With a majority of House Republicans and a chunk of Senate Republicans vowing to raise objections to Electoral College certification on Wednesday, many people at home and abroad are bemoaning the fragile state of American democracy. “I weep for my country. That’s how worried I am,” said St. Joseph’s University history professor Randall Miller. Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House finds it “worrying” that “significant Republican players believe that it will do them good to … raise doubts in people’s minds about your own democracy.” If a sitting president and many members of his party can’t accept the results of a free and fair election, how can democracy sustain?
Simple. With those who can.
So long as Trumpism remains the driving force in the Republican Party, the only hope for functional government is a divided Republican Party. If the Electoral College certification process divides the Republican Party still further, good. We need to separate the constitutional from the unconstitutional, the rational from the irrational.
Even if about a dozen Senate Republicans dishonestly try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidential election, the important thing is that a majority will not. As much as Democrats are scarred by years of obstructionism, the recent pandemic relief bill is a reminder that some Republicans—even Mitch McConnell—can negotiate in good faith. As disturbing as it is that 53 percent of Republican voters, according to a Morning Consult poll, want Congress to object to the certification, it is relevant that 31 percent of Republican voters do not.
Many mistrustful Democrats are understandably not inclined to make distinctions between Republicans. After all, Republicans backed Trump’s agenda and blocked Barack Obama’s. They are all complicit in the rightward lurch of the Supreme Court, beginning with the contemptible blockage of the Merrick Garland nomination and the 11th-hour confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. Why applaud those Republicans just for not cosplaying as fascists??
The problem with that they-all-stink approach is it deepens the polarization and limits Democratic horizons. If each party paints the other with the broadest of brushes the political risk for crossing the aisle increases. And the ability to neutralize extremist anti-democratic elements diminishes.
It’s long been tempting for party leaders to lump opponents into a basket of deplorables. In the 19th century run-up to the Jacksonian Era’s two-party system, newspaper editors aligned with Martin Van Buren’s New York machine (which would scale up to create the Democratic Party) explained that a party is “most in jeopardy when an opposition is not sufficiently defined.” The Albany partisans also recognized that in those days Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists, “each found in the strength of the other a powerful motive of union and vigor.”
Yes, partisan politics is healthy; Van Buren’s great insight was recognizing that the one-party rule during James Monroe’s “Era of Good Feelings” left voters without clear choices. But there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Democrats should want to see Republicans divided and ill-defined. Democratic strength must come from more than reflexive partisanship, but also effective governance. Democrats are too ideologically diverse, and congressional margins too narrow, to govern on their own. They need help from at least some Republicans.
Hopes for functional government got a big boost with the apparent Senate wins by Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. Beyond giving Democrats control of the Senate, the upsets will divide Republicans along rational and irrational lines. Without Loeffler, at least, there’s one less Republican willing to reject the results of a democratic election.
After the November results, which saw Republicans lose the presidency but pick up House seats, several GOP officials claimed the party needed no changes. “Our president absolutely grew our party,” said the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, “we just need to continue to remain on the course.” But after Georgia, where the Republican Senate incumbents clung to Trump, such happy talk has been rendered ridiculous. Politico quoted one anonymous Republican strategist concluding, “Trump is the cause of this, lock, stock and barrel. But when you’re relying on someone to win you a Senate race that also lost statewide eight weeks prior, you’re not in a position of strength.”
Rationality is necessary for successful negotiations. Why did Mitch McConnell, someone so comfortable with obstruction, work with Democrats on pandemic relief? Because McConnell discerned that after a group of Republicans struck a deal with moderate Democrats, and the Democratic House and Senate leaders came on board, and the unemployed were about to have benefits cut off before Christmas, and two Senate seats determining control of his chamber were on the line, that the political cost of single-handedly obstructing the deal was prohibitively high. He is a rational actor capable of clear-eyed calculation, even if he miscalculated at the end by not endorsing and fast-tracking the $2000-per-person stimulus embraced by Democrats and many Republicans.
Of course, not everybody who votes to certify the Electoral College results is a born-again rational moderate. Sen. Tom Cotton and seven House Republicans have said they will certify in part to prevent setting a precedent that would allow Democrats to overturn the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote winner. The House statement rationale was strikingly candid:
“From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes … we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.”
This logic is disturbingly accepting of the Republicans’ difficulty to win a national popular vote. It presumes Democrats harbor the same disregard for the Constitution as Trump. So the Electoral College certification process will not perfectly sort the Republican Party between those capable of governing and those determined to undermine our democratic institutions.
Still, Democrats should not dismiss the divisions as meaningless. Republicans are not of one mind about Trump and Trumpism, both inside and outside Washington. The task before Democrats is to constructively exploit Republican divisions, so legislation can reach President Biden’s desk. That requires getting out of the habit of reflexively treating Republicans as monolithically toxic. Acknowledging those Republicans who clear the, however low, constitutional bar of certifying the Electoral College results is a start.