By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
I know some people might think what I’m about to say is hyperbole, but please hear me out. I am weighing my words carefully.
I believe that the United States faces an existential threat from the Republican Party, which has become a many-armed octopus focused on the goal of strangling democracy and setting up a one-party dictatorship in its place. One of its many tentacles is the obstruction of majority rule in the U.S. Senate. House members threatening the lives of their Democratic colleagues is another. Then there are the Republican-controlled state legislatures stripping power from any election officials—Democratic or Republican--who resist finding voter fraud where there is none. And harassment meant to make uncooperative election officials at all levels quit, so they can be replaced by loyal hacks who will willingly rig the election system for right-wing Republican candidates regardless of actual election results.
Following the violent January 6 coup attempt, Republicans have initiated means only slightly less overt than armed insurrection to achieve the same result.
A variety of laws have been introduced and/or passed at the state level to disenfranchise voters. These include purging voter rolls, closing polling sites, restricting early voting, eliminating Sunday voting, and making it illegal to give anyone water who is waiting hours in a long line to vote.
But much more dangerous to democracy than these obstacles to voting are the laws introduced or passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in numerous states to take sole control of election processes. Many of these legislatures have taken away the authority of their secretaries of state or balanced election boards, and given that control to themselves. They have also given themselves the power to remove election officials who do their jobs ethically rather than helping to rig the process to ensure future Trumpian candidate “wins.” Where Republicans hold such power, these changes will enable them to deny certification of any votes successfully cast for the opposing party.
As early as June 2021, members of at least 10 county election boards in Georgia had been removed, had their position eliminated, or were likely to be removed through new laws passed by the state legislature. Though some of those affected were Republicans, at least five were people of color and most were Democrats. All will likely be replaced by Republicans.
In the Kansas legislature, Republicans overrode the Democratic governor’s veto in order to prohibit their Republican secretary of state, who had repeatedly vouched for the security of voting by mail, from settling election-related lawsuits without the legislature’s consent.
Arizona Republicans introduced a bill that would largely deprive their Democratic secretary of state of authority over election lawsuits—but would expire when she leaves office.
In Arkansas, election control has been stripped from county authorities.
In Michigan, Republicans have nominated replacements to serve on boards of election canvassers in eight of Michigan’s 11 largest counties. A number of them are diehard Trumpists.
In an effort to counter these anti-democratic laws, the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives managed to pass two bills that would override the states’ voter suppression efforts. The For the People Act would expand voting registration, early voting, voting by mail, and limit gerrymandering. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore federal oversight of discriminatory practices that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority threw out in 2013 in Shelby v. Holder, and halt the Republican-controlled state legislatures’ anti-democratic putsch. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans—abetted by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—are using the filibuster to prevent any debate of these voting rights acts, thus assisting the states’ assault on democracy.
Many of the power-grabbing state laws are also being challenged in court, but as the legal system seems to move more slowly than molasses on these political matters, a Republican takeover could be completed before a result sees the light of day. Once an authoritarian regime is in power, a contrary legal determination would probably be moot in its effect.
Recently, NPR’s On the Media spotlighted the work of the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership (Foundation). The Foundation conducts low-cost seminars around the country to further a cynical realpolitik strategy promoting what they call confrontational politics to advance right-wing power. One of the tenets taught by its instructors is that trying to educate people about the rightness of your cause is pointless. According to NPR, “Confrontational politics isn’t about appealing to a broad group of people. It’s about leveraging voter apathy to impose your will on society.”
The Foundation’s theory, apparently borrowed from H.L. Richardson’s book, Confrontational Politics, is that only a small percentage of people vote—more or less evenly divided between dedicated Democrats and dedicated Republicans, plus a small percentage for some random party. This leaves only about six percent unspoken for. So, if one can find and manipulate four of that six percent to vote your way, you can sway any given election. To do that, just find their hot button issues, and press.
Richardson’s book states: “The role of our activists must be to identify sensitive, high intensity issues and provide leadership by forming structures for single-issue-minded people to join… Traditionalists [Richardson terms conservatives “traditionalists”] need not spend their time trying to convert liberals into conservatives; all they need to do is get single-issue-oriented Americans politically organized.”
This tactic is not new. The Republican party has been using it for decades, stirring people’s anger with sloganeering about welfare loafers, abortion, immigrants, gun rights and taxation.
The advent of the Tea Party escalated the manipulation of emotion as a counter to reason. Donald Trump and his minions were the foreseeable culmination. Thus, the current right-wing uses dangerous lies to sow confusion and artificially manufacture deadly outrage—whether about vaccination, the concocted critical race theory controversy, or claiming Democrats are child traffickers who steal elections. These tactics are working well for the coup promoters. At this point, in addition to liberal politicians, election oversight officials from secretaries of state down to local county election workers are receiving death threats.
Chris Dorr, the executive director of Ohio Gun Owners and his brother Aaron, listed as official instructors of the Foundation, have--along with their brothers Ben and Mathew—created a multistate gun group network which they use to incite anger and hatred. And they have expanded their angry single-issue followers from gun-rights activists to those whose who want to dismantle public education, antivaxxers, anti-abortion activists, militias, and others. According to The Intercept, an online investigative publication, “In true Trumpian fashion, by paying themselves and promoting hate, they may end up spawning a movement.”
