September 7, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Overconfident in minority rule, the Republicans forgot how to compete democratically

Case in point is their proposed plan for Social Security. 

US Senator Rick Scott of Florida.
US Senator Rick Scott of Florida.

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That the GOP has abandoned democracy is by now conventional wisdom. Less well-known – their policymaking is broken, too. Consider the decision to attack Social Security in an election year.

About 176 million people pay Social Security, or payroll, taxes. Around 65 million — or 20 percent of the US population — receive benefits. If you’re a politician running in a congressional election, there are two big things that you need to understand about Social Security.

First, it has been incredibly effective in ending poverty. 

Second, it is enormously popular.

Republicans against popular programs
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that Social Security keeps more people out of poverty than any other US program. It prevents 22 million from falling below the poverty line. 

With Social Security, about 9 percent of those over 65 in the United States are in poverty. Without it, 37.8 percent would be.

Given the overwhelming, bipartisan support for Social Security, the extent to which people rely on it for themselves and their family, and the active anxiety about its continuation, it would be political suicide to oppose it. No politician should want to be on the wrong side of this issue. And yet.

As you’d expect, such a program has a lot of support. A 2020 poll by the AARP found that 96 percent of Americans support it. Some 40 percent said that they’d rely on it substantially after retirement.

Americans are not just enthusiastic about Social Security. They want to protect it. Data for Progress found that 86 percent of voters are very or somewhat worried that Social Security benefits will be cut. 

Given this overwhelming, bipartisan support, the extent to which people rely on it for themselves and their family, and the active anxiety about its continuation, it would be political suicide to oppose it. No politician should want to be on the wrong side of this issue.

And yet.

US Senator Rick Scott, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out with an “11 Point Plan to Rescue America” in March that proposes sunsetting all legislation every five years. 

As the Democrats quickly pointed out (to the horror of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) this provision would effectively force Congress to vote to renew Social Security over and over. 

Would a Republican-controlled House pass Social Security every five years indefinitely without reducing benefits? Would the Senate be able to overcome a filibuster to preserve the program?

Again, voters are already worried about the program’s safety. 

Scott’s proposal seems designed to confirm their worst fears. 

McConnell has insisted that Republicans have no plans to go after Social Security. And Fact Checkers have argued that Democrats have gone too far in saying Scott’s plan targets the program. 

But other high-profile Republicans have now joined Scott. 

Big Lie = orthodoxy
Arizona’s Blake Masters, the Republican candidate for the Senate, in June, said, “Maybe we should privatize Social Security. Right? Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it.” 

US Senator Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, who is up for reelection this year, made similar remarks at a recent campaign stop, arguing that Social Security money should be invested in the stock market. He also argued that it should not be a mandatory program, but should be treated as “discretionary” spending, to be renewed every year. 

That would give the likes of Ron Johnson, Blake Masters and Rick Scott a chance to alter or end Social Security every 12 months.

Democrats are leaping on these statements with glee, warning voters that the Republicans imperil Social Security. So why on earth have the Republicans chosen to punch themselves in the face? 

There are ideological reasons. 

The GOP generally hates any safety net that gives people some independence and allows them to make their own choices, rather than simply obeying the diktats of their corporate masters. 

Wall Street donors love the idea of privatizing Social Security so that they can siphon profits from people’s retirement accounts.

But even if you want to impoverish the elderly for the enrichment of bankers in theory, in practice you’d try not to say that out loud.

Republicans, though, have become more and more oblivious to electoral incentives. That’s because they have become more and more opposed to, and disconnected from, the electoral process.

After Trump’s coup attempt, the Big Lie became Republican orthodoxy. The GOP now regularly and compulsively insists that free and fair elections that go against them were stolen or rigged.

Candidates who reject these conspiracy theories – and argue that democracy is valuable and should be supported – have gotten crushed in Republican primary after Republican primary.

No faith in elections
It’s not just 2020 conspiracy theories either. 

Republicans increasingly eschew appeals to democracy.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, went on Fox to declare that if Donald Trump were prosecuted for illegally taking and holding classified documents, there would be “riots in the streets.” 

Most commenters have focused, understandably, on the danger of  appealing to political violence. But Graham’s statement is also telling in that he did not call on partisans to vote Democrats out.

You’d expect the Republicans to use every opportunity to tell partisans to vote. Instead, they’re telling supporters to take up arms.  

This shift isn’t a fluke. It’s based in the on-the-ground reality that the Republicans are increasingly facing a hostile majority. Self-declared Democrats have outnumbered Republicans for at least 30 years

Recent polling shows that Democratic identification is up by nine points, 49 percent to 40 percent, the worst numbers for the GOP since the Obama presidency. Republican unpopularity is why the party has won only a single presidential popular vote since 1988. 

If elections were on an even playing field, Republicans would lose constantly, steadily and remorselessly. They remain a national force electorally due to structural advantages, like the Electoral College.

They’ve increased these advantages by aggressive gerrymandering, through voting restrictions and disenfranchisement

Republicans mistrust elections and voters. It’s not a surprise that they have trouble responding intelligently to voter preferences.

The cost of minority rule
A recent preprint paper suggests that when parties deny the validity of election results, they cease to learn from elections. Rather than trying to match their positions to voter preferences, they simply insist that voters agree with them, and that elections are rigged. 

The GOP has cut itself off from democracy, and therefore has cut itself off from democratic incentives, democratic accountability and democratic information. It pushes unpopular policies because it is losing the ability to listen to and respond to the popular will.

Republicans do still dimly sense when they’ve gone too far for voters.  Masters has backtracked furiously, insisting that “in context” his remarks didn’t mean what they clearly meant. McConnell has been trying to convince anyone who will listen that the GOP supports Social Security though his conference keeps saying it doesn’t.

The GOP’s assault on democracy comes with costs. 

The question is whether these costs are sufficient to reverse the GOP’s authoritarian spiral, in which the party embraces authoritarianism, loses support and then embraces even more authoritarian measures to make up the democratic deficit.

If the GOP loses badly in 2022 and 2024, it may abandon totalitarianism. It may even try winning elections democratically again. 

Republicans may somehow manage to remain viable through ever more aggressive cheating and violence, though. If so, we can expect them to eliminate Social Security. And do much worse than that.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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