Democrats must abolish the filibuster now, or risk losing the country to permanent GOP domination

Democrats must abolish the filibuster now, or risk losing the country to permanent GOP domination
Mitch McConnell/Shutterstock

If this were a perfect country, the rejection of Donald Trump by a substantial majority of the American electorate would have resulted in a fundamental, across-the-board rebuke, where everything Trump ever said or stood for would stand repudiated, and the nation could simply move on.

But Trump left a parting gift to Americans, one more poisonous than anything he possibly could have accomplished while in office. He left the Republican Party, which carried water for him for four years, something its members had always wished for, but never quite achieved: a ready, tailor-made excuse they could point to in their relentless quest to suppress the vote. We are now clearly seeing why Republicans so eagerly embraced trump's Big Lie of the supposedly "stolen" election: it made their work so much easier.

After Trump's "election fraud" theme percolated its way through the consciousness of the Republican base, like clockwork, GOP-dominated state legislatures began introducing bill after ALEC-ghostwritten bill designed to "correct" problems that never existed in the first place. Suddenly, restricting early voting and mail-in voting, eliminating ballot drop boxes, imposing new identification requirements, reducing voting hours and locations (all in heavily Democratic-leaning areas), became priority number one for the GOP, an imperative they would sell over and over by referring back to Trump's Big Lie.

As reported by Ronald Brownstein, writing for The Atlantic:

In its latest tally, the Brennan Center counts 253 separate voter-suppression proposals pending in 43 states. That's significantly more than the number of bills it tracked after the 2010 election—180 bills, in 41 states—when significant GOP gains in the states triggered a similar wave of laws.

But there is a fundamental difference between now and 2010: The Supreme Court, now governed by a rabid 6-3 conservative majority (including, yes, John Roberts, the lead author of the 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act) is not merely likely—but certain—to uphold nearly any state-imposed restrictions that make their way to that "august" body. So all these new restrictions will not simply fade away in states like Georgia, Texas, Iowa, and Arizona; most will become the governing law in those states, and many more.

As a result, what Brownstein aptly characterizes as "the greatest assault on Americans' right to vote since the Jim Crow era's barriers to the ballot" threatens to tip the balance of American elections in the GOP's favor, for well into the foreseeable future. That, coupled with partisan gerrymandering rendering an even larger majority of Americans essentially subject to the governance of a smaller Republican minority, presents an existential threat unlike any that Democrats—or the country, for that matter—have ever faced.

If those warped, distorted metrics intentionally designed to suppress Democratic turnout are ever imposed on all states at the national level—by a Republican president and a Republican-dominated Congress—it is highly unlikely that Democrats will ever hold power in this nation again.

As Brownstein observes:

It's no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary.

This is no "imaginary" scenario—it is, in fact, the most logical, likely outcome, unless the Democratic Party uses this brief, evanescent and flickering window of opportunity to stop the GOP's ruthless juggernaut—by passing the election reform bill known as H.R. 1. The legislation would halt or reverse these GOP-inspired efforts by establishing automatic voter registration, ensuring a uniform early voting period and the provision of no-excuse absentee ballots, and ending partisan gerrymandering by requiring independent review of redistricting decisions.

As Brownstein writes:

Although Democrats first introduced H.R. 1 and the new VRA long before the 2020 campaign, everything that has happened since Election Day has underscored the stakes in this struggle. The GOP's state-level offensive amounts to an extension of the assault Trump mounted in the courts, in state legislatures, and ultimately through the attack that he inspired against the Capitol. If nothing else, the GOP's boldness can leave Democrats with little doubt about what they can expect in the years ahead if they do not establish nationwide election standards. "This is a very brazen effort by lawmakers across the country to enact provisions that make it harder for Americans to vote," Eliza Sweren-Becker, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who is tracking the GOP's state-level measures, told me. "There is no subtlety and no attempt to obfuscate what is going on here."

H.R. 1 passed Wednesday in the Democratically controlled House, and is quite likely to have full Democratic support in the Senate, in this precarious moment of history when Democrats exert unified control of both chambers of Congress. But it will garner no Republican support, because Republicans understand that the enactment of H.R. 1 will effectively kill their plans to impose minority rule upon Americans. They understand that H.R. 1 means they will only survive (if they can) by actually offering their ideas for the consideration of all Americans, including the ones whose preferences and votes they would prefer to suppress. And they know what the majority of Americans think of their "ideas."

