In yet another sign of a party in crisis, in the House of Representatives, 126 Republicans, more than two thirds of the entire conference, signed an amicus brief supporting the Texas attorney general’s lawsuit to halt the seating of electors from four battleground states. That suit died as quickly as it was stitched together; at least seven members of the Supreme Court swatted it away like an annoying relative.
If you forage through the lawsuit to find even the tiniest morsel of evidence, you will starve.
But the fact that the motions were filed in the first place, and that it received such support, should make everyone of us stop and reassess the state of our political system in this moment. Why are some Republicans doing this?
The Republicans who signed on to the doomed dumb diatribe included the House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who spent a day avoiding questions about it — only to join it when it became clear that fealty to the personality cult of President Donald Trump once again took precedence over common sense in his party.
If you forage through the lawsuit to find even the tiniest morsel of evidence, you will starve. The suit failed; the Electoral College will seat a slate for President-elect Biden, and Biden will be inaugurated Jan. 20.
It’s frustrating for worried Americans to read things about how Republicans have become anti-democracy; Republicans are vitiating norms; the efforts to keep them in line won’t work. I assure you, it also frustrates to write them. Statements like these are more often than not followed by common-sense questions like: Why does this keep happening? Why are Republicans waging a war on democracy allowed to get away with it? Why aren’t they facing consequences?
There are no incentives, at the federal or local level, for Republicans who want power to act any differently.
The answer is obvious, but not simple: There are no incentives, at the federal or local level, for Republicans who want power to act any differently. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann noticed back in 2006 that House Republicans lacked “institutional patriotism” — that is, a sense that their own work as lawmakers contributed meaningfully to democracy as a collective; they had been gerrymandered into office and the only significant political pressure they faced was a risk that they would be shamed for not betting on the hot horse of the moment, which was inevitably a divisive cultural issue. Since they faced no competition in elections, they were completely insulated from the consequence of their actions.
The decline of local news, as an industry, and as a check and balance, has played a role here. There are far fewer political reporters around to keep up with congressional shenanigans. And because of the stranglehold that the perception of political bias has on editorial decisions, egregiously undemocratic actions aren’t covered close to the point of representation.
On Dec. 11, the Orlando Sentinel apologized to its readers for endorsing Michael Waltz’s congressional bid after he endorsed the short-lived Texas bid, on the grounds that his indifference to the good amounted to a “cowardly betrayal of American ideals.” Waltz’s Democratic opponent, the Sentinel had earlier written, was “dismal.” In addition, “We were impressed this year, as we were in 2018, with Waltz’s seeming pragmatism, though less impressed with his willingness to crash a congressional hearing during Trump’s impeachment proceedings.”
Well; give a congressman a dumb political stunt, take a congressman who does dumb political stunts. But the Sentinel’s retraction is remarkable. And to the extent that local news editors, producers and reporters care about the people they serve, it can be a lesson.
The lesson is that subverting democracy is really dangerous. These members — all 126 of them — should be asked, as often as possible, why they participated. Why did they consent to throw out tens of millions of votes? Why did they think that aligning with Trump was a better move than choosing to nobly accept his loss and move on? There should be no coverage of their earmarks, or their constituent work, or their local bridge-building, until they are all harassed by reporters and pressure groups about their decision.
Changing the incentives is not going to come from the top. (I don’t know what to make of Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell’s petition to not seat any of the Republicans who signed on to the letter — Congress has rules against sedition — but I admire his moral clarity.)
Another source of pressure can and should come from brave Republicans. RightWisconsin, a conservative website, served as an example of this when it issued a correction Dec. 11 for an early 2020 endorsement of Rep. Tom Tiffany:
“In the endorsement editorial, editor James Wigderson described Tiffany as a ‘solid conservative legislator’ and ‘a candidate whom they know will fight for conservative principles in Washington.’” the group stated on its website. “Tiffany was also described as ‘the only candidate deserving of Republican votes in the February 18 GOP primary.’ It’s clear from the evidence Tiffany is not ‘a solid conservative legislator’ and ‘a candidate whom they know will fight for conservative principles in Washington.’ As for being ‘the only candidate deserving of Republican votes in the February 18 GOP primary,’ apparently the 1980s teenage singer Tiffany Darwish was the Tiffany that was meant.”
How does a party in thrall to a cult of personality clear its conscience? Slowly.