Jim Chrisinger: These asymmetries reinforce each other, tilting the playing field against democracy.
Traditionally, both major political parties competed with policies aimed at their core constituencies and persuadable voters. The policy platforms differed markedly, but a symmetry framed the fight.
No more. Nine asymmetries now define our politics and hand the advantage to Republicans.
One: The U.S. Senate
Every state elects two senators, regardless of population. The current 50 Democratic senators represent 41,549,808 more people than the 50 GOP senators. Forty-one senators from the least populous (mostly Republican) states can block any legislation subject to the filibuster, which is most legislation.
Two: The U.S. House
Republicans have no hesitation in choosing their voters rather than trusting the voters to choose them. Republican states gerrymander to gain more U.S. House seats and also to dominate state legislatures. Further, because Democrats are more concentrated in urban areas and Republicans are more evenly spread across the landscape, Republicans can win more seats with fewer votes.
Three: Party composition
Democrats are a big tent party; the GOP is an alliance between “the base” and big money/corporate America. Democrats have to spend a lot of time and energy mediating between all the groups, reducing their ability to easily land on simple, broadly persuasive policies and messages. GOP big money can get what it wants — lower taxes, deregulation, and conservative judges — while allowing their politicians to keep fueling the culture wars to gain the base votes they need.
What’s new since the 1980s is that lower income white voters no longer vote their own economic interests.
Four: An all-encompassing “conservative” media ecosystem
Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, talk radio, Facebook, and other social media push Republican causes, messages, and politicians. This echo chamber overflows with lies, disinformation, and lack of context, even on the “news” shows. Much of it is propaganda. There are no consequences for all the lying, with the notable exception of the current Dominion and Smartmatic defamation suits.
This ecosystem is so powerful that it’s arguable that it drives Republicans more than Republicans drive it. Those who live in this bubble drink the kool-aid every day. They come to believe in an alternative, Republican reality, which is impervious to truth and persuasion.
Nothing even remotely similar exists on the Democratic side. You might point to MSNBC, which does slant left, but MSNBC adheres to journalistic standards. Fox, OAN, and Newsmax do not. As a result, Republicans soak up a steady diet of how awful Democrats are while Democrats get real news, which includes both sides. As I read somewhere: Republicans are told that Democrats are broken, Democrats are told that Washington is broken.
Five: Dark money, lots of it
Billions of dollars supplied and directed by the Koch brothers and a host of others fuel Republican campaigns, causes, and politicians, and demonize Democrats. While Democrats have their own big donors and organizations, they pale before the dollars, organizational infrastructure, and long-term strategy on the Republican side. See the Federalist Society, American Legislative Exchange Council, Heritage Foundation, and scores of “think tanks” (stand-alone and at universities). For example, decades of smearing Hillary Clinton played a significant role in her 2016 defeat. Read Dark Money by Jane Mayer.
Six: Disregard for facts, truth, and science
Because Democrats basically respect facts, truth, and science, they are bound by them in ways Republicans are not. Because Republicans have found that they pay a minimal price for lying and rejecting science, they make stuff up to whip up the base and attack Democrats.
The most consequential example is the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president. Even more consequential in lives lost is all the disinformation about COVID-19 and politicizing vaccines and masks. Democrats play defense, debunking the lies, which perversely keeps the media repeating the lies.
Seven: Governing, or not
Democrats promote an across-the-board policy agenda for governing. They run for office to enact legislation, to govern, to make lives better. Republicans used to do the same, but no longer. So when Democrats make their proposals, Republicans attack the proposals without having to put their own ideas up for scrutiny. See health care. Republicans tear down government, without having to take responsibility.
Eight: Fear and throwing rocks vs. inspiration and building
Instead of making policy proposals — beyond tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative judges — Republicanss play to grievances, create fear, and then stoke both. As one of the governors I worked for liked to say, “any ass can kick down the shed, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Also, Republicans do not limit themselves to hyping existing fears. They create bogeymen, like "CRT" (critical race theory) being taught in K-12 schools, and then amp up the fear they’ve created. Psychology teaches us that fear and grievance crowd out the more constructive motivations offered by Democrats.
Nine: Respect for democracy, government, and the rule of law
Because the current GOP does not respect democracy, government, or the rule of law, they are free to violate norms, bend the law, gerrymander, suppress voting, resist subpoenas, violate campaign finance laws, use government resources for political and personal uses, and more. Republicans have so far found that consequences are avoidable or without much political impact, because their base and benefactors share their disdain. They have revealed gaps in our laws and in Congressional enforcement tools. Even where remedies exist, the judicial system works so slowly that Republicans can often run out the clock, as Trump did in both impeachments.
These asymmetries are not new; Donald Trump didn’t create them, though he sharpened them. Some of these asymmetries have been gestating since Barry Goldwater; Newt Gingrich put them into overdrive.
What is different now is the way they reinforce each other and their cumulative impact. For example, disdain for democracy and truth enables lying about elections, which dark money amplifies, which right-wing media cement in the minds of a third of Americans, which “justifies” gerrymandering, election nullification, and threatening election officials, which further erodes public trust in government and democracy, ad infinitum.
The playing field seriously tilts for Republicans and against Democrats. The playing field seriously tilts against democracy. With no end in sight.
Jim Chrisinger is a retired public servant who worked in Democratic and Republican administrations in Iowa and elsewhere. He lives in Ankeny, where he enjoys reading history.
Top image by Susan Newcomb available via Shutterstock.