Themes of 2013: Minority Rule

It’s hard to remember now how 2013 began: with the Republicans (having believed their own skewed-polls rhetoric) in shock at having lost the 2012 presidential election by five million votes, and having lost even the aggregate House of Representative tally by 1.3 million (even if gerrymandering gave them a majority of seats). But … but … but … the deficit … unemployment … Benghazi … Obama is the worst president ever … real Americans are conservatives …

How could it have happened?

Demographics. The closer they looked at the exit polls, the worse it got. Sure, Obama got 93% of the black vote; everybody expected that. But also 71% of Latinos and 72% of Asians. (Asians? Aren’t they supposed to be the model minority? Don’t they have more makers than takers? How could they side with the Kenyan usurper?) 60% of 20-somethings and 55% of 30-somethings. 70% of folks who list their religion as “none”.

All those groups are growing. The groups that kept the election from being a complete blow-out are the ones that seem to be shuffling off center stage: Over-65s went for Romney 56%-44%. White men voted Republican 62%-35%. (In Teddy Roosevelt’s day, white men were the electorate. How can you get 62% of white men and lose?)

So 2012 wasn’t just a loss for Republicans, it was a loss that augured bigger losses in the future. All the predictions Jonathan Chait had made the previous February in “2012 or Never” seemed to be coming true, and it was looking like Never. As the balls fell and the corks popped to welcome 2013, Republicans were asking: What do we have to do to become the majority again?

Change? Some answers seemed obvious. (The best collection of these answers was put together by College Republicans.) Stop talking about Hispanic immigration as if it were the barbarian invasion of Rome. Tone down the anti-gay rhetoric (not because the gay vote is so pivotal, but because homophobic hate-mongering turns off young straights). Stop pandering to the radical fringe on abortion and other social issues. Come up with competing conservative answers to questions that loom ever larger to middle-class Americans: Where are the jobs going to come from? How are the kids going to pay for college? What will happen to me and my family if I get sick?

The new year brought an obvious issue to focus on first: gun violence. (The first Sift of 2013 started: “This week everybody was talking about guns again.”) Sandy Hook was still fresh when the new Congress was sworn in, and (unlike the response to previous mass shootings), the furor didn’t seem to be dying down.

By wide margins, the public supported universal background checks for gun buyers, re-instituting the assault-weapon ban that President Bush let lapse, and banning the high-capacity magazines that had played such a key role in the Tucson shooting. For a time, some kind of bipartisan gun bill looked to be a no-brainer.
Then we saw the pattern that would repeat itself again and again all year: Some well-funded extremist group (in this case the NRA) rallied the conservative base with scare tactics (Obama was planning to confiscate guns by executive order!), threatened primary challenges against wavering Republicans, and whipped the Republican leadership into line.

In the end, a Republican-led filibuster blocked even a weak-tea gun bill that 54 senators supported.

Something similar happened to immigration reform: In this case a bipartisan bill made it through the Senate only to be refused a vote by the Republican House leadership, which offered no alternative.

Take that, Hispanics! Screw you and your fastest-growing-voter-bloc BS. Think we care? Think again!

Ditto for women, who are already a voting majority. Again and again, Republicans pandered to the an extreme anti-abortion or anti-birth-control minority with the most outrageous proposals and rhetoric. The most extreme recent example is Michigan’s “rape insurance” law, which won’t allow insurance companies to cover abortion (even in cases of rape) in any general-purpose health plan. Unless you planned on being raped and paid in advance for a special abortion rider on your healthcare policy, you’re out of luck.

Did anybody notice a post-2012 let-up in Republican anti-gay rhetoric or an olive branch to people who don’t go to church? Or a Republican jobs plan? Or any healthcare plan beyond “repeal ObamaCare”? Nope.

In the fall, poll after poll showed large majorities against a government shutdown or a threat to the debt ceiling. Did that matter? No.

This isn’t how we’re used to seeing political parties behave. So what’s going on here? How do Republicans plan to persuade a majority of Americans to support them?

It’s simple: They don’t.

Minority rule. That is the single biggest development of 2013: Republicans have given up on the idea of persuading a majority to agree with them. Instead, conservatives plan to rule from the minority.

In the old days that might have meant a military coup or something, but modern minority-rule techniques are much more imaginative. The strategy is simple: take advantage of all the hurdles that exist between the will of the majority and the enforcement of a law. If you can knock that majority down just a little at each stage, what looked like a tidal wave can become just a little ripple.

Defense in depth. Consider all of the structural things Republicans have been pushing. Stop looking at them one-by-one and think about them as a system.

