Democrats have a small window to prevent the long-term degradation of America's democracy

Democrats have a small window to prevent the long-term degradation of America's democracy
President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin en route to a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

One of the more revealing political moments of recent times was when the Republican Party decided they weren't going to bother writing a platform for the national convention in 2020. They simply announced that they supported President Trump and pretty much left it at that. It's not that platforms necessarily guide the party's agenda, but they are an indicator of its priorities, philosophy, ideology, etc. Yet the erstwhile "party of ideas" didn't think it was important enough to even make a half-baked stab at writing them down ahead of the last election. That's because they don't have ideas anymore, at least any that could possibly be translated into a legislative program.

Maybe it's the influence of Donald Trump or the fact that the right-wing media's culture war machine is permanently turned up to 11, 24 hours a day, but the right has clearly decided that turning politics into a non-stop circus is all they need to do. That's why we have Republicans in Congress refusing to negotiate in good faith on the COVID relief bill and pulling stunts like forcing the clerk of the Senate to read the bill aloud for no good reason other than to delay the process.

And that's just Congress.

Out in the states, Republicans are a beehive of activity, putting all of their energy wherever they have any power to roll back voting rights. This isn't new, of course. Conservatives have been trying to suppress the vote of their political opponents and racial minorities literally for centuries. But we had made some progress in the latter half of the 20th century with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court recently ruled meant that we no longer needed the federal government to protect the right of those who've traditionally been disenfranchised.

Democrats knew that would unleash a wave of voter suppression and in the last Congress, the House passed H.R.1, the For The People Act, which would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders. Needless to say, the Senate under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never took it up because they weren't in the business of doing anything but confirming judges, appearing on Fox News and golfing with the president if they were lucky.

Trump's Big Lie that the election was stolen has now allowed Republicans across the board to go into overdrive, fatuously insisting that they must pass hundreds of laws all over the country making voting as difficult as possible for poor and working people, students, racial and ethnic minorities and people who live in dense population areas, in order to "restore faith" in our elections. Lie blatantly about a stolen election and then use that as an excuse to steal future elections. You have to admire the chutzpah.

H.R.1 once again passed the House this week on a party-line vote and the Senate will take it up once the Republicans get tired of putting on a sideshow and the COVID relief package is finally finished. This bill cannot be dealt with through the reconciliation process that allows for only a simple majority to pass so it is subject to the filibuster and the Democrats are going to have to do a very serious gut check. This is an existential battle for the party and for American democracy. The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein puts it this way.

If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats—and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.

Perhaps that's why former Vice President Mike Pence popped his head up for the first time since he was evacuated from the U.S. Capitol on January 6th to argue against this bill, accusing Democrats of trying to "give leftists a permanent, unfair, and unconstitutional advantage in our political system," which is laughable considering the state of our tattered democracy.

The Democrats currently hold 50 Senate seats but represent 41,549,808 more people than the 50 Senate Republicans. GOP presidents appointed six of the nine Justices of the Supreme Court while winning the popular vote only once in the past seven elections. Of course, the anachronistic Electoral College can grant a Republican president the White House even though he or she might actually lose by millions of votes, and partisan gerrymandering in red states consistently benefits Republicans.

Unless Democrats can persuade centrist Sens. Joe Manchin, D-WV, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Az, and institutionalists like Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that U.S. democracy is in dire straits and the filibuster has to either be eliminated or "reformed" in some way, H.R.1 and the upcoming John Lewis Voting Rights Act will not pass and this barrage of voting restrictions and gerrymandering may very well cement GOP minoritarian rule permanently. Not passing these bills really isn't optional.

The U.S.-funded NGO Freedom House, which has been around since 1941, recently released its annual report on democracy around the world. The outlook is not good.

Democratic governments have been on the decline for 15 years and it's not getting any better. But the most startling finding is that the U.S., once the exemplar of modern democracy, has declined by 11 points on Freedom House's aggregate Freedom In The World score, placing it among the 25 countries that have suffered the steepest declines over the past 10 years.

The report discusses the long term degradation of America's democratic norms but focuses on the accelerating decline in U.S. freedom scores during the Trump years, "driven in part by corruption and conflicts of interest in the administration, resistance to transparency efforts, and harsh and haphazard policies on immigration and asylum that made the country an outlier among its Group of Seven peers." But it reserves its harshest criticism for Trump's attempt to overturn the election which it rightly characterizes as his most destructive act. And even more concerning was the fact that "nationally elected officials from his party backed these claims, striking at the foundations of democracy and threatening the orderly transfer of power." That is not something any of us would have expected to read in a Freedom House report.

The Democrats have a small window of opportunity to prevent this undemocratic movement from gaining steam and securing minority rule for the foreseeable future. Trump himself is not out of the picture and his party is single-mindedly focused on attaining power by any means necessary. Democrats must act decisively now and make sure that all 50 Senators understand the stakes and do what is necessary to pass H.R.1.

I would hope that neither Kyrsten Sinema or Joe Manchin want to be remembered as the Strom Thurmond of their time, but that's exactly who they will be if they allow the filibuster to once more stand in the way of ensuring voting rights for all Americans.

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