I have never considered myself a religious person. Spiritual, maybe. But generally, I believe in higher beings the way I believe in “Baby on Board” car decals - they are there, but it doesn’t stop whatever is barreling your way at 50 mph from making impact. Until, back in March, I heard Sen. Raphael Warnock give his maiden speech pushing for the speedy passage of the For the People Act, a comprehensive voting rights bill, and then, I reconsidered. More reminiscent of a sermon than anything we’ve heard on the Senate floor lately, Warnock asks us to consider a new paradigm: “A vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and our children [...] I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea. The sacred worth of all human beings.” It turns out, I might be a religious person, if religion is democracy.
Two protesters march throughout the streets of Manhattan, New York City during a Black Transgender Liberation March holding a sign honoring LGBTQ+ members who fought for LGBTQ+ rights on Thursday, April 8th, 2021. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
The question of our devotion to democracy and democratic ideals comes at a time when the Republican Party is dying. Whether it will disappear entirely or morph into a new party bearing little resemblance to its earlier selves, the GOP right now is living on borrowed time. However, in classic GOP fashion, the party machinery across the 50 states is generating sideshows to distract from the sound of the respirator. This time, they’ve set their sights on two strands of state legislation: anti-transgender rights bills and voter suppression bills, primarily focused on rolling back the vote for people of color and lower income people. It would be too easy to say that the sole point of these bills is to extract pain, diminish power, and suppress those who challenge and oppose them, although that is certainly one of the main motivators. However, we must also focus on the other function of such legislation, which is to divert attention away from two broader issues facing the GOP: the massive infrastructure failures states with Republican governors are facing and the glaring lack of a Republican platform with comprehensive policy proposals that amount to more than “We Love Trump.”
Consider the anti-transgender bills. There are over 100 anti-transgender bills (and climbing) moving their way through at least 33 state legislatures, making 2021 a record year for anti-transgender legislation. These bills,10 of which found a home on governors’ desks this week alone, primarily have three targets: limiting the ability of transgender people, primarily trans-girls and women, from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity; denying transgender people use of bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity; and prohibiting physicians from providing gender-affirming procedures and other forms of care to transgender patients under the age of 18.
Research by the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s leading LGBTQ advocacy groups, indicates that none of these bills are being pushed by constituent demands, nor are they driven by businesses. On the contrary, over 65 major corporations have expressed emphatic opposition to these bills, alongside NCAA athletes, and child health and welfare organizations. Indeed, identical in language and intent, they all seem to stem from the same handful of anti-equality, anti-transgender organization, including the Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom (designated by Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group), and Eagle Forum, among others. So what gives?
Let’s look at Mississippi. On March 11, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves made the news as he signed the first anti-trans bill of 2021 into law. His attention to the anti-trans campaign came at the expense of dealing with much more pressing issues for his constituents. At the time, Mississippi was paralyzed by the same cold-weather spell that sent Texas into a tail-spin and brought national attention to its fractured water and energy infrastructure. Jackson, the state’s majority-Black capital, also had no water - no potable water to drink, not even non-potable water to flush toilets. Governing in that moment would have required Tate, who continuously advocates for as little government in government services as possible, to have a plan for deploying those services. In the moment, it was easier to create a fake problem - transgender women and girls playing sports - than to confront an actual public policy problem - the need for government assistance deployed through public services and large-scale infrastructure projects. His current dismissal of President Biden’s infrastructure plan on the basis of economic concerns, despite the acknowledgement that his state could really use some clean water, suggests that there remains no interest in using public office to address pressing policy problems.
The voter suppression bills represent an oppression of a different kind, targeting the levers of democracy directly. The bills that would curb voting rights are without a doubt in response to another phantom problem - voter fraud. As of early April, there were 55 restrictive bills moving through state legislatures in 24 states, with 29 having passed at least one legislative chamber. These bills work to suppress voting through a number of mechanisms - limiting absentee voting, stricter voter I.D. laws, banning extended voting hours, closing drive-thru voting, and closing polls early in minority communities. The map of states with restrictive voting bills and anti-trans bills has significant overlap, and again, Republican-led states are leading the way.
Texas provides our case study here. Always trying to go bigger than the rest, Texas leads in the number of anti-trans bills (12) and the severity of its two voter suppression bills, one of which has already passed. And yet, like Mississippi, there are very real public policy problems in need of solving - continuing to vaccinate the population in a Republican-run state that declared itself open for business before all other states comes to mind. With only 23% of the population fully vaccinated and sporting some of the places with the highest case rates in the country, there isn’t a shortage of healthcare delivery problems to address. Not to mention the need to address those crumbling water and energy infrastructure systems that were all over the news in February and have fallen out of the spotlight. Those problems still exist, though Governor Greg Abbott seems to be silent on the issue of building a resilient infrastructure.
For a democracy to function and maintain legitimacy, people have to believe that their participation gives them a functioning government. The decision to create problems where there aren’t any and ignore real ones creates a democratic crisis of two kinds: those who don’t believe that government doesn’t provide anything useful are affirmed in their belief and those who believe that their government would rather them dead than part of civic life are also affirmed. In both cases, we run the risk of swathes of the population disappearing from public life, degrading the quality of government overall. And so the cycle repeats itself, its own self-fulfilling prophecy of the futility of democracy.
Having preached the obsolescence and evil of government since before Reagan could even suggest we should fear the arrival of government help, the Republicans have carved out a role as the un-doers of any good government. The latest round of anti-trans legislation and voter suppression bills are dangerous distractions from the main problem - the lack of a desire or ability to do policy and not just politick. It might be too late to resuscitate the Republican party and save it from its own violent ends. However, like Sen. Warnock, I am coming to believe that even in the darkest of times, there is always a path to make democracy better. We just need to believe in - and fight for - its worthiness.
Editor’s Note: Sara is a researcher, public policy advisor, educator, writer, and comedian based in New York City. Sara currently works for the New York City Department of Education as the lead researcher and data strategist for teacher recognition programs. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics & Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Master of Philosophy in Education from the University of Cambridge and a B.A. in Political Economy and English from Tulane University. Her creative nonfiction short stories have appeared in Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, American Chordata, and The Merrimack Review.
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