Republicans and Democratic Backsliding

When winning is the only acceptable outcome.

For decades, going back to at least Newt Gingrich’s heyday, Republican leaders and affiliated talking heads made a practice of referring to the opposition as the “Democrat Party.” While I always considered it childish, I at least understood it: “Democratic” has positive connotations in a way “Republican” hasn’t in several generations and both parties,* after all, were committed to democratic principles.

Fast forward three decades and that’s simply no longer the case. While partisan gerrymandering is a longstanding, bipartisan practice, Republicans at the state level increasingly resorted to desperate, undemocratic measures to make it harder for folks likely to vote for Democrats to vote. In the Trump era, things got radically worse, with any outcome other than a Republican victory deemed illegitimate. This, of course, culminated in the attempt to steal the 2020 election when it didn’t go Trump’s way.

This mindset has metastasized to the point where attempts to overturn legitimate democratic outcomes have become routine. There are multiple instances just in the overnight news.

The (Nashville) Tennessean (“Expulsion vote thrusts Tennessee politics onto the national stage, could set precedent“):

Tennessee’s Republican supermajority is poised to take the unprecedented move of expelling three Democrats as punishment for violating House decorum rules by using a bullhorn on the House floor to lead a protest calling for gun reform.

House members are expected to vote Thursday to remove Reps. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, from elected office after the trio brought the chamber to a halt for nearly an hour last week by speaking out of order following the deadly shooting at The Covenant School – a move House Speaker Cameron Sexton later likened to “an insurrection.”

“What they did was try to hold up the people’s business on the House floor instead of doing it the way that they should have done it, which they have the means to do,” Sexton said. “They actually thought that they would be arrested. And so they decided that them being a victim was more important than focusing on the six victims from Monday. And that’s appalling.”

House leadership has never overridden a member’s election for simply violating House rules. Only two House members have been expelled from the chamber since the 1800s, both after either criminal charges or sexual misconduct allegations. Both of those times, in 1980 and 2016, followed special committee inquiries and were bipartisan votes.

NBC News (“A liberal just won the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. Republicans are already talking about impeaching her.“):

Janet Protasiewicz may have just won a seat on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court, flipping the ideological balance of the court to the bench’s liberal bloc for the first time in 15 years.

But if a newly elected Republican state senator gets his way, that could all come crashing down.

A GOP win in another Wisconsin race this week — the state Senate’s 8th District — gave Republicans a supermajority in the chamber. With that power, Republicans there will have the ability to pursue removal proceedings of certain elected officials if the Assembly votes to impeach them.

In the closing days of his campaign, Republican Assemblyman Dan Knodl, who won that exurban state Senate district outside Milwaukee, said that he would consider impeaching Protasiewicz from her current position as a judge on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

Now, with Protasiewicz’s victory Tuesday, the comments quickly spurred concerns among Democrats in the state that Republicans in the Legislature would make a move against Protasiewicz’s seat in the Supreme Court.


Knodl — one of 15 Wisconsin GOP state lawmakers who urged then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 presidential election results — narrowly won election, The Associated Press projected Wednesday morning. The seat had been left vacant after Republican incumbent Alberta Darling retired in November. Because her retirement took place after Election Day, Evers scheduled a special election.

Knodl’s win gave Republicans 22 votes in the Senate — an amount equivalent to a two-thirds majority in the chamber of 33 seats. This affords the party the ability to override vetoes from the governor, if the state Assembly also votes to do so, as well as to convict and remove officials in impeachment trials.

Under the Wisconsin Constitution, the state Assembly can impeach with a simple majority “all civil officers of this state for corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court has previously ruled that those civil officers include the governor, lieutenant governor and judges.

New York Post (“At least two Republican DAs want to prosecute Bidens: Rep. James Comer“):

At least two local GOP prosecutors are looking at ways to charge President Biden and his family amid Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of former President Donald Trump, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer revealed Wednesday.

“I had two calls yesterday, one from a county attorney in Kentucky and one from a county attorney in Tennessee,” Comer (R-Ky.) told “Fox & Friends.” “They were Republican, obviously, both states are heavily Republican. They want to know if there are ways they can go after the Bidens now.”

