- The GOP’s agenda isn’t popular, so right-wing lawmakers around the country are using technical workarounds.
- Right-wing policies like abortion restrictions don’t necessarily need to go into effect to be effective.
- Relying on confusion and stalling tactics is the right-wing approach.
- Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The GOP is winning more battles than a minority party with an unpopular platform should. But they aren’t paying as high of a political price because Republican lawmakers around the country are hiding their unpopular agenda behind confusing technicalities and baffling legalese.
Republicans are using obfuscation tactics to lead Americans to believe that laws are in place when they actually aren’t, that gridlock in Washington is an unshakable truth rather than a parliamentary strategy, and that voting in the country is far harder than it is.
The GOP passes laws they know will never stand up in court, because the message of its passage is likely to change behavior even if the law ultimately falls. These officials pontificate self-importantly about the necessity of keeping parliamentary tradition and rules in place, and then turn around and break them whenever it’s convenient. The GOP deploys whatever means are necessary to bend and even outright break the political rules of engagement.
The right has been pursuing this strategy of confusion for decades. It’s a tried and true tactic to force the window of what is considered “acceptable” policy further and further to the right in hopes that enough challenges slip through and establish a precedent. Winning individual battles in the traditional sense is secondary to this broader war.
Faced with an electorate that’s broadly opposed to the details of their policies, the GOP has relied on passage, not enforcement, to get the results that they’re after. It’s a savvy approach to lawmaking for a party with a broadly disliked policy vision, allowing for various workarounds at the federal and state level to remain in power.
Most people don’t really know
In May, I talked to women in Texas who have had to fight against the state’s existing abortion restrictions. Briana McClellan, a social worker with reproductive rights group the Texas Equal Access Fund, got an abortion in Texas in 2009. The process was arduous, she told me, due mostly to cost and geography.
Today, things are even worse. Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill last month that would restrict abortions to only six weeks after conception, a ban that would effectively end Roe v Wade, which established a Constitutional right to abortion up to 24 weeks. Therein lies the trick. The law, whether or not it goes into effect, is going to make access even more difficult. Even if it is struck down in the courts, the ban’s passage through the state legislature means that there will be more confusion surrounding the issue. McClellan told me that she already frequently needs to remind clients that abortion is still legal.
“I did have to explain to them that what they were doing was legal, because a lot of the time most people don’t really know,” McClellan said.
Access is even more restricted in Mississippi, where there’s only one clinic statewide and social conservatism adds to the stigma. Serita Wheeler, a sociologist in the state, told me that she believes that is by design. Right-wing economic goals are being realized by the use of religious morality to restrict reproductive healthcare access.
“The major industries in this state are food, hospitality, tourism, and retirement; all powered by feminized poverty,” Wheeler said.
Industry and religion work together with the state’s Republican lawmakers to ensure the right to abortion is always up in the air, even while the right to reproductive access is technically in place, leaving people around Mississippi in a constant state of confusion. Just the way the GOP likes it.
Abortion laws aren’t the only deliberately confusing ones: Republicans are doing the same with voting rights. Members of the public often do not understand the laws around voting, which can change state by state and year by year. The confusion over which rights are in place and which are not can be a powerful motivator to those going to the polls.
Laws passed in GOP state legislatures, like Georgia’s ban on giving water to people waiting in line to vote, are aimed at restricting rights and making voting seem like a confusing, intractable burden. Republican-sponsored bills in state legislatures around the country are designed to reduce participation and make exercising the franchise difficult — if not impossible.
Federal attempts to solve the problem have stalled out against GOP manipulation of the Senate. Even before nominal Democrat Joe Manchin announced on Sunday that he was voting against the For the People Act, the House Democrats’ omnibus voting rights act, Republicans were blocking the bill’s passage into law in the Senate by holding up the process via the filibuster.
“Democrats’ poster child for why the Senate should change its rules is a bill that would forcibly change the rules for elections in every state in America,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday.
By using this age-old parliamentary tactic to stop any legislation from moving forward unless Democrats use reconciliation — a tactical move that the majority party has, for some reason, left to the unelected Senate Parliamentarian to decide when it can and can’t be used — the GOP are ruling from the minority and stopping the ruling party’s agenda in its tracks.
This has created an inertia similar to that seen during the Obama years. GOP Senators, faced with legislation they don’t want to pass, hold it up with a 60-vote majority needed to pass it and enforce the filibuster without having to get on the floor and actually speak.
Not only does this tactic stop the legislation, it allows the GOP to distance themselves from the actual work of opposing whatever bill is in front of the Senate. Not allowing the bills to come to the floor in the first place — by using a largely anonymized system that lets senators stop the legislative process without actually having to actually do the work of stopping it — is perfect for Republicans.
One of the primary reasons the right relies on such convoluted, legalese tactics to get their policies into legislatures around the country is that the right-wing agenda just isn’t that popular. Poll after poll shows that the GOP’s policy prescriptions for what ails the US to be massively unpopular on a policy by policy issue (with the possible exception of tax cuts as long as they don’t go to the rich).
Democrats at both the federal and state level are complicit in this approach to governing. Bad messaging, a disinterest in holding the GOP accountable, and multiple tactical errors have left the Democrats wanting when it comes to even playing the game in the same universe as their opponents.
Progressives and rights advocates are thus constantly on the defensive. The use of disinformation and confusion to push forward an agenda as unpopular as the one Republicans have is the only tool the GOP has that can work — but it’s still working due to inertia from the other side.
If American voters don’t know whether they can go to the ballot box, think Washington is hopelessly gridlocked for no reason other than its natural state, and believe basic civil rights like the right to an abortion are up in the air — irrespective of reality — then the battle’s halfway won for the GOP already. It’s up to liberals and the left to fight back.