Has the Republican Party engaged in “a coordinated attack on democracy,” by restricting voting rules, opening the campaign-money spigot, blocking progressive local laws and consumer protections, engaging in partisan gerrymandering, and stacking the courts with judges to give their repressive program a green light? That’s the provocative thesis of Zachary Roth’s engaging and very readable book, The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. But Roth’s argument is overwrought, painting the picture of a vast right-wing conspiracy with too broad of a brush, and failing to distinguish between normal political competition and political chicanery. Don’t get me wrong. There’s been plenty of chicanery around the issue of voter fraud by the charlatan members of the fraudulent-fraud squad, who have ginned up false reports of voter fraud to claim Democrats are stealing elections. As Roth demonstrates, Donald Trump’s ranting about people voting 10 times echoes earlier Republican statements, such as then-Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain’s statement during the 2008 campaign that the voter registration group ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
And it goes even deeper. Roth notes what I’ve termed the “new conservative assault on early voting” which is based on an ideological view among some conservatives that voting should be harder, not easier, in order to weed out people who are not educated or invested enough to deserve to cast a ballot.
But this recognition of an ideological disagreement shows that much of what Roth describes in the book as part of “a coordinated attack on democracy” is not quite so nefarious. If conservatives genuinely believe their arguments then it is less a conspiracy than it is a disagreement about what is best for the United States and how to best protect the rights in the Constitution.
This point is most evident in Roth’s discussion of campaign finance. Roth tells the story of the fight over campaign-finance rules, emphasizing the challenge to post-Watergate rules passed by Congress that culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo. In Ross’s reading, it was just Republicans who were fighting for the right to spend unlimited money in politics. Totally absent from his version of the story is the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, which was a leader in arguing against these laws out of fears that limiting campaign money would lead to government censorship.