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The Republican Plot Against the Popular Will

Electoral losses in Kentucky and Virginia send conservatives down a rabbit hole of illiberalism.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Democracy’s central principle is that the people should decide their own future by electing their own leaders. A growing number of conservatives disagree. Take this week’s off-year elections, for example. Kentucky Republicans won five out of the six statewide races on Thursday. Steve Beshear, the Democratic candidate for governor, was the only exception. His 5,000-vote margin of victory over incumbent Republican Matt Bevin was surprising but not shocking. While Bevin had a modest lead in polls ahead of Election Day, he was also a distinctly unpopular figure in the state. Until last month, Bevin ranked as the most unpopular governor in the country with a 32 percent approval rating.

Local GOP leaders have not accepted Beshear’s victory. Bevin himself refused to concede on Election Night, citing unidentified “irregularities” in the voting process, and called for a recanvassing of polling places. Robert Stivers, the president of the Kentucky Senate, told reporters that the Republican-held legislature might decide the outcome instead. (A vague provision in the state’s constitution lets lawmakers intervene in disputed gubernatorial elections.) According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Stivers made the dubious claim that most of the votes received by the Libertarian candidate would have gone to Bevin and made him the winner.

It’s unclear whether state lawmakers will embrace this strategy; some Kentucky Republicans have already expressed reservations about it. That it’s being discussed at all speaks to a deeper problem on the American right. From President Donald Trump to state-level GOP candidates to local Republican Party officials, conservatives are declaring themselves as the only legitimate political actors in the American democratic system. And when faced with the choice of conservative governance or the popular will, they’ve signaled that they’ll choose the former over the latter.

What’s being bandied about in Kentucky is just the most extreme version yet of an argument pioneered by state-level GOP officials across the country. After a Democratic governor won in North Carolina in 2016, Republican lawmakers who held a supermajority of gerrymandered seats in the state legislature stripped the state’s executive branch of some of its powers, triggering a prolonged constitutional showdown. Wisconsin Republicans adopted the same strategy in 2018 after Democratic challenger Tony Evers ousted GOP incumbent Scott Walker. In these states and other laboratories of oligarchy, preserving conservative rule took priority over allowing the people’s elected representatives to govern as the electorate wanted.

Republicans have no shortage of tools to accomplish this. Partisan gerrymandering allows lawmakers to entrench themselves with highly favorable maps, a flaw in the American system that the GOP ruthlessly exploited after their timely wave election in 2010. Voter ID laws and other restrictive voting measures keep the electorate from expanding in ways that would hinder conservative candidates. These efforts are aided by a Supreme Court that alternatively refuses to intervene against anti-democratic measures, or actively abets their spread by gutting measures like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When those methods fail, more extreme solutions are required. Kelly Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, posted maps of the Virginia Senate and Kentucky gubernatorial results side-by-side on Twitter on Wednesday night. “Should we look toward an #ElectoralCollege type system at the state level?” she wrote. “How is a Republican against local control?” one Twitter user asked in response. “How is listening to every part of the state ‘against local control’?” Ward replied. “I don’t think the Feds should implement it, states should. As a rural AZ resident, it is frustrating that the state’s population centers, Phoenix & Tucson, could control politics in this conservative state.”

What Ward is making is an argument against democracy itself. The only reason to impose an electoral college on a state is to deny the people an opportunity to govern themselves. To the extent that a state’s population centers “control politics,” it’s because that’s where most of the people actually live. If the majority of the people who live there aren’t actually conservatives, then it’s not a conservative state. Arizona’s topsoil layer doesn’t have strong ideological positions on gun control or climate change. (That’s probably for the best since inanimate objects can’t cast a ballot in American elections anyways. For now.)

Ward’s argument exists in even lazier forms. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, made a similar point when defending Trump last month. In a post on Twitter, he published a map of the counties where the president won the most votes in 2016 with the title “63 MILLION AMERICANS PUT PRESIDENT TRUMP IN OFFICE” above it. “Now 231 Washington Democrats are trying to reverse the results of the 2016 election,” he added. It’s an impressively disingenuous claim. Clinton received more than 65 million votes in the same election, after all, and still lost. And if the Senate convicts and removes Trump, she won’t become president—Mike Pence will.

The underlying thrust of McCarthy’s tweet wasn’t about population density or electoral methods. It was about legitimacy. The only consistent message from conservatives since the Ukraine scandal broke is that the House’s impeachment inquiry amounts to a coup d’etat. This springs from an exceptionally dark line of reasoning. “The Republican embrace of ‘Real America’ talk has hardened from political rhetoric into ideological principle,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted earlier this week. “Those who are not Real Americans cannot legitimately wield power or criticize those who are, and therefore no effort to deprive those who are not Real Americans of power can be illegitimate.”

It’s no coincidence that this view comes from a place of electoral weakness, not of strength. Part of their woes can be attributed to Trump himself, who ranks as one of the most unpopular presidents in modern times. As noted above, he won the presidency despite receiving roughly three million fewer votes than his opponent. And it’s not just that a clear and consistent majority of Americans disapprove of his actions in office. A growing plurality of them think he should be impeached and removed from office over the Ukraine scandal—a level of deep public opposition that Richard Nixon only reached in his final month in office.

If Trump was the GOP’s only problem, things might be different. But part of the problem is that much of the conservative agenda doesn’t have popular support. The Republican tax-cut package, the signature piece of domestic legislation written when the GOP held both houses of Congress, is deeply unpopular. Conservatives’ hardline immigration stance runs counter to those held by many Americans, who largely want to welcome more, not fewer, immigrants into the country. A clear majority of Americans also support same-sex marriage and want Roe v. Wade to remain the law of the land. And despite a decade of campaigns against the Affordable Care Act, a majority of Americans widely favor a public option and narrowly favor Medicare-for-All.

In theory, a party whose stances and candidates don’t command public support is supposed to lose the election. Once out of power, they can either engage in the hard work of persuading the electorate that they’re right, or change their policies to better match what voters want. A growing number of Republicans no longer appear interested in pursuing either strategy. Instead, they hope to use all the structural advantages they enjoy—a demographic edge in the Senate and the Electoral College, a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and gerrymandered seats in state legislatures—to overcome their greatest disadvantage of all: getting fewer votes than their opponents.