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The bipartisanship delusion: America has a choice between Democratic Party participation and Republican domination

2019-08-18

Monopoly of power. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Citizens frequently tell reporters how much they abhor gridlock and pine for bipartisanship, as if some blessed condition of two-sided cooperation were a normal state of affairs that has mysteriously gone missing.

They’re whistling in the dark, as recent events make abundantly clear.

The Republican Party has aspired to rule a one-party state ever since, in 2000, a 5-to-4 Supreme Court majority in Bush vs. Gore made its flagrantly partisan decision to stop counting votes in Florida and install George W. Bush in the White House in a decision so peculiarly argued — if it was argued at all — that the Court declared, contrary to its general rule, that its precedent would not apply to any other case ever. It was as if the laws of arithmetic were to be held valid only when one particular column of numbers was summed, but not others.

Over the next two decades, the Republicans have not ceased to parade shoddy arguments to justify beating back legitimate Democratic participation in government. Surely the most consequential such moment was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to permit hearings when, in 2016, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

Now Republican monopartisanship reaches new pinnacles. When Republican members of Congress questioned former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, they assumed it would have been normal to interrogate his staff as to their political preferences. This assumption went unnoticed in commentary after the hearings, but it is radical in its implications. It utterly confounds the idea of an independent civil service, as enshrined in the Pendleton Act of 1883, and returns us to the corrupt spoils system that prevailed before that date.

And now election security is held hostage to the Republicans’ idea that they have the right to rule a monopartisan government. No sooner had Mueller repeated the conclusion of his report that the Russians made “sweeping and systematic” efforts to intervene in the 2016 election, and Mueller added that “They’re doing it as we sit here” — “they” meaning Russia and “it” meaning trying to interfere in the 2020 election — than we beheld the spectacle of Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi blocking bills introduced by Democrats to safeguard the 2020 elections from the sort of foreign interference that paid off so handsomely in 2016.

The right of the people to choose their national leaders is, for her party, an inconvenience. The Trump government has not lifted a finger to secure the upcoming elections. He and the rest of his party are vastly more exercised by Christopher Steele’s “dossier” and the Fusion-GPS opposition research operation than by continuing, documented Russian efforts to warp our elections. Republican ideologues refuse to concede that federal authorities can secure election integrity in ways that states and localities are not equipped to do.

In this spirit, McConnell rejected a House measure that would have authorized $775 million to bolster state election systems as well as requiring paper ballots. “Partisan,” he nonsensically calls such initiatives.

As if to certify that, as Mueller feared, Russian interference is “the new normal,” no sooner had Mueller finished testifying than the reality-based Senate Intelligence Committee reported that the Russians had targeted all 50 state election systems in 2016. Nevertheless, McConnell purports to believe that the separate states,having already spent all the federal funds allocated for that purpose, can maintain security without ramped-up federal coordination.

These Republican moves are of a piece with a general contempt for honest elections. In 2017, Trump set up a committee to investigate what the president claimed was widespread voter fraud that had cost him a popular majority in 2016, only to see the committee disband fruitlessly when state governments refused to cooperate in what could legitimately be called a witch hunt. In the same spirit, Trump tried to manipulate the Census to skew the count and depress Democratic representation.

To the Republicans, the only good Democrat is a powerless Democrat. This is no “Grand Old Party,” no “Party of Lincoln.” This is more like the Communist Party they purport to revile.

Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia.