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Behind Closed Doors, Republican Plutocrats Conspiring Against Democracy Let the Mask Slip

A coalition of ultra-wealthy oligarchs and Republican leaders is conspiring to kill HR 1, the landmark voting rights bill that will be up for a vote this year. In a newly uncovered secret recording, the conspirators bemoan the unpopularity of their effort — even with rank-and-file conservatives — and underscore how conscious they are that their antidemocratic agenda depends on curtailing democracy.

David Koch on November 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

House Resolution 1 contains a series of provisions so commonsensical that, purely technical objections aside, no one with even a perfunctory commitment to democracy could reject them. Called “the most significant democracy reform bill since the Voting Rights Act” by voting rights expert Ari Berman, the legislation — which passed the House of Representatives 234 to 193 in early March — would establish automatic national voter registration, expand mail-in voting, create independent redistricting commissions for House districts to crack down on gerrymandering, and introduce measures designed to limit the influence of dark money.

HR 1 would, in short, make elections freer, fairer, and more transparent. It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s been greeted by strong opposition from Republicans, who’ve been engaged in a wider offensive against civil and voting rights for decades. What’s novel in this case, however, is that we now actually have a glimpse into what this campaign looks like behind the scenes — and how nakedly explicit its antidemocratic aims really are.

In public, as the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has noted, GOP rhetoric has sought to portray HR 1 as an unpopular partisan gesture: none other than Ted Cruz has branded it “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.” Opposition to voting rights, of course, has long articulated itself in terms such as these: the Right mobilizing bogus concerns about fraud (to take one obvious example) to cloak its antidemocratic ambitions in the language of fairness. As a recording recently obtained by Mayer and the New Yorker makes clear, claims like these are indeed every bit as opportunistic and dishonest as they seem. Rarely, in fact, do we ever get such a direct view of what it sounds like when right-wing plutocrats conspire — or get such an intimate glimpse at their contempt for democracy and majority rule.

The recently released recording involves audio of a private conference call held on January 8 which included operatives from several right-wing groups and a policy adviser to Mitch McConnell. During the call, Kyle McKenzie — research director of the Koch-run group Stand Together — details to attendees the findings of a survey on public perceptions of HR 1: the analysis’s secondary objective, explains McKenzie, being “to see if we could find any message that would activate and persuade conservatives on this issue.” Having said this, McKenzie promises to offer those on the call some practical “dos and don’ts . . .  about mass public communications” surrounding the bill.

His summary of the findings themselves is where things start to get interesting, especially when viewed in contrast to what prominent conservative figures have been saying about the bill in public. “When presented with a very neutral description of HR 1, people were generally supportive,” McKenzie says, before going on to add that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description of HR 1. There’s a large, very large chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.” Given the apparent popularity of expanded voting rights, he continues, Republicans will have to rely on “under-the-dome-type strategies” to defeat the bill because “winning over public support for this is actually incredibly difficult.” McKenzie then proceeds to advise attendees not to “engage” directly with HR 1 proponents’ talking points. His reasoning? “Unfortunately, we’ve found that [stopping billionaires from buying elections]” is “a winning message for both the general public and also conservatives.”

In an unintentionally funny segment of the call McKenzie details his outfit’s efforts to find a rhetorical countermeasure to the bill’s popularity, with neither “an A.O.C. message we tested” nor attaching the phrase “cancel culture” having the desired effectiveness. “It really ranked at the bottom,” says McKenzie to attendees. “That was definitely a little concerning for us.”

Taken as a whole, nothing revealed in Mayer’s reporting is perhaps all that surprising given the Right’s long-standing (and transparently partisan) opposition to voting rights and fairer elections. Nevertheless, it’s nothing short of extraordinary to hear the billionaire-backed Republican opposition to democracy expressed in such blandly explicit terms. If voters from across the political spectrum hear a neutral description of HR 1, as McKenzie explains in tones of barely concealed disappointment, Republicans will lose. The only course, therefore, is to fall back on a mixture of disingenuous messaging, antidemocratic subterfuge, and simple obstruction.

All in all, it’s perhaps the most lucid exposition we’ve heard in recent years of something many already knew: that the political power and long-term durability of the Republican Party ultimately depend on the restriction of democracy and the protection of minority rule.