Comer is leading a House Republican investigation into Joe Biden’s role in his family’s international business dealings in countries such as China and Ukraine. The lawmaker’s staff recently reviewed Suspicious Activity Reports filed by banks to the Treasury Department regarding possible criminal activity by the Biden family.

There are a number of possible legal theories under which President Biden and his relatives could face non-federal criminal charges — after Bragg, a Democrat, unfurled a novel legal theory Tuesday to charge Trump, who is the leading candidate to run against Biden in the 2024 election.


Republican legal activists last week told The Post they expect Republican prosecutors to target the Bidens after Bragg made history by bringing the first-ever criminal case against a former president — perhaps by citing uncharged federal offenses, as Bragg did.

“You can be sure that there are prosecutors across Florida and Texas right now who are looking for a state law hook into the Biden family,” said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton. “And if they’re not, they’re not doing their jobs.”

Mike Davis, a former chief counsel for nominations on the Senate Judiciary Committee and president of the Article III Project, floated legal theories for possible prosecutions.

“I think our Republican AGs and DAs should get creative,” Davis said.

“You just need probable cause. A grand jury can indict a ham sandwich. We just saw that in New York. And the Bidens actually committed real crimes. These are real crimes that the Bidens committed. There is smoking-gun evidence that the Bidens were corruptly and illegally on Chinese and Ukrainian oligarchs’ payrolls.”

Let’s stipulate that only the first of these is about something imminent; the other two are potentially just people spouting off. But the fact of the matter is that they’re doing so because they believe, with good cause, that anti-democratic messaging will play well with their base.

Politics in a representative democracy is supposed to be a clash over public policy. To be sure, personality, value signaling, and cultural fights have always been part of the mix. But there was a time, not long ago, when losing parties in our elections graciously conceded their defeat and then went back to the drawing board to figure out why their message wasn’t persuading the voters.

I honestly can’t explain why this shift occurred. Partly, it’s a function of the extreme sorting of the two parties. We’ve gone from two catch-all parties, where Northern Republicans were more liberal than Southern Democrats, to essentially a rural-religious party and an urban-professional party. Losing becomes existential in that scenario and both sides are less inclined to lose graciously.

Still, there’s a categorical difference between being a sore loser, claiming that the election was rigged or showing up in droves to proclaim a Resistance to the winner, and trying to overturn the outcomes by chicanery or violence. While neither is healthy for the polity, the latter is potentially fatal.


*UPDATE: By this, I mean the adjectives themselves, not their association with the two parties. “Democratic” is still a word in common usage outside the partisan context, whereas “Republican” is essentially never heard other than as the name of the political party, save perhaps by political scientists. Indeed, this is true of the noun forms as well. Aside from the tiresome “we’re a Republic, not a democracy” argument, when was the last time you heard someone use the word? Yet “democracy” is used all the time.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Democracy, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Joe says:

    Republicans there will have the ability to pursue removal proceedings

    “removal proceedings”? Sounds so much more administrative than impeachment. No cause required.

  2. CSK says:

    This is a side note, to be sure, but the use of “Democrat” for “Democratic” drives me insane with irritation. In the first place, how did it become different in meaning from “Democratic”? What does it even mean?

    Didn’t Rush Limbaugh invent it?

  3. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: It’s been around longer than I thought, but was indeed popularized around when I thought it did. Wiki:

    The term Democrat Party is an epithet for the Democratic Party of the United States, used disparagingly by the party’s opponents. United Press International reported in August 1984 that the term had been employed “in recent years by some right-wing Republicans” because the party name implied that the Democrats were “the only true adherents of democracy”.

    Language expert Roy Copperud said it was used by Republicans who disliked the implication that Democratic Party implied to listeners that Democrats “are somehow the anointed custodians of the concept of democracy”. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the use of Democrat rather than the adjective Democratic “is in keeping with a longstanding tradition among Republicans of dropping the –ic in order to maintain a distinction from the broader, positive associations of the adjective democratic with democracy and egalitarianism”.

