Preventing the Next Coup

Bloom Briefing 44: Evaluating the Proposals for Walking Us Back from the Brink

American democracy is in a dangerous place.  As more details emerge about the Pentagon’s delay in sending reinforcements to the Capitol and Trump’s attempts to pursue a Courts-centric coup via the Department of Justice, elected Republicans continue to suggest that the real problem is Democrats… Democrats are pursuing a radical left agenda (e.g., raising the minimum wage)… Democrats aren’t committed to unifying the country (as if Mitch McConnell didn’t say over Democratic protests, “elections have consequences”). 

A majority of Republicans in the House are trying to oust Representative Liz Cheney (far from a moderate!) from her leadership position because she voted in favor of impeachment, and she already has drawn a primary challenger.  Even after the insurrection at the Capitol, polls show a majority of Republicans still support Trump.  The formerly thoughtful-conservative now always-Trumpist publication The Federalist called for Mitch McConnell’s removal this week for taking impeachment seriously.  The right-wing of the Republican Party is now more powerful than its establishment. 

There had been signs of this for some time.  Despite establishment efforts to prevent some of the more radical candidates from getting the ballot, the Republican Party hasn’t always been able to keep these folks at bay.  It likely cost them Senate seats in Delaware (remember Christine O’Donnell?), Alabama (Roy Moore), and a governor’s mansion in Kansas (Kris Kobach).  While those candidates all lost, a growing number have managed to get elected.  Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene are the most notable, but a solid majority of House Republicans voted to sustain the objections to the certification of the Electoral College votes after the insurrection. 

In a world where one of the two parties in a two-party system is beholden to authoritarian radicals among its constituency, the possibility that that group of people could take power becomes the most glaring threat to American democracy (Jamelle Bouie agrees).  The question we need to ask, earnestly and expediently, is how do we prevent the next Trump-equivalent presidency?

I’m going to briefly cover the various options being discussed as ways of achieving this.  I recommend various forms of one through five and think we should avoid six.

  1. Remove pro-coup elected officials

  2. Implement electoral reforms to walk back polarization

  3. Balance national political power*

  4. Convert voters by passing popular legislation*

  5. Eliminate the filibuster (required for * above)

  6. Crack down on networks that spread misinformation

Remove pro-coup elected officials

Some on the left believe that pro-coup elected officials ought to be removed from office via the 14th amendment, one of the amendments passed shortly after the Civil War by the northern states and the Reconstruction governments of southern states. The clause in question was designed to prevent former Confederate soldiers, government officials, and sympathizers from holding elected office:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

You can see the gist of this.  The insurrection was an attempt to thwart the peaceful transition of power. Some members of Congress aided and abetted the insurrectionists.  Those members of Congress took oaths to uphold that transition of power.  Ergo, those members are guilty of engaging in an insurrection against the very entity they swore an oath to support.  Thus, these members of Congress could and should be prohibited from serving as such henceforth.

Should Democrats pursue this?  That question is more complicated.  The right first step is probably a hearing.  Senators Hawley and Cruz should have to testify under oath to their colleagues about what they knew when vis-à-vis the insurrection.  The same should be true for representatives in the House who attended the rally (e.g., Lauren Boebert) or who were found to have given tours to potential insurrectionists the week of the coup attempt. 

Unless Democrats can find a place to draw the line that isn’t as inclusive as “expel anyone who voted to sustain the objection to the Electoral College votes after the coup attempt,” there’s no way that it gets any Republican support.  (That is where the line should be, for what it’s worth.)  So, for now, investigations and hearings seem like the right course of action, with potential consequences down the road for particular elected officials if said officials can be identified as having committed more aggravated offenses than voting in favor of a coup. 

Implement electoral reforms to walk back polarization

Simultaneously, we should work to undo polarization itself.  This likely means creating electoral incentives for moderation, conciliation, and partnership rather than incentives for extremism. 

In the current system by which most states elect representatives, there is an intra-party primary (to determine the candidate for the party) followed by a general election that sees one candidate from each party participate.  To win the primary, candidates compete to be the most representative of their base.  For Republicans, increasingly, anything but the most extreme is too centrist. 

All of this is layered on top of gerrymandered districts which make large numbers of races totally uncompetitive (elected officials choosing their voters rather than the voters choosing the officials).  Furthermore, political science literature shows turning out the base is easier than attracting swing voters (of whom there aren’t many) or getting voters to switch parties (which happens slowly) or split tickets (which happens increasingly rarely).  We have a set of incentives for candidates to promise extreme things to their base to win the primary, and then turn out their base by painting the other guy as a danger to democracy. 

There are a number of plausible solutions here that individual states can implement to reduce the pull of polarization.  Independent redistricting committees (where a non-partisan or equally-partisan panel draws congressional districts) is the tepid and largely ineffective approach here, but it can produce more close races.  More robust options include ranked-choice voting (Maine has this), perhaps with multi-member districts (as yet unimplemented), non-partisan primaries with a top-four runoff (as just implemented in Alaska), or proportional representation (the constitutionality of which is in question since no state has attempted it).

I support basically any and all of these ideas.

Balance national political power

Democrats are more popular than Republicans.  Democrats have won 7 of the last 8 presidential election popular vote totals (Bush got more votes than Kerry in 2004).  Despite each party having 50 seats in the Senate, Democrats in the Senate represent 41 million more people.  Three current Supreme Court justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett) were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by Senators representing a minority of voters. 

