Defining Democracy Down

A red-tinted elelphant dragging a toppled over Statue of Liberty

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously warned of the risk to society of “defining deviancy down.” He reasoned that while there may be a limit to the level of bad behavior a society can tolerate, normalizing antisocial behavior carries its own serious consequences. Quoting Judge Edwin Torres, the senator pronounced that “A society that loses its sense of outrage is doomed to extinction.” 

The same can be said of democracies. Once citizens lose their sense of outrage, democracy is doomed. When we tolerate less free and less fair elections in order to achieve political victories, a vital part of democracy is lost for good.  When we allow our leaders to propagate lies to explain electoral outcomes, the trust required for self-government is undermined. When we excuse the inexcusable, make heroes out of cowardly actors and ignore the indefensible, we define democracy down.

In 1965, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, the most consequential piece of pro-democracy legislation in our country’s history. President Reagan called it the “crown jewel” of American democracy when it was reauthorized in 1982. In 2006, George W. Bush signed the reauthorization into law after it passed the U.S. Senate 98-0.

By 2013, the national consensus behind the Voting Rights Act was so strong that Justice Scalia lamented during oral argument that he was “fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity.” He asked, “who is going to vote against that in the future?” And, he added that “[members of Congress] are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act. Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?”

By 2021, every Republican in the U.S. House and 49 of 50 Republicans in the U.S. Senate would vote against it. As a result, the Voting Rights Act is no longer a bipartisan litmus test for supporting democracy. It is now entirely possible and indeed expected that Republicans who claim to support democracy will also oppose the Voting Rights Act. By engaging in a mass partisan movement to oppose essential federal voting rights legislation, the Republican Party unilaterally redefined what it means, or does not mean, to be pro-democracy. In a sense, Republicans made opposing voting rights legislation the political equivalent of “too big to fail.” The media was simply unwilling to declare the entire GOP in opposition to democracy. Instead, the standard for democracy was lowered to no longer require support for — of all things — voting rights.

In its place, we have created a new test for being considered anti-democratic: support for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Only those politicians who directly support the attempted coup are now considered extreme enough to be considered anti-democratic. Republicans can spread the Big Lie, express sympathy for the goals of the insurrectionists, and support removing Rep. Liz  Cheney from leadership because she wants to investigate Jan. 6, but as long as they did not directly support the insurrection itself, they can pass the test.  In short, we are defining democracy down.

A similar phenomenon has taken hold of our evaluation of the behavior of Republican election officials. Take, for example, the curious treatment of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. 

Following the November 2020 general election, the Secretary was thrust into the spotlight when President Trump attempted to subvert democracy by, among other things, asking Raffensperger to “find” votes that did not exist. When Raffensperger resisted, certified the election results and declared President Biden the winner, he was lionized and treated like a champion of democracy.

What makes this odd is that no one suggests that Raffensperger did anything exceptionally good, only that he did not do something exceptionally bad. He did not find new ways to enfranchise voters or increase participation. He did not speak out against Trump in advance of the election. Indeed, he voted for him and has said he may vote for him again in 2024. The only remarkable actions for which he was lauded are not agreeing to manufacture fake election results, violate Georgia law and arguably commit treason.

In fact, Raffensperger’s reign as secretary of state has mostly been marked by his support for Georgia’s massive voter suppression laws, long voting lines for Black voters, and dogged criticism of Stacey Abrams. Yet, in an era where we expect so little from Republican election officials, none of that matters. Raffensperger can be considered a pro-democracy figure simply by accurately certifying an election.

That is defining democracy down.

There are dozens of other, more routine examples of Republicans normalizing anti-democratic behavior and thus defining democracy down. In fact, part of the problem is that the sheer volume of examples makes the extraordinary seem ordinary. 

In Virginia, for example, the Commonwealth’s redistricting commission recently failed to produce new maps. As a result, the task now falls to the Virginia Supreme Court. When the court ordered both parties to produce lists of potential experts to help it draw the new maps, the Democrats proposed three well-known tenured professors with histories of serving in similar roles elsewhere and no direct connections to either political party. In contrast, the Republicans proposed three political operatives — none of whom with advanced degrees —currently working in Republican politics.

Though the court rejected the names offered by the Republicans and ordered the party to propose alternatives, this barely registered as the affront to democracy that it was. Instead, to the extent the media focused on it, it illustrated how cunning and ruthless Republicans were, not that they were undermining the system of fair redistricting or the operation of the judiciary.

The Republican effort to redefine democracy — to define democracy down — is not incidental to their party’s future — it is essential to its future. Republicans know that they cannot win free and fair elections where the most votes result in majority rule. It is time we stop expecting more of them, but it is also time that we stop accepting less.

Instead, those of us who care about democracy must focus on our own expectations and what we accept as normal or acceptable. We should not accept as normal a system that disenfranchises voters simply because it must do that in order to compete. We should not accept a system where simply opposing a coup is a free pass to support voter suppression. And, we should not accept a system when Republicans are expected to play by one set of rules and Democrats another. 

In short, we must demand that our leaders work to expand democracy rather than normalize its contraction. It may be uncomfortable at times to call out Republicans as anti-democratic, but that is what we must insist upon if we are not to allow our democracy to be defined down until it no longer exists.