How do Republicans keep on winning elections?

John Crisp

GEORGETOWN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Here’s a striking conundrum: Why, in the world’s essential democracy, do we Americans tolerate such a large gap between what we want and what we actually get?

We could illustrate this in several ways. For example, we could note the remarkable discrepancy between Americans’ attitudes toward gun control and our actual gun laws.

Or we could consider the issue of abortion. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Nov. 7-10 found that 60% of Americans believe that Roe v. Wade should be upheld. Seventy-five percent said that the question of abortion should be decided by a woman and her doctor. Only 20% said that the government should regulate the procedure.

And yet during oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Dec. 1 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, conservative justices signaled clearly their willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade when the Court rules on the case next summer. If it does, abortion will become illegal in many states, as it already is, in practical terms, in Texas.

But there’s no reason for surprise. Candidate Donald Trump was clear and emphatic in a debate with Hillary Clinton just weeks before the 2016 election: He said that he would nominate to the Supreme Court only justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Aided by political connivance with the Senate, Trump appointed three justices. If they perform their mission, then, once again, the law will be at odds with what the people want.

Why don’t we have laws that reflect the wishes of the majority? The question implies another question: Why do we keep electing Republicans?

Democrats control the White House, the House and the Senate, but by a thread so thin that legislating is extremely difficult. And the smart money keeps saying that Republicans will take over the House and, very possibly, the Senate this year. If so, we can be sure that Roe v. Wade will be history and the reasonable constraints on gun ownership that most citizens favor will be loosened even further.

Some of this has to do with the fact that minority rights are built into the Constitution. The five smallest states, with a combined population of 3.5 million, have 10 senators, while the most populous state, California, with its 40 million, has only two.

House representation was meant to alleviate this extraordinary imbalance, but these days the compensatory effect is largely undercut by deft gerrymandering.

But none of this fully accounts for the discrepancy between the laws and policies that we have and the ones that would more closely reflect the will of the people. It doesn’t answer the question that Thomas Frank asks in his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”: Why do Americans so often vote against their own interests?

Here’s my theory: Republicans enjoy an inherent advantage over Democrats because their essential agenda never goes far beyond a simple formula. This formula is so thoroughly baked into Republicanism that the party didn’t bother to publish a platform for the 2020 election.

Other single issues — abortion, Second Amendment rights — notwithstanding, every Republican runs on this appealing message: lower taxes and smaller government.

No Democrat can run successfully on a platform of higher taxes and bigger government.

The genius of this Republican formula is that it appeals to nearly everyone’s desire to pay less in taxes. And it also caters to the sense of self-reliance that many Americans harbor. Many of us enjoy imagining that we can do everything on our own — or so we think.

Anti-government sentiment is easy to incite. President Ronald Reagan never tired of saying — and his acolytes never tire of repeating: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

But don’t be fooled: Terms such as high taxes, low taxes, big government and small government are meaningless outside the context of what citizens receive in return for their money. The virtues of “small” government versus “big” government are worth debating. But if polls are to be believed — and they’re remarkably consistent — Republicans will never give us the government that the majority of us want.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas. Readers may send emails to © 2022 Tribune Content Agency.

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(1) comment


Is smaller government more efficient? We intuitively know that when control is already challenging less ambition is warranted. Take small steps on slippery surfaces. And democracy creates a challenging control situation; it's harder to steer when you're wrestling for control of the steering wheel. But the tendency for great things to be difficult shouldn't prevent us from trying to do great things. It should just inform us that it is foolish to believe great things will be easy. We can't just naively put together big wish list program as though there were no realities to worry about. Nor can't we just count on giving a small coterie total control. We have to know that what's ideal is to pull of well controlled ambitious achievements under conditions of having to negotiate every step of the way. And that just makes a really poor soundbite.

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