Power is partisan. There is no way around that. And no party is innocent of vying for power. Since the beginning of American politics parties have striven for institutional and establishment power through politicking and legislation. The current political parties, which have been the dominant parties for quite some time, are no exception to that rule. They both do what they can to maintain power.
But there is something afoot right now that I can’t not comment on. There is something that sets the two parties apart at the moment. While both parties clearly want to maintain their power, one party is resorting to wildly anti-democratic means to achieve that. While both parties want to be elected and hold sway over the electorate, one party is trying to erode the rights of the of that very electorate in order to make sure nobody can vote them out. Both parties bow to corporate and military interests, for sure. But one party is adopting the rhetoric of inclusion while one is adopting the rhetoric of exclusion.
The Republican party has become an anti-democratic, exclusionary, persecutory machine. And all in the name of power. The GOP has completely forsaken democracy.
First, there is a sustained attack on voting rights that is happening in the U.S. that is threatening the very heart of American democracy.
In the last presidential election we had the highest voter turnout since 1900. Mail-in voting and absentee voting had been expanded because of the pandemic which led to the best voter participation in over a century. Seventy-three percent of the electorate cast their ballot before election day. One would think this would be a great sign for democracy. But the result has been disastrous. Republicans, and let’s be clear this is a partisan attack, have made moves since then to so restrict the vote in 43 states that many are calling this Jim Crow 2.0. Add to that the opportunity for redistricting that lawmakers have, and we could be looking at the kind of voter suppression we saw before the Voting Rights Act (which the Roberts court notably gutted), and a judiciary that does not seem at all interested in doing anything about it. It could be the most sweeping restriction of voting rights since the Reconstruction.
We are talking about measures like allowing unlimited challenges to a voter’s qualifications, which has historically been used to target Black voters. Republicans have proposed more stringent ID requirements, especially for mail-in ballots, which target the poor, minorities, and the elderly who face more challenges getting ID. There were efforts to do away with policies that allow voters to permanently sign up for mail-in ballots. Florida Republicans proposed banning absentee ballot drop boxes. In Iowa the GOP passed laws to close polls earlier and shortened the voting period by nine days.
One of the things that is most shocking about this attempt at restricting voting is the honesty and brazenness of the Republicans. While some are hiding behind “election security” rhetoric, there are those who are being completely transparent about their reasoning. John Kavanaugh, a member of the Arizona state legislature, flat out said that everybody should not be voting and that we had to consider the “quality” of the vote over the “quantity.” Donald Trump said if you make it easier to vote you’d never have a Republican elected again. Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the Arizona GOP, said lifting voting restrictions put Republicans at a competitive disadvantage.
The truth is, Republicans have reason to worry about losing power with increased access to voting. Republicans have won one, just one, popular vote in the presidential election since 1988. They do better at the local level because they can depend on rural votes, but the truth is, Republican policies aren’t that popular outside of sparsely populated areas. And as the Boomer population ages out, they are not exactly picking up a lot of voters in younger demographics. Republican policies just don’t appeal to a lot of voters. But instead of re-assessing their policies, what they have decided to do is restrict voting.
These restrictions are not about fortifying election security. They are about protecting Republican power. And they are about eroding the right to vote, especially for those who are already marginalized or disenfranchised.
If we are going to call ourselves a democracy, and let’s face it, our hold on that term grows more and more tenuous by the day, then the right to vote has to be one of the most sacred rights there is. That’s the whole point of a democracy. The people choose. When the people are specifically cut out of that choosing process, you don’t have a democracy – you might call it an oligarchy or an aristocracy, maybe a kakistocracy, but it’s not a democracy.
Congressional Democrats are trying to counter these Republican moves by pushing a sweeping proposal that would override these Republican measures. This is a distinctly partisan issue. It’s the GOP who wants to restrict the vote. Republicans are trying to subvert democracy, and they aren’t being quiet about it.
Secondly, there is the attack on education that Republicans are engaged in right now. Some people are trying to frame this as an attack on free speech, but the truth is, K-12 teachers have never enjoyed the kind of academic freedom to teach what they feel is appropriate that university teachers have. There has always been an element of control over K-12 curriculum, so that is not new. But what is going on now is a concertedly political effort to control what kids know in an effort to enshrine power in particular hands. Republicans are making explicit efforts to center whiteness in American education, which is very much about maintaining their power.