For that reason, Senate Republicans will filibuster H.R.1, to kill it before it ever comes to a vote. That is not an "expectation," but an absolute certainty. Thanks to Donald Trump, that legislation will swiftly become caricatured as the "Democrat election fraud" law on Fox News, and it will be demonized and distorted with all the formidable race-baiting tools at the American right's disposal. The entirety of the Republican donor base will go into overdrive to see that no Republican votes for it. A law that guarantees all Americans the right to vote is not in the GOP's interest at all.

Republicans, of course, have chosen to willfully ignore, for their own purposes, something which should be crystal clear: that deliberately imposing obstacles to deny Americans the right to vote is something truly heinous—something fundamentally un-American. It's a misdeed which should never, ever have been countenanced in the first place, much less legitimized by a political party driven by racism, self-interest and greed.

That's why the filibuster must end, and it must end now. If the Democratic Party is to survive the coming onslaught of Republican voter suppression legitimized by a thoroughly biased, extremist Supreme Court majority, there is simply no alternative. Ending the ridiculous Jim-Crow era artifact that is requiring an effectively impossible 60-vote majority to pass any substantive legislation, is now a survival issue for our democracy. The sooner all Democrats in the Senate realize this, the better.

Brownstein quotes Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, the chief sponsor of H.R.1, to further contextualize exactly what is at stake.

Against the backdrop of the red-state voting offensive, the fate of H.R. 1 looks like a genuine inflection point. If Democrats can't persuade Manchin, Sinema, and any other filibuster proponents to kill the parliamentary tool, Senate Republicans will be able to shield their state-level allies from federal interference. And that could produce a widening divergence between elections in red and blue states—as well as a lasting disadvantage for Democrats in the battle for control of Congress. Such a chasm will fuel "competing narratives that are inherently corrosive and destructive," Sarbanes told me. "The more you have this bifurcated system of how elections are conducted in this country, the more oxygen you are going to give to some of the conspiracy theories that come from the other side."

If the filibuster is not dispensed with, Democrats—and the American people they represent—will eventually find themselves held in a perpetual minority that cannot be overcome. Republicans have shown themselves to be perfectly willing to act in lockstep, imposing their one-party vision, one blessed by a hopelessly corrupted judiciary carefully created to affirm it. As Brownstein warns, if Republicans can succeed in establishing such laws in a few more swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or Michigan—states which now have Democratic governors but Republican legislatures—then they can establish more or less permanent control of the presidency.

Just after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, a newly disempowered Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the highly unusual step of insisting that Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema personally go on record, stating their opposition to changing the filibuster rule. In fact, McConnell refused to turn over control of the Senate's own committees to the Democrats before he received this pledge. It's clear why he did so—not for any concern about the COVID-19 relief package, which he knew would pass by reconciliation, but because of H.R. 1. Manchin and Sinema have dutifully fallen into line, in effect swearing up and down and crossing their hearts that they would never, ever vote to kill the filibuster, no matter what the reason.

Of course, McConnell had no right to insist on anything—this was political blackmail, pure and simple. It was simply McConnell, on behalf of his Republican donor base, baldly setting up and threatening the careers of two Democratic senators if they refused to do his bidding. There is no constituency—in West Virginia, Arizona, or anywhere else—that opposes the repeal of the filibuster. Many, if not most American voters could not explain what the filibuster is if asked, let alone how it affects them. To whatever extent any Democrat opposes its elimination at this point, their reasons must lie elsewhere, and those reasons are far removed from what people who actually live in their states believe or need. The "bipartisanship" excuses trotted out to keep the filibuster immediately pale in the face of the implications of its retention, and when the reality of what preserving this archaic construct actually means is brought home to the people whose lives are being held hostage by it.

Voting is not—and should never be—an issue susceptible to questions of policy or debate. The simple, basic right for people to vote is not—and should never be—a political football in a country purporting to be a functioning democracy. The right of all Americans to participate in their government goes well beyond legitimate political differences in how the country should be governed, or what course it should follow. Not only should the filibuster not be invoked in connection with so basic an issue, it should never even be a consideration.

The reality is that the very nature, character, and continued existence of this republic is on the line with H.R. 1. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and any other Democrats who obstinately refuse to accept that fact risk going down in history as the enablers of its destruction.

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