As it marks its centennial this month, the League of Women Voters shows how difficult it is for a political organization born and bred in nonpartisanship to navigate the cratered road of partisan destruction. The ascendance of President Donald Trump, the decline of the Republican Party and the reaction against them both have rendered “nonpartisan” and “political” as effective antonyms.
Not that the league was ever immune to partisan complaint. Too prim and complacent for the left, it was too feminist and fluoridated for the right. When William F. Buckley launched National Review in 1955, he vowed that his new conservative magazine would stand outside the respectable bipartisan consensus of the era — epitomized, he wrote, by such institutions as the New York Times and the League of Women Voters.
In the mid-20th century, the league conjured images of affluent suburban women who liked Ike and volunteered at the local polling station. The league was part of the advancing American center, both exemplifying and championing mainstream causes. It supported the creation of the United Nations in 1945. In the 1970s, along with First Lady Betty and President Gerald Ford, it supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
As the political center — suburban, moderate, corporate — came under siege, the league held firm to the causes that defined it: good government; progress, however incremental, toward social equality; deference toward expert knowledge; political enfranchisement. Such causes were always political. Today they are overwhelmingly partisan.
The Republican Party, currently engaged in a no-holds-barred defense of a self-dealing president, is not only anti-government but increasingly pro-corruption. It approaches internationalism as quasi-treasonous globalism, often slathered with a lumpy smear of anti-Semitism. Instead of working for social progress, the party has promised its base a triumphant return to a more racially and sexually stratified past.
Nothing reveals the bitter incongruity of nonpartisanship and contemporary politics like voting rights. The league was founded at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in February 1920, months before the 19th Amendment was ratified and women gained the right to vote. Voting rights are central to the group’s identity and mission.
Yet there is virtually no issue, or court case, on which voting-rights advocates and the Republican Party are on the same side. GOP elected officials purge citizens from voting lists, erect barriers to voting, gerrymander to empower one group of voters at the expense of another (Democrats have done likewise, just not to the same degree) and spread bogus claims of voter fraud to justify antidemocratic laws.
After the 2016 election, the league issued a statement that the vote had effectively been “rigged” by government-sanctioned suppression in multiple states. “It’s important to us to stay true to our values and true to ourselves,” said Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact at the league. “The league has been working on voting rights for 100 years.”
Senecal, a 20-year veteran of the league, acknowledges that the hyperpartisan environment has made it harder for a nonpartisan organization to function. But supporting voting rights is essential to the American project. “It’s the very foundation of effective representative government,” she said in a phone interview.
All three terms — “effective,” “representative” and “government” — are fighting words in today’s Republican Party. With Trump in the White House and the party ever more committed to minority rule, there’s little common ground between the GOP and a group committed to advancing democratic values.
With their acquittal of Trump this week, Senate Republicans will enshrine the principle that a president (albeit exclusively a Republican president) can commit crimes and gross abuses of power without fear of indictment or impeachment. It is new terrain, not only far beyond the shrunken political center of yore but outside the bounds of democracy and rule of law altogether. In the present era, it’s hard to see how any group that supports democratic values — even a group as venerable as the League of Women Voters — can possibly maintain a claim to be “nonpartisan.”
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.