David Roberts: Oregon Republicans are subverting democracy by running away. Again. (Vox)
The latest escalation mirrors growing anti-democratic sentiment in the national GOP.
In a nutshell, Oregon Republicans are exploiting an arcane constitutional provision in order to exert veto power over legislation developed by the Democratic majority, on behalf of an almost entirely white, rural minority. Five times in the past 10 months, they have simply refused to show up for work, preventing the legislature from passing bills on guns, forestry, health care, and budgeting. The fifth walkout, over a climate change bill, is ongoing.
It is an extraordinary escalation of anti-democratic behavior from the right, gone almost completely unnoticed by the national political media. Nevertheless, it is a big deal, worth pausing to consider, not only because it is preventing Oregon from addressing climate change, but because it shows in stark terms where the national GOP is headed.
Republicans’ objections have been heard and addressed. They just haven’t stopped the bill, and that’s what they want. It was never really about process, it’s about state government doing something they don’t want it to do (pricing carbon) in a state where they believe they ought to have veto power. They believe that rural white people and the kinds of jobs they do are more authentically Oregonian than those of city dwellers working service jobs, and thus they ought to have a greater voice in politics.
“We must get our way, no matter what” is not a reasonable premise to carry into a dispute in a democracy.
Republicans don’t just get to arbitrarily decide, as a defeated minority, how the majority’s bills pass, or what form they take. Their enormous sense of entitlement notwithstanding, they don’t get to rewrite the rules of democracy on the fly as it suits them, from bill to bill.
Oregon has the country’s loosest laws on money in politics, with no restrictions whatsoever on what corporations or individuals can donate to politicians. This has led to a flood of cash into state politics and the steady erosion of the state’s once-proud pollution and environmental laws.
Oregon is now first in the country in per-capita corporate donations to politicians; almost half the total money donated to Oregon legislators comes from corporations, far more than comes from unions or individuals.
There is simply no precedent for what Oregon Republicans are doing, treating walk-outs as routine, using them to prevent passage of what is a fairly milquetoast set of carbon policies (less stringent than in many other states) and even to set the pace of work in the legislature. Democrats have never done anything like this, anywhere.
This is an extraordinary situation. An overwhelmingly white, rural minority of voters is holding an entire state’s business hostage. Oregon Democrats played by the rules, got more votes, and developed legislation through appropriate channels. Now fewer than a dozen lawmakers, heavily funded by the very industries they are defending, are blocking it, at will, using an anachronistic quirk of the state constitution.
There is no conceivable justification for it, no possible democratic rationale. It only makes sense in the context of white supremacy: the notion that rural white Americans are more authentically American than other groups and deserve outsized representation in its politics and veto power over its legislation.
It is no surprise that there are copious ties between the Oregon GOP and the far right. Consider TimberUnity, which passes itself off as a grassroots group of rural Oregonian loggers and truckers against the climate bill. At a January 11 “Vanguards of Victory” awards ceremony, the Oregon GOP gave the group an award.
It’s all an interconnected network in the state: the far-right groups, the GOP, and the resource industries that fund them. Over and over again, this minority is allowed to assert its will at the expense of its fellow citizens, the norms of conduct that hold state government together, and democracy itself — without consequence or accountability.
For example, have a look at this story from the Associated Press. It is positively surreal in its devotion to the exhausted tropes of mainstream political coverage. The debate in Oregon has become “pitched” and the episode “reveals sharp divisions.” Republicans say this, Democrats say that, he says, she says, the end.
Nowhere in the story will the reader be told that Democrats have a supermajority in the legislature. Nowhere will they be told that a small, demographically homogeneous minority is using once-extraordinary measures to routinely thwart the will of the democratically elected majority. Nowhere will they be told that the white minority holding the state hostage has been backed in the past year by the threat of far-right militia violence.
Mainstream political coverage, as we’ve seen again and again in the Trump years, is simply incapable of communicating a sense of crisis. There is only one model of story — what each side says, in equal measure — and it only serves to blur and obscure a situation in which one party, not the other, has lurched in a radically anti-democratic direction. (The local coverage from outlets like OPB is much better.)
Meanwhile, Democrats in state government wring their hands and cave to Republican demands again and again, as though it is simply a matter of course that a large majority must bend the knee to a small minority.
In national US politics, as in Oregon, it’s increasingly clear that the population is urbanizing and diversifying and there simply aren’t enough rural and suburban white Christians to constitute a majority anymore. If that demographic — which has now become an intense, all-encompassing political identity — is to maintain its traditional hold on power, it can only do so through increasingly anti-democratic means.
In Oregon, that means exploiting the quorum rule and unlimited corporate money. At the national level, it means exploiting rural overrepresentation in the Senate, the electoral college, voter suppression, the filibuster ... and unlimited corporate money.
In national politics, as in Oregon, anti-democratic tactics and rhetoric are escalating on the right, but there is little pushback or accountability. They pay no penalty for lying, violating norms, or taking legislative hostages, so they keep doing it, keep escalating. The institutions around them seem unwilling or unable to draw lines in the sand, and when they do, as when Democrats impeached Trump, they find those lines blown aside by partisan unity.