The 2018 campaign is at an end. And while we all wait to find out who won and who lost, it’s worth stepping back and reviewing what we learned from the way the campaign was fought.
What we learned was this: The divide in American politics is not merely over policy, or even identity, but something arguably more fundamental — the very idea that impartial rules and fair play are central to democratic governance.
Republicans in multiple states used the power of political office to undermine the ability of traditionally Democratic-leaning minority groups to freely participate in the political process. And across the country, Republican candidates premised their campaigns on baldfaced lies, whether it was a promise of an impossible tax cut bill, a pledge to protect people with preexisting conditions even as they worked to destroy those protections, or an apocalyptic description of the threat from the so-called caravan of migrants.
All of this goes beyond the normal give and take of the democratic process. It amounts to a rejection of the core principles of liberal democracy itself.
The 2018 election was not a campaign between two democratic political parties. It was a brawl between one party that accepted the basic rules of the democratic game and one that cast them aside in pursuit of power. And the consequences for American democracy if this Republican approach succeeds could be severe.
Republicans didn’t just criticize Democrats — they rejected the very rules of democracy
Democracy, in theory, is based on the consent of the governed. But in reality, people disagree about fundamental political and moral issues; no elected government will ever have 100 percent support of the population or anything close to it. How can say the people “consent” to their government when a large percentage of them always disagree with its policies?
This is the paradox that John Rawls, one of the 20th century’s most influential political philosophers, examined in Political Liberalism, one of his best-known works.
He argues that the answer to this puzzle is a deeper meaning of “the consent of the governed.” Everyone doesn’t have to be happy with the outcome of an election for it to be legitimate — they just need to accept the rules under it was held.
“Our exercise of political power is fully proper,” Rawls writes, “only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse.”
This passage — what he famously called “the liberal principle of legitimacy” — is key to understanding what’s so alarming about the 2018 campaign. The very legitimacy of democracy, its core value, depends on all citizens agreeing to cooperate with each other under a set of fair rules. Political parties cannot seek to manipulate the rules to marginalize certain classes of citizens or coerce the population into accepting a particular policy outcome.
But Republicans broke with this compact in two distinct and important ways. First, they showed disregard for the electoral system’s terms of fairness. And second, they rejected the obligation to play by fair rules in public discourse. This sort of thing is not new in American history, and even recent American history, but the severity and scope of Republican anti-democratic behavior in 2018 represents a serious escalation.
Put together, the GOP’s campaign undermines what Rawls calls “the fundamental idea of society as a fair system of cooperation”: the basic ideal that the central purpose of any democratic political system is to set up fair rules under which people can work together to govern themselves.
In North Dakota, home to a tight Senate race, a new law requiring that all voters have a residential address has made it harder for thousands of American Indian voters (typically a Democratic constituency) to vote. The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature passed a law that led to the closure of 20 percent of early voting locations, a move that could depress black turnout in crucial House races.
But the Georgia governor’s race is probably the most egregious example of this kind of behavior.
Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate, is currently Georgia’s secretary of state, a job that includes supervising the conduct of elections. Kemp has used this position to set up an unfair playing field, launching spurious investigations into Democratic “hacking” of the election and placing a disproportionate number of black voters’ registrations on hold. Rick Hasen, an expert on electoral law at the University of California Irvine, called Kemp’s conduct “the most outrageous example of election administration partisanship in the modern era.”
This can’t be understood at the purely local level, as something happening in specific states without national sanction. For years now, Republicans have been using tools like voter ID laws and gerrymandering to rig the electoral system in their favor. No leading Republican, from Trump on down, has condemned the attempts by candidates like Kemp to push this even further — and that sends a clear message as to its permissibility.
“Kemp is doing this, but the state (and national) Republican parties are silent, as are his state’s leading public authorities,” Robert Mickey, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, tweeted. “This is a democratic failure much bigger than one craven office seeker.”
Republicans poisoned political discourse
The second Republican anti-democratic pattern of behavior here is a little more subtle. One of the pillars of democracy, in Rawlsian terms, is that political debate adhere to a certain set of shared rules. Rawls calls this “public reason,” a set of shared rules for public conversation that has at its core a commitment to treating opponents with respect and offering them honest reasons for your political stances.
“Harmony and concord depend on the vitality of the public political culture and on citizens’ being devoted to and realizing the ideal of public reason,” he writes. “Citizens could easily fall into bitterness and resentment, once they no longer see the point of affirming an ideal of public reason and come to ignore it.”