Lawmakers across the country this year have put forth efforts to stop lessons that focus on the centrality of slavery in the United States. They have also specifically targeted the award-winning 1619 Project for censorship, attempting to cut funding to schools who teach lessons based on that project.
Many historians say the bills are part of a larger effort by Republicans to glorify a white and patriarchal view of America that downplays the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black people, Native Americans, women and others to the nation’s history.
Some Republicans have also proposed spending money on patriotic curriculum, that teaches that the US is the most special nation in the world. As Barbara Rodriguez observes, “Trump also tried to push “patriotic” education, creating a 1776 Commission that released a report on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that was criticized for its inaccuracies and erasure of Black people, Native Americans and women and was quickly taken down by President Joe Biden after he took office.”
Texas is in the process of passing a bill limiting how race and racism can be taught in public schools. Basically, teachers aren’t allowed to say anything that makes students feel uncomfortable – if you can imagine a more vague guideline, please let me know. The legislation seeks to ban any instruction that teaches America is inherently racist and requires schools to teach the founding principles which have made America so very special.
We’ve talked in the past about whiteness and education. It’s not an accident. It’s not “objective.” As we have noted before, Whiteness is an assumed part of our education. Our entire system is predicated on that. We teach whiteness from the moment our students enter into their first days of pre-k and kindergarten all the way through upper education. That’s why people freak out about diversity credits. Because they run counter to the hidden curriculum.
And that hidden curriculum has done a great job of supporting the powers that be for generations. People who benefit from whiteness benefit from a system that teaches whiteness. They support each other.
So it makes sense that people who benefit from empowered whiteness, which let’s face it, is all white people, might be frightened by programs that teach something other than that program of whiteness. Education is, and has always been, designed to support whiteness. And systems of gender and class. And these systems create hierarchies in politics, in business, in the home, and in culture that set up boundaries for anybody who isn’t white (or otherwise buoyed by the educational ideological system). So for some people these diversity programs seem legitimately dangerous. They threaten a way of thinking. A way of life. A way of seeing and operating in the world. They threaten the structures that have kept them safe and empowered for years.
Hence these sustained attacks on classes that address gender, race, and class. When you start to look at gender, race, and class from multiple perspectives suddenly the structures and the patterns we have embraced for years look very different. It’s not just that this isn’t the only way to see the world, it’s that this is an oppressive way to live. And we’ve been taught that it is the only way to live.
Republicans are invested in keeping this system operational. Republicans thrive on Whiteness, masculinity, and the status quo. They are fighting to have this taught in schools because they need that to maintain their political power. If young voters are taught to think critically about race then Republican policies seem antiquated at best, racist at worst.
While it is not as immediately clear, these laws are just as much an attack on democracy as the voting bills. Democracy is dependent on the people’s voice. But who are the people? Are “the people” everyone? The Civil Rights Movement shoved the democratic needle for America. We literally became a more democratic place. And there has been a lot of kicking and screaming as we were dragged further in that direction since. But to be democratic means to be equal and participatory. It means to be inclusive. One of the ways we do that is to understand our history and the way race plays a part in that. We can’t be democratic if we are enforcing Whiteness. Enforcing Whiteness is an anti-democratic move designed to disenfranchise people. This legislation may not be obviously anti-democratic like voter suppression, but it is anti-democratic in that it suppresses people. And what is a democracy without its people?
Finally, we have to consider the abortion bills that are making their way through legislative houses across the country at this time.
In the past I have shared that abortion is a complicated issue for me. I’m not as avidly pro-choice as many as my friends and colleagues. But even somebody who is hesitant on the issue can recognize this spate of bills as bad, harmful, misogynist bills.
There have been a flurry of “heartbeat bills” proposed in recent months, but the one that is most problematic, is the one that has come out of Texas.
The Texas law is a “heartbeat law” which bans abortion six weeks after conception. There are no exceptions for incest or rape. As Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, explains “When you factor in the time it takes to confirm a pregnancy, consider your options and make a decision, schedule an appointment and comply with all the restrictions politicians have already put in place for patients and providers, a six-week ban essentially bans abortion outright.”
As Shannon Najmabadi explains, there is more to this bill than just the ban that makes is perfidious.
Instead of having the government enforce the law, the bill turns the reins over to private citizens — who are newly empowered to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The person would not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or to a provider to sue.
