Recently, Texan Democrats walked out of the state legislature, stalling a voter suppression bill. It’s clear they are passionate about what they’re doing, and are sure they’re right. But does that give the minority party the right to play silly buggers with the rules so the majority can’t pass laws?
Yes: Breaking the rules when it comes to voting is hard but necessary. No: Destroying democracy to defend it won’t work and isn’t right. It also makes you a hypocrite.
On July 12, 2021, 51 Democratic representatives denied the Republican majority in the Texas state legislature the quorum it needed to pass a voter suppression bill. Instead, they piled on to two chartered flights and flew to Washington DC to continue their lobbying efforts for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, the provisions of which would see at least some of what’s in Texas’ proposed new law nullified.
This is the second time the Democrats have refused a quorum to stop the bill’s passage, which would reverse recent changes to voting procedures which had Texas’ historically low voter turnout rate climb by 18%. In 2018, this was enough for Democrats to win a dozen House seats and two Senate seats previously held by Republicans.
The walkouts are justified for one reason: they are about the foundational rules of the democratic game, including a viable opposition, the right of citizens to determine who governs them and, more importantly for this discussion, the capacity to remove governments that fail.
The endgame of the many Republican state governments passing voter suppression laws is both crude and mean. It is to stop as many voters likely to vote Democratic from casting an eligible vote — or gaining access to the polls at all. When combined with other democratic cheats that the Supreme Court and the Republicans have been implementing for decades — allowing dark money to amplify speech, partisan redistricting and hobbling the Voting Rights Act — the result is that Republicans retain power in contexts where truly free and fair elections would have them turfed out.
How has this happened? It is the consequence of a shift the party has been aware of, and concerned about, for years. Namely the demographic ascendancy of non-white Americans and the eventual re-situation of white rural voters who are its base to minority status. As Thomas Patterson from the Harvard’s Kennedy school of government puts it: “If your base is 99% white and you’re losing Asian-Americans by two to one, the Black vote by nine to one, and the Hispanics by two to one, voter suppression becomes the only viable strategic option.”
If what matters is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game, it’s not hard to judge such blatant cheating as reprehensible. But for Democrats, mere tut-tutting won’t do. That’s because the democratic mechanism that would allow the voters to demand accountability for such skulduggery — voting the bastards out — has been rendered null and void by the bastards. Which means they have no choice but to resist in any way they can. Don’t get me wrong. Things are not likely to go well whatever they do– fighting with fire usually ends up with everyone getting burnt.
But we saw it with Hitler and we could be seeing it here: the use of democracy tools to destroy democracy from within so an autocrat can be installed. And no American worth their salt could stand idly by and let that happen again.
You can’t wax lyrical about democracy and then flagrantly break the rules when you don’t get your way.
Yes, I understand that Democrats passionately supported the innovative changes Texas put into place to try to lift its voter turnout rates — almost surely because greater voter participation helped them win more seats as much as because — being good for democracy — it made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
The minority in the Texas House also has a right to advocate passionately, as it has been doing, in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. If these federal voter protection laws pass, they will put a floor under the kinds of voter suppression laws state houses are allowed to pass.
But it’s wrong for Texas Democrats to use every legitimate tactic to make the current bill more palatable but take their bat and ball and go home when they fail. Talk about sore losers! You can’t point an accusing finger at Republicans for destroying American democracy by flouting the rules and then you flout the rules too. It makes you a hypocrite.
There are ways to dissent from democratically instituted laws and processes without undermining democracy, but they require moral courage. In the case of conscientious objection, citizens can quietly decline to participate in a lawful act if they have a longstanding and sincere commitment to a moral view that makes them feel involvement in it will dirty their hands.
If dissenters want more than a personal get-out-of-jail-free card to bring what they view as a bad law down, they can civilly disobey. This means they not only refuse to take part, but encourage others to rebel. Think of the eco-warriors who laid their bodies on the line to stop logging of old growth forests. And the Greenham Common women who protested for almost 20 years against nuclear weapons.
But this requires dedication, and an understanding that in privileging your moral code over the will of the people — as expressed through the law — you could foment rebellion should your example be followed. To ensure it’s not, you show deference to the state by accepting whatever cost for your disobedience is imposed. This can include fines, even hefty ones, police surveillance or jail time.
The Texas Democrats did none of this. Instead they took selfies in a bus and made much of the courage it took to leave their families for an indefinite period — if they set paw back in Texas the sergeant-at-arms or his appointed lackey can drag them back to the legislature. In the meantime, they’ve been making the rounds of Capitol Hill with a fawning left-wing at their heels.
Punishment for some, but not nearly enough to legitimate the challenge they’ve brought to stable democratic rule.