One way this prediction could come about is if people reject the very foundations of a shared reality, and make arguments founded in fictions or lies. There cannot be a respectful conversation between free and equal citizens, and hence any kind of public reason, in a world where one side insists on deceiving the other.
“We are to appeal only to presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when they are appropriate,” Rawls writes. “The liberal principle of legitimacy makes this the most appropriate, if not the only, way to specify the guidelines of public inquiry.”
Yet Republicans have run a national campaign based on — and there’s no other real way to put this — lies.
President Trump has promised, for example, that he would pass a 10 percent middle-class tax cut before the election — which he did not do because it was impossible; Congress was not in session and thus unable to pass any laws. Trump and various Republican candidates have spent the past week-plus fomenting fear about a caravan of Central American migrants; Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, falsely claimed his opponent Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign was funneling money to the caravan. And Republicans around the country have been lying about their position on health care, promising to preserve coverage for people with preexisting conditions even after voting to repeal such coverage just last year.
This is an attack on the very idea of government by the consent of the governed. If people literally do not know what they are consenting to, they cannot consent to it. Yet Republicans, starting again with the president, have systematically deceived the public.
In these ways, then, Republicans did not merely campaign against their Democratic opponents. They campaigned against the impartial rules that set the terms of democratic legitimacy itself.
Where the GOP attacks on democracy could lead
Rawls was a political philosopher, not a political scientist. His goal wasn’t to describe what democratic societies are actually like but what they should be in their ideal forms.
And the truth is that, for most of American history, the country didn’t live up to the Rawlsian ideals. Vast swaths of the country were not permitted to vote based solely on their race or gender. Even after voting rights were inscribed in the Constitution, Jim Crow laws and campaigns of racist terrorism prevented African Americans from exercising the right to vote. It’s only recently, really since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that the United States even approximated (if still not quite achieved) the Rawlsian ideal of democracy.
And that’s what makes the Republican conduct in this election so alarming. It’s not that Republicans are anti-democratic, in the sense of wanting to tear down American democracy and replace it with an authoritarian alternative. It’s that they’re democracy-indifferent, unconcerned with the fact that their pursuit of power echoes some of the undemocratic practices that we’ve seen in both American history and failing democracies abroad.
The ultimate risk here is a kind of “democratic backsliding”: a move away from democracy toward a system that looks democratic from the outside but in practice no longer has fair elections. In Hungary, a once-vibrant democracy I visited recently, the ruling Fidesz party has spent the past eight years building an electoral system that quietly eliminated democratic competition without having to nakedly rig the vote counts.
Legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered, and the government controls the airwaves and media companies to such a degree that the opposition can’t get a fair hearing. The courts are packed with government allies, making it difficult to mount a challenge to the rigged elections. An unending drumbeat of propaganda, from both official state outlets and private media empires aligned with the government, demonizes refugees and Muslims, falsely warning of an existential threat to Hungarian society and culture.
The parallels with Republican conduct in the United States are somewhat obvious. And while the 2018 election has proven that America is not even close to this far gone — most projections suggest Democrats will retake the House — there’s a risk that this Republican anti-democratic behavior will escalate if it proves successful.
This is why, in practical terms, striving for the Rawlsian ideal matters. While the United States has rarely lived up to its greatest philosopher’s vision, aspiring to do so puts a check on the naked competition for power. If political actors at least attempt to see society as a system of fair social cooperation, and maintain a certain level of respect for the ideals of public reason, then there is no risk of anyone trying the hardline anti-democratic tactics that we’ve seen in places like Hungary.
But if one of the two political parties stops caring about these ideals — becomes “unreasonable,” as Rawls would say — then this normative barrier fails. When one of America’s two major political parties moves outside of accepted democratic practices, showing contempt for core liberal values, the possibility that they could push the system toward democratic backsliding (or its historically undemocratic norm) becomes significantly greater.
And here we hit the limits of Rawls’s analysis. He was engaged in what he calls “ideal theory,” a type of philosophy that abstracts away from the thorny problems of the real world to develop political ideals. He suggests that in a well-functioning democracy, all major political actors should accept the rules of the game. There’s no obvious solution, per Rawls, for what happens when one major party becomes unreasonable.
But there seems to be one clear starting point: that the candidates who engaged in the most egregious anti-democratic practices not be rewarded by the governed.