitimate suggests that the said party’s actions are so out of line as to be incompatible not just with our morality, but with our society.

Though the tactics used by the Republicans may be wrong, they are only a continuation of a long-enduring American tradition, followed by all major political parties in our history. The Lincoln administration used nepotism, political machines and bribery to achieve its goals. For 100 years after the Civil War, the Democratic party relied on voter suppression to maintain electoral control over the South.

Today, Democrats benefit from gerrymandering in states like Connecticut, Nevada and Maryland, all of which elect far higher proportions of Democrats than their statewide vote totals, according to a study by political news outlet FiveThirtyEight. Some Democrats even hope for a permanent victory against their rivals. In a recent book, leading Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg wrote triumphantly that recent Democratic efforts will cause “movement toward a new progressive era in which Democrats are hegemonic.”

If this debate were about the morality of the Republican party’s actions, all these examples would be irrelevant whataboutism. But since we’re talking about the Republican party’s right to exist in our political system, it’s worthwhile to examine the actual nature of that system.

The United State’s political order is flawed, but it has shown ability to endure despite immoral behavior. Placing the blame on a specific party is unfair and diverts energy away from solving issues holistically. Instead, we end up punishing some perpetrators while letting others go free.

In a democratic system, legitimacy is conferred by public support and consent of the governed. The reason Republicans in North Carolina were able to implement gerrymandering was because a clear majority of North Carolinians voted for Republicans in 2010, thus filling legislative committees with Republicans. That doesn’t justify the actions of the party, but it does mean that the party itself is linked to the will of a majority of North Carolinians.

Today, a sizable portion of America remains supportive of the Republican party because they feel it best represents their interests and democratic ideals. To say that the Republicans are illegimitate is to ignore the millions who support them through democracy’s strongest measure of legitimacy: the ballot box.

One might say that legitimacy has nothing to do with popular support, but that’s also incorrect. Most of FDR’s New Deal was probably unconstitutional at the time, but massive public support allowed him to push ahead and reinterpret the Constitution. In democracy, public opinion has the power to elect politicians, create laws and amend the Constitution. It seems only natural that public support would also have the power to confer legitimacy.

Gerrymandering, voter suppression and other political practices should be stopped, but the way to do that isn’t by making some universal and unilateral judgement about the Republican party’s legitimacy. The problem should be solved by using our democratic systems. Circumvent our institutions by invoking the idea of a party’s illegitimacy serves only to delegitimize our entire political system, and ignores both history and public opinion. What’s more, delegitimizing the other party comes dangerously close to endorsing a shift to a one-party system, a concept incompatible with democracy.

Only dictatorships and autocracies allow individuals and small groups to declare popular parties illegitimate. In the United States and other democratic nations, legitimacy rests on the will of the many rather than the feelings of the few.