It doesn’t have to be like this!  Democrats can and should push for statehood for DC and Puerto Rico.  Democrats can and should push to abolish the Electoral College (which parlays the anti-democratic structure of the Senate into an anti-democratic presidential election mechanism).  Electoral College reform can happen at the state level since states can choose how to apportion their electoral votes, and a number of heavily Democratic states have approved the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Such reforms both move in the direction of being more democratic and give Democrats more political power.  In fact, there’s a school of thought among some on the left that Democrats have been scared to push for these things because it looks bad.  This thinking suggests that Democrats don’t want to be seen as pushing for something that would obviously give them more power, so they don’t do things that are objectively good simply because of the optics.   

But compare the argument, “we think these people who live in this country and pay taxes in this country ought to have representation,” to “we want to create barriers to voting designed to disproportionately prevent Black voters – whom we know don’t vote for us – from being able to exercise the franchise.”  Republicans push for naked power grabs all the time (I wrote more about this two weeks ago), and when they do so, it’s anti­­-democratic.  It just so happens that Democrats can push for democratic reforms that also happen to give them more power.  Doing so is part of the way we shore up American democracy.

Convert voters by passing popular legislation

Yet another school of thought is that Democrats just need to show people that government can work for them again.  Right-wing populists, like Trump, often claim that government isn’t working for people and that they can fix it (remember, “I alone can fix it”).  This means, to prevent a renaissance of right-wing populism, Democrats should pass lots of popular legislation that clearly shows people how government can work for them. 

Ezra Klein supports this perspective, and in a long piece in the New York Times, he outlined what he believes Democrats should prioritize in the next two years.  Klein makes the important point that, “You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did,” and documents a laundry list of Obama Administration policies that people didn’t realize benefitted them.   

One note of optimism here is that President Biden seems to have at least partly realized this.  One feature of the $1.9 trillion relief package his team has drafted is an expansion of the child tax credit.  But instead of the money appearing as a tax rebate, it would have the IRS deposit monthly payments in qualifying people’s accounts.  Direct cash transfers are more popular than opaque tax credits that show up after filing taxes. 

Will Republican-leaning voters be convinced to support Democrats because they got a $300/month child tax credit?  I’m not so sure.  But if it’s part of a whole constellation of policies that benefit struggling families, it might convert a few more voters than our polarized age might otherwise lead one to imagine.

Eliminate the filibuster

There is no way that Congressional can achieve any of these strategies without ending the filibuster.  Senate Republicans have already indicated that they won’t support a large economic relief package, and that they will stand up against virtually any policy Democrats seek to implement. 

It was never the intention of the founders nor is it tradition in the Senate that any and all legislation must have 60 votes to pass (Adam Jentleson has an excellent piece on the need to end the filibuster in the New York Times).  The common use of the filibuster emerged – you guessed it – as a Jim Crow era tactic to block civil rights legislation, and its use has since expanded.  (Some on the left have already taken to calling it “the Jim Crow filibuster” in a probably futile attempt to rebrand it with an unpopular moniker.)

A common retort against those on the left who advocate for the filibuster’s demise is that given the structural imbalance of the Senate (that it favors Republicans), Democrats should want the ability to stop straight-majority Senate votes.  That’s the conservative play.  The bolder play is to try and fix the structural problems in the Senate by making DC and Puerto Rico states, and this can only be done by ending the filibuster.  Accepting the filibuster means accepting Republican minority rule most of the time. 

Crack down on networks that spread misinformation

I think this route is both dangerous and unlikely to be effective. 

It’s no secret that Fox News and its more radical followers (NewsMax, OAN, Alex Jones, etc.) have contributed to this polarization.  Their news programing (e.g., Chris Wallace) regularly contradicts their opinion programing (Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham), but the opinion programming attracts many more viewers. 

All of these organizations have helped spread the big lie that the election was stolen.  In reaction, some on the left, largely fringe elements so far, have called on the government to look into cracking down these right-wing news outlets that spread obviously false stories.

While most on the left don’t think there’s much that can be done about FoxNews and its ilk in media, more seem to think that social media platforms should do more to curb the spread of misinformation on their platforms.  Notably, Donald Trump still doesn’t have access to his social media accounts. 

In the public sphere, almost all speech regulation is bad.  (There are exceptions, like threats of violence or incitement to violence, where prohibitions are good, and these are already prohibited.)  In the public sphere regulated by CEOs at tech companies, speech regulation is always going to be nightmarish. 

The government can and should do more to hold these companies to account for removing speech that violates laws (like threats of violence).  More robust internal policies at Facebook and Twitter or more robust governmental regulations will almost certainly result in crackdowns on all sorts of speech people on the left would want to protect.  For example, this week, Facebook shut down the account of the left-wing Socialist Workers Party in the UK.

The move to shut down Trump’s social media accounts probably made good sense in the moment (the threat of him inciting people to commit additional crimes on his behalf was extremely high).  Whether or not to continue his ban is a more complicated question.

Strong democratic reforms (e.g., electoral reforms, rebalancing of national political power, delivering on good government policy, etc.) should help undermine the polarization that feeds hate-for-profit media institutions like Fox News.  You minimize the power of Fox News not by government oversight of what they say but by showing people that their main thesis (that government is bad) is transparently false.  Democracy is hard.  This is part of that hard work.

Leave a comment

Additional Reading

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik also tackled the question about how to shore up democracy.  The penultimate paragraph is excellent.

In Mother Jones, Tim Murphy profiled Josh Hawley. For a more local flavor, check out the Kansas City Star’s profile of Hawley.

In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates revisited and reflected upon one of his famous early Trump pieces, “The First White President.”