By Noah Rothman
July 4, 2017
With a Republican in the White House and Republicans in total control of the federal government, conservatives are often spared reminders that they are in crisis. Occasionally, the philosophical differences that may one day give rise to a true schism become visible. The response to the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is one such occasion.
The new executive-level commission established to investigate claims of voter fraud has been met with what should, in retrospect, have been obvious resistance from the states it seeks to overrule. The commission is requesting information on the personal details of every registered voter and the elections in which he has participated dating from 2006. At least 29 states have in some form told the Feds “no.”
Some of the states claim that the requested information is privileged and they are, therefore, legally obliged to resist its surrender. There is, of course, a partisan aspect to the controversy over this commission. Blue states like California and New York have preemptively rejected Washington’s request for voter data. Some states with bipartisan elections commissions, like North Carolina, consented to hand over only the information that is already publicly available.
Even some red states are resisting Washington’s overreach. For example, Mississippi’s Republican Secretary of State laid out plainly and in clear language why Washington’s request (not yet received) was so expansive it violated its residents’ right to privacy. “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from,” he added with conviction. Even the local office of the panel’s vice chairman, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, has refused to provide his own commission with some of the data it requested.
There are two ways to interpret this. The more charitable is that this is a good-faith dispute between institutions with competing interests, just as the Founders intended. An effort of the states to maintain their sovereignty when challenged by the federal government—a conflict that transcends ideology, partisanship, or tribal affiliations—is a durable feature of the American republican character. For some, that’s something to celebrate. For others, it’s a source of paranoid angst.
The less charitable analysis would conclude that both sides are playing politics—that Donald Trump cares nothing for voter fraud and is only trying to reinforce his evidence-free, pride-fueled assertion that Hillary Clinton only won the popular vote as a result of millions of illegal immigrants casting ballots. The conspiratorial right sees nefarious intent at work here, too. “Numerous states are refusing to give information to the very distinguished VOTER FRAUD PANEL,” the president tweeted on Saturday morning. “What are they trying to hide?” This is a presumption of guilt absent even an alleged crime.
The fault lines of schism are visible in this debate. Regardless of how passionately they feel about the subject, partisan Republicans who have defaulted to Trump’s position will at some point encounter an irreconcilable conflict with small government conservatives who see in this feud an expression of republican virtue and vitality. The right’s Trumpian luminaries, who have a habit of boiling conservatism’s internecine squabbles down to class disparities, are kidding themselves. These are bedrock philosophical disagreements.
Perhaps Republicans who side with Trump are just fulfilling the demands placed upon them by partisanship. The fact that, just two months ago, many in this camp expressed grave concerns over the revelation that Barack Obama’s National Security Agency sought and secured personal information on millions of private citizens speaks to that possibility. Sacrificing consistency in service to a political objective is, however, how ideologies become irreversibly corrupted.
Reconciling the ambiguities in a movement that is torn between its philosophical inheritance and an institutional figurehead who is hostile toward that tradition will not be easy. It might not even be possible. The will to power has broken its fair share of honest people and resilient institutions. American conservatism may be only the latest.
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