I recently participated in a panel discussion about voting rights. At the outset, the event sponsor cautioned the speakers not to be partisan in our remarks. For the hour that followed, we struggled to abide by this request. Eventually, we began prefacing everything we said with, “I am not being partisan, but…”
Discussing the threats to democracy without reference to partisanship is like describing Jim Crow without referring to race. States are not enacting voter suppression laws in a vacuum — these laws are being enacted by Republican politicians over the objections of Democrats. The Big Lie is not spreading like a mindless virus — Republicans are intentionally spreading it to undermine confidence in elections and instigate election subversion.
Avoiding discussing partisanship leaves out the who, the what and the why of what is happening to American democracy. Without the context of partisanship, a person has no way to make sense of who is supporting voter suppression laws, what these laws are doing or why all of this is even happening. Partisanship adds the needed context.
Take, for example, one of the most cited reports about voter suppression laws. It says that “more than 425 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.” Yet, the same report also notes that “nearly 1,000 bills with expansive provisions have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.” Without further context, one would think state governments everywhere have lost their senses simultaneously trying to restrict and expand voting rights.
Now, imagine if instead, the report stated: Republicans in 49 states have introduced more than 425 bills to restrict voting access, while Democrats introduced nearly 1,000 bills to expand it. Suddenly, it all makes sense. The inclusion of partisan information makes the seemingly contradictory claims understandable and clear.
The same is true when discussing the behavior of members of Congress. In fact, if you want to know whether a politician is in favor of protecting voting rights, the single most important question to ask is about their partisanship. In Congress, when it comes to voting rights, the least supportive Democrat is more supportive than the most supportive Republican.
That is not to say that voting rights should be a partisan issue. It should not be partisan. But hopes and aspirations are not the same as descriptions of reality.
We want to divorce partisanship from voting rights and democracy because it makes the threat seem more easily solved by compromise and appeals to right and wrong. Removing partisanship from the equation allows one to believe that the problem is less entrenched, and, with simply more time and further discussion, perhaps everyone will recognize and do the right thing.
The converse is also true. By seeing elections only as political competitions with winners and losers but not a clear right and wrong, one avoids culpability for the immorality of the resulting loss of democracy. To acknowledge that the Republican Party is committed to disenfranchising voters, subverting election results and autocratic rule by the minority requires you to recognize that those who claim to support Republicans for “other reasons” are nevertheless participating in an immoral, anti-democratic act. If you then do nothing, it makes you a part of what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as “the greatest tragedy” in the last civil rights struggle —“the appalling silence of the good people.”
Failing to acknowledge the stark partisan divide over voting rights and democracy obscures the breadth of the anti-democratic wave sweeping America. When only 32% of Republicans believe voting is a fundamental right, it’s hard to argue that democracy is not a partisan issue. And when nearly the same percentage of Republicans believe that “true Americans” may need to use violence to “save” the country, it is impossible to maintain the façade that this is only a small part of the Republican Party.
There are some who argue that without two functioning parties that are committed to free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power, we cannot have a democracy. They argue that labeling Republicans as anti-democratic will entrench election subversion within the Republican Party. Essentially, they argue that forcing the debate over democracy into a partisan frame makes it harder for “reasonable” Republicans to reclaim their party because they are seen as having collaborated with Democrats.
While I agree that American democracy requires two functioning parties, it is clear that the Republican Party is not, and likely won’t be, one of them. The risk of alienating or damaging these as-yet-unidentified pro-democracy Republicans seems far more attenuated than the substantial risk we currently face by underestimating the problem and failing to deal with the threat as completely as we must.
I recently wrote that we are one, maybe two, elections away from a constitutional crisis. I did not use those words lightly or to garner a reaction. I wrote them because every indication suggests that it is true. And, I wrote them because it may soon be too late to prevent it. Within the last few days, we have read story, after story, after story about how Republicans are preparing to subvert the next elections.
In the fight for democracy, words matter. States don’t introduce legislation — politicians do. Failing to identify the partisanship of those politicians deprives the public of the single most salient point of reference in the fight for democracy. Ignoring partisanship may seem like objectivity to some, but it is really a form of gaslighting that we cannot afford.