Joe Biden Vowed to Fix America. What the Hell Is the Problem?
Democrats squandered a golden year in 2021, and 2022 isn’t looking any better if the party can’t find a way to protect Americans’ voting rights.
The future of America’s 245-year experiment in free government will be decided by two forces: energy and inertia.
Across the country, Republicans at every level of politics are more energized than they’ve been in years. But while the right is juggling the demands of killing Roe v. Wade, gerrymandering congressional districts, and burying voting rights, Democrats are stuck in the mud.
In 2020, Democrats achieved the rare feat of ousting an incumbent president and winning back unified control of Congress. Americans then watched as the most energizing parts of Biden’s bold agenda quickly took on water, capsized, and sank. Even more demoralizing, it felt like those failures were dealt as often by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema as they were by Republicans.
In just a year, Democrats went from the confident triumph of a new president pledging that “you’ve always had my back and I’ll always have yours” to a broken politics where Joe Biden can’t even convince his own senators that saving millions of Americans’ voting rights is worth a one-time filibuster carve-out.
In that same year, Republican lawmakers who are unrepentant about their leading roles in the violent attack on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 intended to overturn an election loss now see themselves on track to regain power in the elections this November, with the help of gerrymandered House districts and a Senate system that gives outsized power to rural, redder states.
If there is ‘nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what is right with America’, as the president likes to say, then what the hell is the problem?
Progressive lawmakers are privately beginning to accept that most of their more ambitious goals will likely be left behind on the legislative battlefield: a sweeping climate change package, for one. Criminal justice reform, too. And taxing the rich? Not with Manchin in the way. But if Biden is resigned to scaling back some of his loftier policy dreams, he must double down on protecting Americans’ fundamental right to vote. In a year marked by disappointments and disillusionment, Biden and Democrats can not afford to let their nation down where it matters most.
Republicans have used Democrats’ inaction and infighting to stack the electoral deck with a permanent GOP advantage. With Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist playbook still effectively gridlocking the Senate, Republicans have had more time than ever before to professionalize what has become an absolutely devastating gerrymandering and voter suppression network. And boy, have they ever.
With assists from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ ongoing war against the Voting Rights Act and dark-money influence peddlers like the Heritage Foundation, GOP politicians slammed through a record 33 voting restriction laws last year. It is now harder to vote in 19 states than it was one year ago, despite a stirring Democratic 2020 campaign message about the crucial importance of protecting and expanding the right to vote.
Like a hydra, that antidemocratic abuse has many heads. It appears as a law cracking down on vote-by-mail, as Georgia’s bill does, or just shutting down as many polling places as possible in low-income and minority communities across Texas. And the GOP isn’t done: Republicans in five states including Florida and New Hampshire have already filed bills to choke the vote even more — and their legislative sessions haven’t even started yet. They’ll join over 200 returning voter suppression bills that Republicans didn’t have the time to pass last year.
And where the non-Republican votes can’t be suppressed away, they’ll be drawn into irrelevance by GOP efforts to draw congressional maps without even a nod towards true representation. North Carolina Republicans gifted themselves 10 of the state’s 14 congressional seats—71 percent—despite Joe Biden winning 48.6 percent of the vote there in 2020 and voters re-electing a Democratic governor. And nationwide “cracking” of Democratic cities into multiple GOP-favored districts puts Democrats at a nearly insurmountable long-term structural disadvantage.
Unfortunately, none of this has moved Democrats to acknowledge the urgency of our national moment—at least, not enough to overcome a fetishized loyalty to Senate ‘institutions’ like the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spent much of last year trying in turn to bring 10 Republicans into a bipartisan voting rights bill or persuade Manchin to bend on the filibuster, but both efforts did little more than burn precious time as Republicans organized their efforts solidly against the democratic process.
On Monday morning, Schumer issued an angry plea for filibuster holdouts Manchin and Sinema to carve out an exception that would allow Manchin’s Freedom to Vote Act to pass into law before the worst of the GOP’s voter suppression takes root. Too much time has already been lost. Too much damage has already been done. If Democrats can’t deliver on this basic defense of the democracy they’ve sworn an oath to protect, it will be regarded as a lost opportunity of staggering proportions.
“We must adapt. The Senate must evolve, like it has many times before,” Schumer wrote. But it speaks volumes that Schumer must raise his voice and throw down public gauntlets to motivate his own Democratic colleagues on an issue as central to our national existence as the vote. That fundamental right to vote, and to vote in districts that are fairly representative, is the cornerstone of a functional republic. Without fair districts and a free vote, all other rights become suggestions.
Perhaps in a nod to the severity of the times, Schumer chose to call upon the soaring rhetoric of late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, specifically Byrd’s entreaty that “Congress is not obliged to be bound by the dead hand of the past.”
Schumer is right. Senator Byrd does offer us guidance in this treacherous moment. But that guidance comes instead from a speech Byrd delivered opposing the impending invasion of Iraq in February 2003:
“This Chamber is, for the most part, silent—ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons… There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.”
In 2003 the mute impotence of a cowed Senate condemned us all to a generation of foreign war. Two decades later, the Senate’s indefensible silence on voting rights threatens to plunge our nation into a dark period of social unrest and unrepresentative governance. Our civil society will not endure a system as plainly broken and unequal as the nightmare represented by Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts. Democrats can no longer delay their moment of national reckoning.