    Political commentator William Safire wrote in 1993 that the Democrat of Democrat Party “does conveniently rhyme with autocrat, plutocrat, and worst of all, bureaucrat”. In 2006, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker:

    There’s no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. “Democrat Party” is a slur, or intended to be—a handy way to express contempt. Aesthetic judgments are subjective, of course, but “Democrat Party” is jarring verging on ugly. It fairly screams “rat”.

    Republican pollster Frank Luntz tested the phrase with a focus group in 2001, and concluded that the only people who really disliked the epithet were highly partisan Democrats. Political analyst Charlie Cook attributed modern use of the term to force of habit rather than a deliberate epithet by Republicans. Journalist Ruth Marcus stated that Republicans likely only continue to employ the term because Democrats dislike it,and Hertzberg calls use of the term “a minor irritation” and also “the partisan equivalent of flashing a gang sign”

  4. drj says:

    I honestly can’t explain why this shift occurred.


    Republicans do not accept certain groups as “real Americans” and cannot stand the idea that these lesser people should have power over them.

    There is a straight line from the Civil Rights Act to the Southern strategy, to the resorting of the two parties.

    Add in hippies, feminists, and the gays, then subtract the Uncle Toms of various kinds (e.g., Clarence Thomas, Phyllis Schlafly), and there you are.

  5. Joe says:

    While I find the the term “Democrat party” kind of a juvenile coinage, I actual use it in some circles just to avoid veering into the controversy when certain Republicans hear the word “Democratic” applied to the party. I am not into having that fight everywhere all the time.

  6. Jen says:

    I honestly can’t explain why this shift occurred.

    You explained it in the subhead: “When winning is the only acceptable outcome.”

    That’s it. That’s the genesis of the shift. I can say this with a fair amount of confidence because that was the objective when I worked at the Republican Party. Everything, from the smallest local elections on up to statewide were predicated on making redistricting easier for Republicans, for the sole purpose of winning.

    It’s disgusting, and un-American.

  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    Just yesterday I saw the comment to the effect of “you don’t vote on right or wrong, some things are wrong no matter how many people vote for it”. Which is all well and good, but laws are not the same as right and wrong, nor does one party have a better notion of what God’s Will is than any other party.

    But this is how they justify ignoring/circumventing elections and yeah, democracy.

  8. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @CSK: I recall Bob Dole using the phrase “Democrat wars” during the ’76 VP debate with Fritz Mondale.

  9. Kathy says:

    “Banana Republican Party”

  10. gVOR08 says:

    Small donor money seems to have become more prominent, but Republicans are still the party of big donors. They set the GOP agenda. If you say, “We must win in order to do A, B, and C.” and then subtract from A, B, and C the agenda items you can’t talk about in public: cutting taxes for the rich and large corporations, gutting environmental, safety, and financial regulation, destroying unions, etc., all you’re left with is, “We must win.” For which see the absence of a Republican platform in 2020.

  11. Bnut says:

    As a Nashville resident, I was gerrymandered last year and now have the serial liar Ogles as my rep. The state forced a redcution of city council size on us. They are currently trying to take over the cities management of the airport and convention spaces. Now they want to throw out the representation of 200K more liberals. I have to say that I am glad so many in our state are still fighting back, but I admit I have given up. Losing 3 reps doesn’t change what was already a super majority.

  12. Scott F. says:

    Actually, I think James also explains why “winning is the only acceptable outcome” has led to the shift in politics in his previous paragraph.

    Figuring out adjustments on messaging to persuade voters on policy becomes harder and harder when the base refuses to moderate or compromise. There is no messaging that can make what the Republicans fundamentally want – a rural (white dominant) / religious (Christian dominionist) government – popular in a multicultural modernist country like the US. There is no winning with that, so trashing the opposition is the only winning message they have.

  13. James Joyner says:


    Republicans are still the party of big donors. They set the GOP agenda.

    I don’t think this explains the shift, at all. Tax cuts, etc. have remained part of the agenda but the Reagan/Bush/Romney version of the party is much more friendly to their interests than the Trump/DeSantis version. None of the cultural crap is helpful to big business. Nor do things like capping state and local tax deductions help big donors.