So anyone connected to the abortion could be sued. If you gave a person a ride to a Planned Parenthood, you could be sued. If you were a receptionist at an abortion provider, you could be sued. And anybody in the state could sue you. So all an activist would have to do is stake out abortion clinics, as they already do, invade a little privacy, as they already do, and they can start suing anyone and everyone who is anywhere near these services.
Najmabadi further explains,
Proponents of the new law hope to get around the legal challenges that have tied up abortion restrictions in the courts. While abortion providers typically sue the state to stop a restrictive abortion law from taking effect, there’s no state official enforcing Senate Bill 8 — so there’s no one to sue.
Abortion is clearly a fraught topic. And I admit it is complex. But infertility clinics house and/or dispose of way more fertilized eggs than abortion clinics ever will, and you don’t see protesters outside of those. And nobody seems interested in the men in these situations. These women aren’t magically pregnant. There was a man involved along the lines, but none of these bills ever talk about punishing them. It’s really hard not to see these as a means to punish and control women, regardless of the high-minded rhetoric about life. Because if it were about life there would be a very different approach to these things. And that’s not even getting into the arguments about what it really means to value life in policy at large.
Listen, I am all for preserving life. It’s really one of my chief aims. I’m weird like that. But the goal of these restrictive abortion bills seems to be to punish women for being women. And that, too, is anti-democratic. The abortion bills disenfranchise women simply because they are women. They seek to control women and women’s lives, and not just their medical choices, but their lifestyle choices. This isn’t just about whether a woman should be allowed to have an abortion, this is about whether a woman should be allowed to have sex. This is very much about punishment for daring to not be a virgin. When we say this is about controlling women’s bodies, it’s not just about their reproductive systems – these bills are trying to control women’s sexual agency. That’s not how democracy works. Democracy is about people living their lives, with full agency, being able to speak for themselves and make their own choices. These bills are all about stripping women of the ability to do those things.
All of this is on top of Trump’s, and the extended Right’s, repeated attack’s on the press of the last few years. The Trump administration created a particularly divisive relationship with the press, going so far as to create its own “Fake News Awards” (published on the Republican GOP website on January 17, 2018) singling out reporters and media groups it felt were particularly harsh toward the President. Trump’s repeated attacks on the New York Times, for example, indicated a tendency to lash out at specific news outlets. He called the New York Times “fake news” and referred to it as a “failing” newspaper, even though subscriptions rose by an enormous margin. On June 13, 2018, Donald Trump tweeted that America’s biggest enemy is the media. He moved beyond calling reporters fake or liars to calling those who report on him more dangerous than MS-13 or ISIS.
In Trump’s first press event as president, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, used the opportunity to tell the press what they should be covering and repeatedly accused them of dishonesty and poor judgment. Trump and his then-adviser Steve Bannon have called the press the “opposition party” and described their relationship to the press in particularly divisive ways. This was particularly troubling when considered with the fact that Trump had specifically called for reporters to be fired for their coverage of his rallies and the Michael Flynn controversy, and Kellyanne Conway had asked for journalists who covered Trump negatively to be terminated.
The Right’s attack on the press is a fundamental attack on liberty. A free press is essential to a functioning democracy. The press has a specific role to play in the liberal tradition. It is tasked to both share information and be a check on the power of the government. In New York Times Co. v U.S. (1971), or the Pentagon Papers case, Hugo Black opined that “the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors…. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” In other words, the press has a democratic duty to criticize or censure the government or figures within the government, and it must remain free to do so. Both the NYT v. US and NYT v. Sullivan cases were essential in edifying that duty and that right. Media ethicists argue that the public has a right to know what the government is doing and that it is the press’s job to report on that. The press has both a right and a duty to freely print news as a part of a participatory society.
For more on Trump and the press, see my paper “Trump, Nixon, and the War on the Press,” at Communication Law Review.
As I said earlier, power is partisan. The Democrats are guilty of playing political games to maintain their power. That is certain. The Democrats are guilty of bowing to corporate and military interests. They are completely beholden to neo-liberal powers. I’m not saying they are great.
But what I am saying is that the right has set out on an anti-democracy campaign that is dangerous and cannot be ignored. They are attempting to subvert democracy and democratic norms, and in this case the partisan nature of it can’t be ignored.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.