Many people have noted that Republicans have various systematic advantages over Democrats. The most prominent example would be gerrymandering. At both the state and federal levels, in many places, Republicans can receive a minority of the overall vote and yet win the majority of elections. The electoral college is another iteration of the issue. When they were first elected, both of the last two Republican presidents lost the popular vote to Democrats. Overall, many of the pieces for extended minority rule are in place.
More pieces might come. Republicans are working tirelessly to make their systematic advantage all the more impregnable. They add citizenship questions to the census, push voter ID laws, close polling places, gut voting rights legislation (and oppose new legislation), welcome and further foreign meddling in our elections, and, if they do lose the elections they cannot gerrymander, use their remaining power to strip incoming Democrat’s of theirs.
I have listed the more concrete forms of GOP advantage. However, it is important to note more fundamental and abstract systematic advantages that Republicans have over Democrats. Not only will it help paint a fuller picture of all the damage the GOP has done—and thus make efforts to rectify it more effective—but also might engender a sliver of sympathy for the admittedly flawed Democratic party, the only currently viable bulwark against the GOP.
I will discuss three disadvantages here. A single argument progresses through all three. I have chosen and ordered them for this reason. The three must be discussed in combination. Together they show how and why GOP contempt for democracy emerges.
1. The Role of Government
Republicans have successfully branded themselves as the party of “small government” and, since ‘small’ is relative, Democrats the party of “big government.” The labels are vague and thus socially powerful. Although, on nearly any interpretation, Republicans plainly do not govern according to their slogans, there is a deeper truth about the myth.
If part of your ideology is that government is dysfunctional, ineffective, and bad, you have no incentive to make government better. Republicans have long recognized this. By labeling themselves as the critics of government, the GOP can easily supply themselves with confirmation of their own ideology. Oppose every proposed improvement because improvement challenges your ideology.
But why just be passive? You should also actively corrupt the government: sabotage programs, pile more (budget) problems onto the plates of opponents, lower all standards, and provoke more frustration among the populace. Strip the government down and sell it for personal profit. It all redounds to your benefit. If government is the problem, it is in your interest to make government as shitty as possible. When you hit the campaign trail, your talking points actually do align with reality. If the government ever appears to do something successful, it will count in favor of the broad Democratic philosophy (see 2 and 3 below for how Republicans can still take credit for successes). Fortunately, there are plethora of ways to ruin.
Only one party is left to stand up for the role of government. Democrats, by and large, want to build stuff. They are the only party of policy. Republicans want to dismantle, repeal, undo, and corrupt. No policy necessary. Hence, Republicans have a systematic ideological advantage. Destruction is far easier than construction.
2. The Value of Truth
Because Democrats care about implementing effective policy, they are required to appreciate reality. Their underlying ‘constructive’ ideology means that addressing global warming, healthcare, gun violence, and immigration involves having an accurate picture of the world. Simply put, being a successful Democrat requires knowing facts.
Republicans do not face any such requirement. It is now an undeniable fact. They face no real consequences for repeated, prolonged, and blatant lying and inaccuracy. There is no longer any expectation that GOP leaders must be reasonably informed or have the intellectual capacity to become informed.
The fact of the matter, however, is worse than a disregard for truth. The path to greater power within Republican politics is an active destruction of the concept of truth. If you are a Republican, you undermine truth to undermine public discourse itself, the very mechanism through which you could be critiqued and held accountable. It is easier to be shameless, a characteristic that undermines the socializing function of morality. Public discourse is a conversation among people who disagree on issues yet agree that a conversation built around evidence, quality argument, and truth is fundamental to a healthy politics. By tearing it down, no evidence-based argument could stem the ideological divide.
Here is where we see the Republican advantage. Public discourse is inherently collaborative and relies on a shared appreciation for truth. It thus takes only one party to destroy it. Then the party that still clings to the value of truth is at a systematic disadvantage: what the party can say is restricted by a set of facts. If it makes a mistake, it must a) transgress its own values or b) apologize and seek to improve. Both empower the other party, and the former risks destroying the value of truth entirely. But if you do not care about measuring your claims against reality, there are no restrictions. Say whatever you want. The world can be anything. In doing so, you further destroy public discourse, polarize more parts of life, and desensitize the public, making any hope of a return to truth seem foolish.
