What Tom Cotton’s Racist Speech Against D.C. Statehood Says About the GOP

They know the only way they can sustain power is to give up on democracy.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has made it abundantly clear that he wants to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Recently, he managed to get his name in the news when his call to use the 101st Airborne Division against protesters turned into an op-ed in the New York Times.

In response to the House vote on granting statehood to Washington, D.C., Cotton also garnered some attention by taking to the floor of the Senate to make an argument against doing so. His speech lasted for almost 20 minutes and basically came down to one long dog whistle about denying the right to representation to the 60 percent of voters of color who make up the city’s population. But there were a couple of specific references that caught my attention.

Over the last few years it has become obvious that, as the GOP becomes a minority party, they have increasingly taken issue with the very notion of democracy. As Zachary Roth put it, Republicans have decided that “being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.” Along those lines, one of Cotton’s arguments was that we can’t trust the voters of D.C. to chose their own representatives. Assuming the answer would be “no,” Cotton asked, ““Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor? Would you trust Marion Barry?”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember seeing anything in our Constitution (as amended) where Republicans get to decide which voters can be trusted and which cannot. If we want to go there, Jonathan Chait has a question for the Senator.

One might ask why we would trust the people of Arkansas with full statehood when they elected a senator so panicky about demonstrations against the murder of a black man that he hysterically called for troops to be brought into the streets. One might also wonder why Cotton is so entrusting of Donald Trump, given … well, everything Trump has done.

The other part of Cotton’s speech that caught my eye was his pearl-clutching about how the only reason Democrats want to grant statehood to D.C. is because they want two more Senators from their party in perpetuity. My response was to question why Cotton assumed that D.C. residents would never vote for Republicans. I was reminded of the fact that when Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood in 1959, it was assumed that the former would vote for Democrats and the latter for Republicans. In other words, things change.

But Cotton also doesn’t want you to know how Republicans gerrymandered the Senate back in the late 1800s for their own partisan advantage.

Two days before the lame-duck President James Buchanan left office, he signed legislation carving off part of Utah Territory, which stretched across most of modern-day Nevada, about a third of Colorado and some of Wyoming, to form part of what we now know as Nevada. Congress would soon pass two more bills expanding Nevada at Utah’s expense.

This largely forgotten act of line-drawing enabled one of the most consequential gerrymanders in American history. Because the virtually unpopulated Nevada became its own territory, Republicans could admit it as a state just four years later. That gave the Party of Lincoln two extra seats in the Senate — helping prevent Democrats from simultaneously controlling the White House and both houses of Congress until 1893…

[T]he reason why there are two Dakotas — despite the fact that both states are so underpopulated that they each only rate a single member of the House of Representatives to this day — is because Republicans won the 1888 election and decided to celebrate by giving themselves four senators instead of just two.

Going forward, there is another fact that Cotton doesn’t want you to know.

By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis of Census population projections, about half of the country will live in just eight states — which means 16 senators for one half of America and 84 for the other half.

Granting statehood to Washington, D.C., home to roughly the same number of people as North Dakota, would be a very small step in reducing that disparity.

The Senator from Arkansas once again affirms the challenge facing Republicans and the lengths to which they will go to avoid it. By doing everything in their power over the last two decades to make their party white, the GOP has doomed itself to minority status in a pluralistic America. To maintain power, they now must either change or throw all of our democratic ideals overboard. Cotton simply affirms that they’ve chosen the latter.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.