  14. becca says:

    It’s surreal how people take it for granted that the GOP is hypocritical and corrupt. IOKIYAR is a well known acronym, almost quaint now. Sure, there are bad eggs on the other side, but proportionally the republicans win hands down in the dishonesty department. Errybody knows. Here in TN is ground zero for the Party of Stupid and Mean. Not sure what the PTB want with this little state, but they sure have f’cked it up. Wish we had the wherewithal to leave the “rural” to themselves and further concentrate their gene pool on to madness.

  15. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s pretty easy. The GOP of Nixon and Reagan was filled with non-Wasps who had the Waspy belief that America was their country and everyone else was just paying rent. This allowed for the criminality of Nixon and Reagan going after liberals or cutting a deal with Iran. It was right to do these things because America was theirs. And this worked because the Democrats were getting their asses kicked on a national level: it matched reality. But the Wasps and the educated began to flee the GOP, and what was remaining possessed no certainty whatsoever. The Moral Majority could believe in 1986 that degenerate gays were going die of AIDS. But by 2004 or so it was clear that the degenerate gays were actually better at owning property and being middle-class than most of the Moral Majority, and by 2012 it was clear that the Silent Majority had offed itself.

    And instead of doing what the Democrats did in the 70s and 80s which was try to figure out why they lost to Nixon and Reagan, the Republicans used the favorable idiotic nature of the electoral system to keep the show running. But to do so everyone has become Gordon Liddy and Ollie North.

  16. Beth says:


    I was wondering what the effect of the rest of the Dems in the statehouse just quitting in protest would be. I mean if these three can get kicked out over this, what’s to stop the Republicans from just kicking out the rest? I mean, surely that’s the next play when they get away with this.

    Or better yet, bring a bullhorn and make them kick out the Dems one by one.

  17. Gustopher says:


    If you say, “We must win in order to do A, B, and C.” and then subtract from A, B, and C the agenda items you can’t talk about in public: cutting taxes for the rich and large corporations, gutting environmental, safety, and financial regulation, destroying unions, etc., all you’re left with is, “We must win.”

    They have “genital inspections of children playing sports” which is somehow something they are willing to discuss, despite being pro-inspection.

    I think the backsliding on democracy sped up a lot when the brain worms took hold. It’s easier to justify a “win at any cost” mindset when you think the opposition is evil.

  18. MarkedMan says:


    While I find the the term “Democrat party” kind of a juvenile coinage, I actual use it in some circles just to avoid veering into the controversy

    It’s a free country and you can call the Democrats anything you want, but just to be clear, you seem to be saying that in order to have a conversation with someone they insist you use their insulting name rather than the actual name. So… why do you want to have a conversation with someone that has the mental and ethical development of an obnoxious 13 year old?

  19. dazedandconfused says:

    I almost view the issues as tangential. The Republicans of today have been infused with a sense of entitlement to power, a key feature in nationalism per Orwell’s definition of the term. This is why they are willing to trash democratic institutions if they do not serve them.

    A democratic republic is a fragile, fragile system.

  20. Joe says:

    @MarkedMan: I would say if I want to have a conversation about something other than the party name, I am just not going to raise the issue. It sometimes useful or even important to talk to people with character flaws about issue other than their triggers. Triggering them as a condition of conversation is just not very useful. YMMV

  21. Fog says:

    Trump walks into a room of rich donors after signing the tax cut give away and announces that he’s just made them a lot richer. The deal was this – I give you a windfall tax cut and you say thank you by donating a nice piece of it to the GQP. Bill Cotterell of the Tallahassee paper called it legalized political bribery. Trying to get rid of it strikes at the heart of their funding scheme so repeal
    will always be opposed with the utmost vigor.

  22. MarkedMan says:

    @Joe: Like I said, it’s a free country and I don’t pass any judgement over it. But for myself, I wouldn’t waste any time trying to discuss politics with an immature idiot looking to be offended by everyone and everything and spoiling for a fight.

  23. JohnSF says:

    What IS this pointing thing American politicians do?

  24. CSK says:


    Trump does it much more than anyone else. He was doing it in the 1980s. I can’t stand it.