How best to end “Electoral McCarthyism”?

As regular ELB readers know, I’ve characterized the problem of Trump’s “Big Lie” about a “stolen” 2020 election as an electoral version of the kind of “paranoid” strain of American politics that Hofstadter classified the Red Scare version of McCarthyism to be. Based on the research I did for Ballot Battles, I’m not aware of a historical example (prior to 2020) in which a serious dispute over counting votes was accompanied by the kind of blatant falsification of reality that is the mark of McCarthyism-style demagoguery. Not even the Hayes-Tilden dispute, in my judgment, was of that nature. The combination of McCarthyism-like fabrication of an evidence-free alternative reality with fighting over the results of high-stakes elections (like the presidency or California’s governorship) strikes me as an especially dangerous, and difficult, challenge for the ongoing operation of representative democracy.

Consequently, in the wake of new stories over the weekend on the increasing rise and spread of this kind of electoral McCarthyism, I continue to ponder what might be the most effective remedy for this pernicious development. I’m inclined to think that more attention should be devoted to measures that might help to increase trust among those predisposed to distrust election outcomes, rather than risking reforms that in other contexts might be desirable but under current conditions potentially could fuel the flames of distrust and make the pathology of electoral McCarthyism even worse. In essence, if Democrats were to impose unilaterally even a revised version of HR1/S1 over the unified opposition of Republicans (including those pro-democracy Republicans like Liz Cheney), wouldn’t that increase the likelihood in 2022 and 2024 of Republicans disgruntled with election objects simply saying in essence, “How can you trust the results of elections that were conducted under laws that the other party imposed on us over our unified objection?” Might it not be a smarter strategy to let Republicans write the rules for upcoming elections (as long as they remain within the realm of adequacy in terms of casting and counting votes), and then be able to say to them after they have lost, “Hey, we conducted the process exactly how you wanted it; what possibly gives you a basis for complaining with the result just because you lost?”

To be sure, there is a floor below which it would be unreasonable for Democrats to go. There are minimal conditions necessary for an election to qualify as being small-d democratic. But what of all the “voter suppression” measures that Republicans regrettably have undertaken in the grips of the current electoral McCarthyism actually take us below the floor of the democratic minimum? And how will attacking one of the two major political parties in the nation, currently gripped with this paranoia of Electoral McCarthyism, cure it–and the nation–of this pathology?

In this regard, I had a mixed reaction to E.J. Dionne’s new column. He contends that because of the recent Republican “voter suppression” laws, unless Congress nullifies them through new voting rights legislation, this congressional inaction will leave, “to evoke Abraham Lincoln’s declaration on slavery, a nation half-democratic and half undemocratic.” If this is true, it would of course be necessary to agree with him that Congress must not let this happen. But is his premise correct?

To be sure, before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it would have been accurate–shamefully so–to describe the nation as “half democratic and half undemocratic”. One of the lessons I learned from my Ballot Battles research was just how much Texas, for example, did not qualify as minimally small-d democratic in either 1948, when LBJ won his key Senate election based on the stuffing of Ballot Box 13 and there was no rule of law remedy in this state for this actual instance of electoral theft, or even in 1960, when Nixon would have had a plausible claim (never pursued because there was still no rule of law way in the state to pursue this kind of claim) that Texas Democrats were at it again on behalf of the JFK-LBJ ticket. But is it really true to say that if the new “voter suppression” laws that have been adopted in Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere remain in effect for 2022 and 2024, then we won’t be able to conduct minimally small-d democratic elections in the United States anymore (as we have been after the enactment and enforcement of the 1965 VRA)? If so, we need to get specific about in exactly what way(s) each state has fallen below the floor of the minimal small-d democratic conducts essential for a democracy–and then what to do if some states have fallen below that floor and Congress fails (as is likely) to remedy that deficiency before 2022 and 2024. Do we categorically condemn in advance all results, regardless of which party prevails, because the elections were not held under minimally sufficient conditions?

In this regard, I’m reminded of Bruce Cain’s important book, Democracy More or Less. In it, he too talks of the floor below which no electoral process can fall and still qualify as minimally small-d democratic. But he also helpfully describes a category above that minimal floor, where contestation over the details of electoral procedures is reasonable and all choices within that range qualify as minimally small-d democratic even if they are not one’s own personal, or one’s own political party’s, preferable policy choices within that space above the floor. To what extent is the nation’s current fighting over electoral procedures above the minimal floor, as Cain describes it, or below the minimal floor, as Dionne would have us fear? To my mind, this is a crucial question as we confront the perils of electoral McCarthyism.

If the fight is to prevent us from falling below the floor, then we must (as Dionne argues) do everything possible to prevent that from happening, including if necessary on a purely one-party vote, and even at the risk of exacerbating the paranoia of electoral McCarthyism and thus the likelihood that accurate election results down the road will be repudiated without any evidentiary basis (but just because of the McCarthyism-like fabrication of an alternative reality). Even recognizing that risk, we have no choice, because (by hypothesis) if we don’t have this fight we lose our minimally acceptable small-d democracy.

But if Dionne is incorrect in his premise, and instead we are in the category of Cain’s reasonable policy disputation above the minimal floor, then I would suggest that our response to electoral McCarthyism should be entirely opposite of the Democrats trying impose over Republican opposition their preferred policy choices about how to run an election. Maybe, if the GOP and the nation weren’t in the grips of electoral McCarthyism, it would be okay for one major political party to impose its own policy preferences on how to run an electoral democracy over the objections of the other major political party (because the defeated party should just accept the reasonableness of the winning party’s preferred electoral policies), although I have my doubts even about that. But when as now the especially dangerous and distinctive paranoid conditions of electoral McCarthyism have taken root, and are growing, it seems as if that kind of one-party imposition of its electoral policy preference upon the other party that suffers from the paranoia of electoral McCarthyism has the potential of being extremely counterproductive. Indeed, it risks propelling forward the possibility of a reaction that would cause the society to fall below the floor of what’s essential for small-d democracy, thereby bringing out the circumstance that is exactly desired to be avoided.

Therefore, if we are in situation of being above the floor, as Cain describes it, we should consider catering to the policy preferences of the party that is gripped by the paranoia of electoral McCarthyism, even if we reasonably do not prefer those electoral policies, in order to help that major political party escape the grip of this dangerous condition. It’s a strategy designed to accept a shorter-term sacrifice in our own electoral policy preferences in order to strengthen the long-term capacity of the democracy to remain above the minimal floor. I’m afraid, however, that the Democratic-controlled Congress is pursuing the opposite strategy, eager to enact its own electoral policy preferences, but potentially exacerbating the risk that electoral McCarthyism actually will destroy democracy down the road.

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