Democracy gets another kick in the teeth today when the Senate votes to confirm an illegitimate Supreme Court nominee. Mitch McConnell is an enemy of democracy. So is Lindsey Graham, and so is every senator who votes to endorse this madness—the first time in the history of this country that a Supreme Court justice has been confirmed in the second half of an election year.
Amy Coney Barrett is of course complicit in all this, though she isn’t quite an enemy of democracy—yet. If, however, the court is asked after she’s on it to make a ruling on this election and she doesn’t recuse herself and casts a vote supporting the political interests of the president who nominated her, then she’ll join the club, too.
As others have observed, this election is not Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s democrats, small-d, vs. authoritarians. The Republican Party is no longer a democratic party. Republicans are interested in our democratic institutions only to the extent that they can use and distort them for the purposes of keeping power.
And in the coming month or so, we run the very real risk that they will steal an election through the courts they have so aggressively rigged, and that armed vigilantes will take to the streets to attempt to enforce the illegitimate outcome. That is a textbook definition of fascism, and we are knocking on its door, or it on ours.
But there is good news. Many millions of Americans, including many conservatives, are sickened by this. They’re sickened by Donald Trump and McConnell and Graham and Bill Barr (who may yet have a trick up his sleeve with eight days to go) and all the useful weaklings who say nothing as those men ravage the country. We’ve seen the worst in people over these last four years, but we’ve seen the best too. The polls and this overwhelming early turnout give us all reason to have faith today that the best will prevail.
I write a lot of negative and pessimistic columns, but today I want to take a stab at filling you with some optimism. We have an astonishing popular front here, from Bernie Sanders to Bill Kristol. Yes, there are a lot of disagreements within. But that is the point of a popular front (the phrase dates to the 1930s and describes everyone from communists to centrists linking arms to fight fascism). We put those disagreements to the side for as long as it takes to rescue democracy. That’s what will save this country.
There was a great op-ed in the Times over the weekend by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of When Democracies Die. In the column, they lay out the stakes of this election as clearly as I’ve seen them laid out anywhere.
Trump “has brought American democracy to the breaking point.” The Republican Party has become a white ethno-nationalist party. And Trump and the GOP together have done something that is the perfect perversion of democracy: Across a number of fronts, they have instituted minority rule.
The most basic definition of democracy is that the majority decides. But in the United States today, the majority does not decide:
•Trump got a minority of votes, making him the second recent Republican to win while losing. Levitsky and Ziblatt write this shocking sentence: “Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years.”
•McConnell heads a Senate “majority” whose 53 members represent 47.5 percent of the population, while the Democrats’ 47 members (including two independents who caucus with the party) represent 52.5 percent.
•Likewise, Coney Barrett will be confirmed by senators representing a minority of Americans. The same was true of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. And all three, of course, were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote.
•On issue after issue, bill after bill, McConnell is sitting on legislation that passed in the House and that has broad majority support in the country—raising the minimum wage, regulating prescription drug prices, protecting voting rights, addressing climate change, tightening gun regulations, and much else.
This is what minority rule looks like. It is not democracy.
We’ve been here before. As Levitsky and Ziblatt write, the corruption and wealth-concentration of the Gilded Age left political and economic power in the hands of a very few. But ultimately it yielded to an era of progressive reform that united liberals and some conservatives (the anti-trust Republicans, led by Teddy Roosevelt) to pass an income tax, party primaries, citizen referenda, direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, and more.
We can do the same thing now. We start by crushing Trump. I’m not making any predictions, but it’s entirely possible that Biden wins big enough that even Trump can’t cheat enough to reverse it. Then we need to take power out of McConnell’s hands. It doesn’t look like Amy McGrath is going to be able to beat him, but if the Democrats retake the Senate, which also looks very possible, then he’ll be significantly sidelined. Then Democrats need to kill the filibuster so they can pass all those popular, majority-will items that McConnell has blocked. They’ll take a short-term hit in public opinion for doing away with the filibuster, but once there’s a higher minimum wage and expanded health care and all the rest, people won’t care about the filibuster.
In time, the popular front will split up, and we can get back to arguing again. I have a number of thoughts about the penance conservatives need to perform for the role they played in letting fascism creep into their party, but that’s another column.
For now, let’s put all that aside. We have to save lives, first of all, since Trump’s White House has apparently quit worrying about the virus at exactly the moment it’s peaking. And we have to save democracy.