We see countless instances of the polarization of truth advantaging Republicans and disadvantaging Democrats. On the one hand, Trump can make baseless claims and then staffers will set out to find retroactive confirmation—an assault on fundamental norms of rationality. Then the news cycle registers a blip and spins on—because any criticism relies on norms of rationality. On the other hand, any prominent factual error by a Democrat gets prolonged attention, precisely because factuality is now partisan. The party, since it recognizes that it is the only game in town for valuing truth, must critique itself. This is a form of damage that is special to Democrats. Republicans revel in the confirmation that the other side is full of a) hypocrites and b) partisans who don’t, in fact, care about facts.
3. Partisan Journalism
Right wing journalism contributes to the destruction of public discourse. Here I mainly have in mind Fox News, though other outlets—like Breitbart, the Daily Caller, the Daily Wire, Info Wars, the Blaze, and NewsMax—are included.
They play on false equivalence to justify their existence. This move has a particularly nefarious effect: the outlets co-opt language of ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ for the purpose of undermining those very same values. They provide disinformation and distortion within a fabricated context of intrepid reporting. It is a brilliantly cynical moment of gaslighting. The hypocrisy is coupled with the projection of accusing legitimate news sources of bias and error.
This reality is despairing enough. But it is relevant here because right wing news in general, and Fox News in particular, wholly exists to perpetuate GOP power. The GOP destruction of truth is only effective if they collude with an ostensibly truth-telling institution in doing it. The party has a designated media outlet that will provide no meaningful check and will actively promulgate the party’s lies. At this point, as many have noticed, there is no meaningful distinction between the GOP and Fox News. The president uncritically repeats what he hears on TV, and vice versa. Both have collaborated on discouraging a critical mass of people from seeking out information from other sources.
There is no such comparable arrangement between the Democratic party and a major media outlet. The claim that there is would be false equivalence or more right wing projection.
But I don’t intend to debate the point directly. I wish instead to call attention to the fact that, by undermining the value of truth and destroying public discourse, you can make the media and the Democratic party appear to unite over their appreciation for truth. By calling the media the “enemy of the people,” when the media defends itself, it will seem partisan and, therefore, Democratic. GOP/Fox knows this and manipulates it accordingly.
Here we see the systematic advantage. If the GOP intermingles with particular media outlets, it can leverage people’s desire for partisan equivalence to depict the remaining outlets as intermingled with the Democratic party. When coupled with a devaluing of truth, the equivalence will seem plausible. This will make people distrust media as a whole and then retreat to partisan conclusions, non-responsive to facts. At that point, right wing news can says anything it wants with no shame. Any confrontation or fact check amounts to nothing more than a partisan hit. Meanwhile, the remaining news outlets are limited by their standards of factuality, carefulness, and patience. Thus, when they make mistakes, they face the choice of hypocrisy or embarrassment, both of which play into GOP hands.
We must notice another effect. Non-right wing media is often sensitive to critiques of liberal bias. So as not to give the critiques legitimacy, outlets will neglect accuracy for the appearance of objectivity. This has caused many of them, in point of fact, to cover the GOP in more positive terms than what reality would allow (see my argument). The outlets, therefore, are biased, which supplies the GOP with a twisted confirmation.
The media faces a dilemma: a) cover the GOP accurately and risk appearing wildly partisan or b) cover it inaccurately and fail the public.
Here is where the Republican advantage is most dispiriting: the only way to stand up for public discourse is to appear like a crackpot. When you find yourself blaming both sides equally (and the urge can be strong), you are in actuality grist for the mill of Republican talking points. You have chosen the wrong horn of the dilemma.
I wish I could say that the other horn is the right choice. The nature of a dilemma is that both choices are undesirable.
I see no way forward.