American democracy is at a moment of profound risk. The failure to address the threats to our system could lead the country to a point of no return on the road to autocracy. Finding a solution, fighting fiercely to defend the right of all Americans to choose their form of government, is essential. But, what if the most commonly prescribed solutions are unrealistic or unachievable right now?
Outrage, no matter how justified, is not enough. The stakes are too high to keep raising alarms and wishing for outcomes that cannot happen in our current environment. Yes, the situation warrants outrage and a burning sense of urgency. But it also demands realism and a long-term strategy. The effort to degrade our democracy by giving fewer and fewer people more and more power over the fate of the country, to corrupt our system and to institutionalize the racism and inequality within it has been ongoing for decades. The solution to it will not come in one bold stroke.
We are in a war to define what America is. We must choose our battles carefully and seek victories that will methodically advance us to our ultimate goal. Some will equate such realism with defeatism. But there is nothing more defeatist than placing one’s faith in calls for what cannot happen, in wishful thinking. That only plays into the hands of the enemies of democracy who have been working methodically to advance their goals for decades.
While those who value the aspirations and ideals that underpin our system are currently profoundly concerned about the hundreds of pieces of legislation being advanced by the Republican Party nationwide to restrict voting rights, they make a mistake if they see these moves as unprecedented. What is more, even if implemented, they would not represent the most damaging factors contributing to the degradation of democracy in America.
The Constitution itself is part of the problem. Its allocation of disproportionate power in our Senate and electoral college to less populous states is profoundly undemocratic and guarantees that proportionally fewer and fewer Americans will have more power over time. Today, the 50 Democrats in the Senate represent 43 million more people than the 50 Republican in the Senate. By 2030, roughly 70 percent of Americans will be represented by 30 percent of our senators. It is a grotesque imbalance that gives the minority effective veto power over efforts to curb their disproportionate power.
Our campaign finance laws are part of the problem. Since the Supreme Court’s disastrous and ill-conceived Citizens United decision, which equated money with “speech” thus giving those with more money a louder voice in American politics, the power of check-writers to choose those who write our laws has only grown. Dark money and other techniques that eliminate transparency from the funding of political leaders has institutionalized corruption in our system. And there is little hope of getting incumbents in Congress to do anything meaningful about this right now because they see this broken system as serving their interests.
Another deeply flawed decision by the Roberts court, Shelby County, limited the ability of the federal government to defend the voting rights of minorities. Other court decisions have enabled states to gerrymander congressional districts thereby protecting incumbents and in many cases reducing the rights of voters whose party did not control the state legislature.
There is no doubt that the hundreds of voter suppression laws currently being considered nationwide—virtually all being promoted by a GOP terrified of demographic change in America and seeking to rig the system to enable whites and the rich to maintain control over a country that will in just two decades have a non-white majority—will make a bad situation worse. They must be fought against by every means possible as should all factors that pervert and corrupt our system.
Currently, however, there is a widely held view that the way to fight those laws is to focus on having Democrats break the filibuster and then pass a set of laws that will help combat some—but far from all—of the above problems. The filibuster is another extra-constitutional tool often used to preserve the rights of whites at the expense of people of color. As currently employed it also gives a Senate minority veto power over many vital issues in which their views run contrary to that of a large majority of Americans.
The filibuster should definitely go. Getting rid of it and passing the For the People Act and other legislation protecting voting rights would be a great step to take to help fix what is broken in our democracy. Ending it would also create an opportunity to fix other flaws in the system from campaign finance (with new laws) to the disproportionate power of less populous states (by admitting new states like the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico). It would also make the Senate more productive and more like the deliberative body it was originally envisioned to be.
But a number of Democratic senators oppose ending the filibuster. Their reasons are often specious (see Krysten Sinema’s recent Washington Post oped for a great example of this). And the cold hard reality is that if all 50 Democrats are not willing to line up behind this reform, it will not happen, and that Sinema and Joe Manchin are not the only Democrats reluctant to make this change.
That said, we should push for it. We should do all in our power to change their minds. The president can and should play a more active role in seeking such reform. However, if we care about democracy, we also need to consider as the White House has reportedly done, the possibility that not enough Democrats will change their minds on the filibuster and that therefore, voter protection legislation like the For the People Act will not pass. What then?
The apparent conclusion of some within the White House, deeply frustrating to many progressives and others seeking to stave off this latest wave of voter suppression measures, is that if filibuster reform and voter protection laws cannot be passed, that they need to focus on doing what they can to pass other legislation that gives them a chance of bucking the long-term pattern with midterm elections and actually preserving or increasing their majorities in the House and Senate in 2022. They have come to the recognition that failing to do so, and allowing the GOP to retake the majority in the House, the Senate, or both will only accelerate that party’s attacks on democracy and effectively make essential social and economic progress not to mention approval of new members of the judiciary impossible. It is a tough view for many to swallow. But the stakes are so high this calculus deserves serious consideration.
In other words, voter suppression is a grave threat. But if the cost of focusing on impossible solutions to it is increasing the odds of GOP wins in 2022, then a different approach is needed.
Opponents of voter suppression will rightfully argue that if these laws are put into place, it will make Democratic victories in 2022 that much less likely. The concern is real. That said, pushing for something that is basically just a wish dressed up as a political objective won’t make it any more real, and that push takes time and energy away from other paths that might make a difference regarding next year’s elections.
Combatting naivete on this front cuts both ways, however. Those who want to defend democracy need to be realistic about whether the anti-filibuster cavalry is just over the horizon. But those who want to focus on winning in 2022 by virtue of the accomplishments of the president need to also invest in ways to combat those who will not be competing fairly next year.
This includes mobilizing a massive grass-roots effort to offset the effects of voter suppression laws. It includes funding the court challenges nationwide that will be required to roll back those laws that are unconstitutional or violations of existing legislation. It includes focusing resources on the communities that have been targeted by the suppression laws to ensure they are able to get to the polls and offset efforts to purge the rolls. It includes using technology to help make it easier for voters to know when polls are open or closed, where they are located, where problems may be emerging and so on. And, above all, it includes a massive effort to support candidates who will ensure Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and, not coincidentally, the preservation of our democracy.
It also includes doing what is possible to ensure the passage of more major legislation that has widespread benefits and is broadly popular as the American Rescue Plan has been and as the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan will be. We should not lose sight of the fact that a substantial majority of Americans support this president and that his initiatives are more popular than those of many presidents in recent memory. The few times the party of the incumbent president has done well in midterms have been when the country was at a moment of special need. We are in such a moment. But seizing it will require that the Democratic party remain unified around the president. Allowing factionalism or frustration with political reality to dilute our strength at this moment is the worst possible thing we can do if we wish to win this existential battle to preserve our democracy.
So, by all means, let us call for the sweeping reforms we need. Let us maintain our sense of urgency. Let us fight for filibuster reform if there is any way it is possible. Let us demand accountability for the wrong-doing of the prior administration. But above all, because the stakes are so high, let us be realistic about what is possible and formulate a strategy that enables us to win within the context of that reality.