There is a growing trunk of illiberalism both within the Republican Party and among Republican voters. But what does this illiberalism actually look like among the elected representatives in Congress?
It is not easy to quantify politicians’ commitment to maintaining democracy. Define even “democracy” is complicated – Scientists disagree on the exact point Definition – let alone try to establish how closely politicians or parties adhere to democratic principles. There is no ongoing survey how strongly elected members of Congress believe in democratic principles, for example, and it is not clear what such a poll would even tell us, since politicians (and their staff) are often masters at spinning. But just like aggregation Politicians’ votes can tell us something about what they ideologically fall on Economic or social policy, one thing us can Watch how congressmen vote when democracy issues come up.
The catch, of course, is that democracy issues are seldom put to the vote. “Most aspects of democracy are never debated in Congress in any year,” said Michael Coppedge, Political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and one of the main investigators at Variants of Democracy. This is an important caveat because the completeness of such a metric is limited by the actual vote by Congress. “Much is taken for granted that is essential to democracy,” said Coppedge. “Instead, what we get our votes about [are] Skirmishes on the verge of what democracy means. “
Another complication is that there is (or is not) a single list of democratic issues. No matter what the more democratic position is on any subject.
With that in mind, I’ve developed two different metrics to help us understand a legislature’s stance on democracy. First, a minimalist definition of democracy that is limited to basic requirements such as free and theoretically fair elections and other measures to ensure democracy. Second is a broader definition that includes everything in the first category but also includes bills that expand civil liberties and who has political power. That way, we can see where politicians converge on these two metrics – and where they differ.
First the most sober definition: “Problems of Electoral democracy. ”This definition contains the most basic requirements of a functioning democracy, such as free elections and freedom of the press. And while most of these topics don’t usually come up for vote in Congress, some did this year – most notably the counting of votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona in the 2020 election, usually a ceremonial event that this year faced objections from congressmen and coincided with the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Four other types of bill fall into this category: a bill that would have set up an independent commission to investigate the January 6th attack; when that didn’t happen to the Senate, a bill to create a special committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol; a bill to increase the independence of government oversight of the executive branch; and the second bill to impeach former President Donald Trump on charges of “instigating an insurrection against the United States government”. We understand that the bill was more political than the others in this category – and we debated whether it should be included – but in the end we decided that being too political is not a good reason for exclusion, especially since the bill itself is concerned with a democratic core principle: the peaceful transfer of power in the American elections. (For what it’s worth, the inclusion of this vote didn’t change the results much.)
How politicians vote on these issues not only reflects the extent to which they support President Biden’s policies, which FiveThirtyEight tracks through its Biden Score metric. While party lines are important here, this stripped-down measure of democracy still shows significant differences – especially among Republicans. On the other hand, the Democrats are mostly grouped in the upper right corner.
Take Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, Mitt Romney, and Ben Sasse. All five opposed objections to the counting of votes in both Pennsylvania and Arizona, and supported the January 6th National Commission of Inquiry – all three pro-democracy bills the Senate voted on in that category despite them are quite different in how far they support Biden’s agenda. Similarly, in the House of Representatives, Republican MPs Brian Fitzpatrick, Tom Reed, John Katko, Adam Kinzinger, and Liz Cheney largely voted in favor of pro-democratic measures before the House, even if Cheney rarely votes with Biden.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can see which representatives voted against both Biden and the sober pro-democracy moves of Congress. Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tommy Tuberville, Roger Marshall and Cindy Hyde-Smith, for example, have voted against the Democratic position every time, although Hyde-Smith tends to vote significantly more with Biden than the others.
But this bare metric is of course a pretty narrow definition of what it means to live in a democracy, which is why I created a second metric that also includes bills that try to create a more expansive and inclusive democracy. Using legal scorecards from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the government monitoring group Common cause and the non-profit research organization Vote smart, I looked at all of the other bills that Congress put forward this year that can also be considered keys to a functioning democracy, in addition to those already mentioned. Bills that fall into this second category include:
Interestingly, the overall picture doesn’t change the a lot if you look at this broader set of bills – though the partisan differences are a bit more blatant. While the barebones metric has had some Republicans on par with Democrats, it is no longer the case: there are no Republicans who support the broader definition of democracy more than Democrats.
In the Senate, Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse, and Cassidy still lead Republicans on that metric – they support almost all bills that fall under that second metric. The notable exception is the For the People Act, which no Republican voted for in the Senate. Meanwhile, we saw more movement in the House of Representatives, which voted on rather “small” democratic bills and whose democracy rating increasingly correlated with the Biden rating. However, there were still a few Republicans who supported a majority of these expansive Democratic positions, such as Fitzpatrick, Reed, Katko, and Kinzinger, though most of them vote with Biden less than half the time. However, Cheney fell on this larger metric in large part because of laws such as a bill banning discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, the For the People Act, and the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, unsupported.
And that brings us to an important point. As this broader definition of democracy shows, many of these issues have been polarized by the parties. That can make it difficult to separate anti-democratic politics from party politics, like this Gretchen Helmke, Professor at the University of Rochester and one of the founders of Bright Line clock, a group of political scientists who oversee democracy and its threats. MR. 1, the For The People Act, is an instructive example: Democrats pushed this bill as petty-democratic because it makes it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, but also for them to be first presented it in 2019 as a statement of what the party stood forwhen it had no chance of passing a Republican-controlled Senate and the White House. Did Republicans vote against this bill as part of an anti-suffrage stance, or did they speak out against it because they feared it would give the Democrats a sweeping victory in the legislature? There is no answer here. In almost every bill that we looked at in the more elaborate metric, it was very difficult to separate politics from politics.
Of course, this metric is not based on a random subset of possible problems. Democrats, who currently control both houses of Congress, could be strategic about what they’re pushing, says political scientist Jake Grumbach written down. Grumbach, professor of political science at the University of Washington and author of a recent paper that tracks the state of liberal democracy at the state level, warned that Democrats may want to avoid difficult decisions for their members by introducing bills that could divide the party, leading them to keep bills off the ground that the party disagrees with – a form of selection bias that plagues all studies of voting behavior in Congress. We should therefore be careful when drawing inferences about the liberal and illiberal tendencies of the elected officials in our sample. But to see where your MP or Senators fall, see the full score for all lawmakers on that metric in the table below:
At the moment, the core of democracy in the United States is not up for debate. “We’re fighting over certain aspects of the democratic process today, but mostly not about the core,” Coppedge told me. But the fact that democracy issues have become so clearly partisan is not good for the future of democracy. And since this struggle is already politically divided, it is more important than ever to watch Congress vote on democratic matters that make it to plenary.
Graphics by Ryan Best and Anna Wiederkehr.