According to The Daily Beast, detractors in the more mainstream segment of the gun rights movement claim that the Dorr brothers just “throw gas on the fire to generate more donations, contributions, and memberships,” but are ineffective at persuading lawmakers.
However, Patrick Parsons, executive director of Georgia Gun Owners, and apparent Dorr fellow traveler, used the principles of confrontation politics to get right-wing extremist Marjorie Taylor Greene elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Greene—no stranger to confrontation—has been a practitioner of harassment and death threats, including language suggesting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be executed for treason, and hounding David Hogg, a student survivor of the Parkland massacre, down a Capitol Hill street when, in 2019, the then-18-old Hogg had come to D.C. to advocate for gun control.
Georgia Gun Owners’ Parsons, who became Rep. Greene’s chief of staff, recently resigned, ostensibly to cultivate other right-wing candidates like her. According to Yahoo News, Parsons said that Greene, “asked me to come with her to Washington and help organize her office.” He added, “After eight and a half months fighting the Socialist Democrats and RINOS [Republicans in Name Only] in D.C., it’s time to move on.” Greene said of Parsons: “He’s advised me he will be moving back into the political arena to help elect America First conservatives who can fight alongside me.”
Democratic Georgia State Senator Jen Jordan told NPR station WABE in Atlanta early this year that Parsons was effective because he “was really willing to go after people, skirt the truth, say things that weren’t true,” and also used social media to ‘bully” people.
The lesson of the Parsons-Greene collaboration is that harnessing people’s unreasoned anger works. But if reason and education are not a match for stirred up emotion—or at least too slow a method to stop an anti-democratic takeover—what will be a match? How does one fight lies and manipulation of emotion if quiet reason doesn’t work?
Stopping the Real Steal
In the epilogue of his bestselling new book, Midnight in Washington, How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and member of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, writes:
If Congress fails to curtail these efforts at disenfranchisement, we the people must succeed nonetheless. If Republican state legislators mandate a purge of the voter rolls, we must reregister. If local GOP elections officials close down our polling site, we must go to another. If they shut down voting on Sunday, we must vote on Monday. If they force us to wait for long hours in the hot sun to vote, we must bring our own shade. We must love our democracy more than they wish to destroy it. We must defend it as democrats, and as Democrats, until the Republican Party breaks free from Donald Trump and the siren song of his depravity.
Schiff also writes “So let us fight. Unlike Trump’s violent insurrectionists, our weapon of choice must be the truth, wielded relentlessly. And even as we fight, especially in this fight, we must never lose hold of our basic decency.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Schiff’s noble stance. But what he advocates, by itself, is not enough. Because the coup-mongers shout the truth down and then step over that truth as if it were not there. And overcoming the obstacles to voting will make no difference if the Republican takeover of state election apparatus is not reversed before the 2022 election. The nation is running out of time.
The House Select Committee has issued subpoenas in pursuit of its coup investigation, and defenders of democracy are bringing lawsuits to challenge the various forms of voter suppression. But Attorney General Merrick Garland’s tortoise-like pace in pursuing such lawsuits, as well as his 21-day delay in charging Steve Bannon with contempt for defying the Select Committee’s subpoena, betray a lack of enthusiasm for aggressively pursuing justice. If Garland is not deliberately undermining that pursuit, perhaps he thinks he’s still a judge rather than a prosecutor. In any event, he appears to be the wrong man for this job.
If legal challenges are not brought and completed before the next election, the states’ anti-democratic laws could result in a Republican takeover of the House—which would end the January 6 coup investigation the Republicans so vigorously have opposed. That election could also determine who controls state election systems for the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, while journalists are now exposing Trumpian lies and threats to democracy, exposing what fascists are doing does not keep them from doing it. Despite news coverage, Republican machinations continue to grind inexorably onward toward dictatorship by a minority. If our democracy is to survive, more than exposing those trying to destroy it must be done.
Adhering to Congressman Schiff’s standard of basic decency means one will not lie, cheat, or physically intimidate or harm, as the forces arrayed against democracy are doing. But against the slogans of a mob and its leaders, it is impossible for quiet, reasonable truth to be heard. This puts those trying to combat those forces at a disadvantage.
To be heard and heeded, the defenders of democracy need to fight fire with fire using some of the right-wing’s tactics. It is possible to do this without losing one’s soul. The Democrats and other defenders of freedom need to stop operating in a defensive mode. Stop talking reasonably about compromise with those who have no compromise in them. Instead, organize truth squads to call a lie a lie—plainly. Without diffidence or apology. Use the truth as your relentless weapon—but use it to go on the attack. Wield it aggressively. Shout it as loudly as those who would shout it down. And don’t back down. Dismiss the siren call for a bipartisanship, which is being used only to weaken one’s position and resolve. Instead, BE partisan. Be partisans for democracy—and proud of it!
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.