  • Voter suppression. You don’t have to ban people from voting, just make it difficult. Limit the days and hours and number of voting machines so that you create long lines. Find excuses to remove legitimate voters from the roles. Require IDs they don’t have, and don’t accept the IDs they do have. Change the rules late in the game. Plenty of determined people will manage to vote anyway, but all you’re trying to do is knock the numbers down.
  • Unlimited money. You don’t have to buy elections outright, you just want to control them a little. With unlimited money, you can keep incumbents in line by threatening a primary challenge based on fringe issues. You can eliminate the need for volunteers by hiring professionals. You can keep candidates in the race longer or knock them out earlier. You can create issues out of nothing, de-legitimize real issues, or just confuse the voters. You can make the campaign obnoxious and ugly, so that voters don’t want to participate.
  • Gerrymandering. If you concentrate the other party’s voters in a few districts, you can give your party an advantage in a majority of districts, even if you have fewer voters. The paradigm here is Pennsylvania, where a slim Democratic voting majority led to a 13-5 Republican advantage in members of Congress. The Senate itself is a form of gerrymandering: It took 7.7 million Democratic votes to elect Dianne Feinstein to the Senate, but only 102 thousand votes put Republican Lisa Murkowski in. Their Senate votes count the same. (The conservative pipe dream of repealing the 17th Amendment would make this situation worse.)
  • Shadow government. You may think your state laws come from the legislators you elected. Wrong! If your legislature has a Republican majority, chances are your state laws are being written by the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), a national pseudo-legislature whose controlling members are corporations rather than people.
  • Emergency managers. Here’s a neat trick: Cut state aid to cities and their school districts, then when they get into financial trouble replace their elected governments with “emergency managers“, i.e., dictators appointed by the governor, who can void union contracts and refuse to fund pensions already earned. More than half of the black citizens of Michigan have lost their right to local government. If the voters don’t like it and vote for repeal, pass the law again and make it referendum-proof. Think that can’t happen in your state or your town? Why not?
  • The Hastert Rule. Immigration reform is one of a number of ideas that are believed to be supported by a majority of House members, but never come up for a vote. Shutting down the government, on the other hand, had only minority support, but it happened. How does that work? The House operates by the majority-of-the-majority principle, a.k.a. the Hastert Rule. Speaker Boehner won’t bring bills up for a vote unless a majority of the House Republican caucus supports them. So instead of needing 218 votes (a majority) to block something, you can do it with only 117 (a majority of the 233-member Republican majority). The logic of primary challenges is similar: It doesn’t matter what the majority of voters in a Republican congressman’s district think, if a majority-of-the-majority (i.e., a majority of voters in his Republican primary) want to throw him out.
  • The filibuster. In the Senate, 41 votes can block legislation. Until recently, 41 votes could also block presidential appointments, which Republicans were using to prevent President Obama from altering the current conservative bias in the judiciary. So the senators representing the 21 smallest states — total population 35.4 million, or about 11% of the country — can block any law.
  • Hostage-taking. Sure a minority can block things, but how can they pass laws of their own? Simple: take hostages. That’s what the 2013 government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis was about. An extremist minority could block the government from taking necessary actions, and what it wanted in return for not burning down the house was to repeal ObamaCare. Ordinarily that would take a majority, but not if you have a gun to the economy’s head.
  • Nullification. A similar tactic was implicit in a new use of the filibuster to nullify existing laws. Refuse to approve anybody to certain enforcement positions. So, you would need a majority to scrap all the nation’s labor laws, but they can’t be enforced if the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t have a quorum, and you can block appointments via the filibuster. Voila! No labor laws! (Nullification is what caused Democrats to eliminate the filibuster on presidential appointments.)
  • Judicial activism. Even if a law makes it past all those hurdles, it just takes five Supreme Court justices to declare it unconstitutional. The integrity of the system depends on judges not abusing their power, but sometimes they do. During the Warren Court of the 1960s, judicial activism was a liberal thing. That’s ancient history now, as we saw most clearly in the ObamaCare decision. At the time the Affordable Care Act was passed, there was no legal precedent to justify invalidating it, and few legal analysts were concerned about the possibility. (Salon’s Andrew Koppelman: “The constitutional limits that the bill supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written.”) But in a matter of months, a new interpretation of the Commerce Clause was invented and gained the support of the Court’s five conservative justices. (Justice Roberts narrowly saved the law by re-interpreting the individual mandate as a tax rather than a penalty, but the new narrowing of the Commerce Clause stands and could skewer any number of government programs in the future.) Conservative judicial activism has been key in the whole minority-rule enterprise, by unleashing the unlimited money and opening the door to voter suppression, which red states have been happy to walk through.

Across the board, Republicans are defending and in some cases sharpening the tools of minority rule. So if they annoy a majority of Americans with their extremist agenda, who cares? Democrats would need a really large majority, say 5-7%, just to overcome gerrymandering and get even in the House, not to mention getting 60 votes in the Senate. And even then, unlimited money can usually buy a handful of Democrats with a local special interest, and the Supreme Court can invent new kinds of “religious freedom” or “corporate rights” to keep any real change from happening.

The long term threat. In the long run, a dedicated majority can get its way. If Democrats can win the state legislatures in 2020, they can de-gerrymander both the congressional districts and the legislative districts within the states. If Democrats can hold the presidency long enough, they can end conservative judicial activism. Then, if that same dedicated majority will keep those Democrats honest, there’s a chance America can start controlling money in politics and make progress towards real democracy that serves the public interest.

But that’s the question: Will a majority stay dedicated, through years of watching politics amount to nothing? Those young people who believed Candidate Obama when he said, “Yes we can” — what will become of them? What if they conclude “No we can’t” and just stop bothering?

That’s the ultimate goal of minority rule: a discouraged majority that stops looking to political action as a way to solve its problems.

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