Why it’s not too late to save democracy

Why it’s not too late to save democracy
Vice President Kamala Harris gives a thumbs up to a crowd of supporters Tuesday, March 16, 2021, as she arrives at the Maria Empanada in Denver.
(Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

I’ve wanted to talk to Anoa Changa for a long time. She comes from a radical Black household, grew up to be an attorney, then turned to journalism after a chemical spill affected her family and thousands more around Charleston, West Virginia. A coal-washing agent leaked into the Elk River in 2014, contaminating the city’s drinking water.

She lives in Atlanta now where she produced “The Way with Anoa” podcast. She’s now the weekend editor for Newsone. When it comes to grassroots democracy activism, Anoa has her finger on the pulse. The following is an edited interview. We talked about voting rights legislation, the Democrats and why it’s not too late to save democracy.

JS: What stories are you watching now?

AC: Being in Georgia, I’m watching our state elections shape up. Most people are focused on Stacey Abrams versus Governor Brian Kemp or former Georgia Senator David Perdue, but there are a lot of down-ballot elections happening that we need to take seriously.

Also waiting to see how congressional district maps will turn out and the lawsuits that will follow. We are watching the evolution of Donald Trump’s Big Lie take away the opportunity for Americans to elect representatives reflective of changing demographics in this country.

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JS: Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report reported a new analysis showing that if Democrats in states like California and Maryland go through with their plans to create independent commissions responsible with redrawing district maps that the House Democrats could lose 10-15 seats. They could just gerrymander Republicans out of existence the way Republicans gerrymander Democrats out of existence. That seems to be a situation in which Democratic ideals run into GOP power and lose. Thoughts?

AC: I think the problem is patchwork systems. You have Republicans diluting districts, like in Georgia, where the competitive 6th Congressional District is now more Republican than when Mitt Romney won it in 2012. Same for Texas, which gained districts but they are now being drawn to benefit the white conservative minority. Focusing on “fairness” without considering historic voting patterns and the bigger picture does pose an issue. Redistricting should be nonpartisan and independent. Yet for most of the country, it’s not.

JS: As someone covering democracy activism, what’s the solution?

AC: Voting rights and democracy advocates say there’s still time to pass the Freedom to Vote Act before we are stuck with bad maps. That’s the compromise bill that originated from the For the People Act to appease West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The other bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act restores the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the US Supreme Court in 2013. We know partisan gerrymandering is often used as a proxy for racial gerrymandering. We also know that it’s not a problem only for the next 10 years. Certain interests are locking down progress for the next generation or so.

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JS: When is the point of no return for passing voting rights legislation?

AC: Maybe early January. Activists had been pushing for action before the holiday recess. But it’s such a small window. Passing either voting rights bill would need to happen before next year’s primaries.

JS: Will the Senate change the filibuster rule to pass the bills?

AC: There was an analysis from Represent US this morning about the filibuster rule being changed temporarily last week in order to raise the debt ceiling. (That exception to the filibuster rule, agreed to by leadership of both parties, might be a model for future action.) Senate Majority Leader Schumer has been more cautious about rule changes than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ever was. Congressional Democrats are still stuck on this kind of gentlemen’s agreement way of engaging politics while Republicans went scorched-earth a while ago.

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JS: Voting rights depend on Democrats being gentlemanly?

AC: Well, they are stuck on decorum and protecting institutions instead of protecting people. All people, regardless how they vote, should have an equal opportunity to elect people to represent them.

I saw Lindsey Graham’s comments (about the carve-out to the filibuster rule). It reminded me of the president on “The Tonight Show” last week. Biden is finally coming around to seeing the damage done by the extremism within the GOP. But he’s still clinging to the idea of good people agreeing with him. How good are they if they are voting against what they know is right? Graham was once one of Biden’s close friends. I remember reading how he was there for Biden when his son died. But his good friend is now one of the leading voices actively undermining his agenda, because Trump needs to be appeased.

JS: So you think Biden is moving in the right direction?

AC: No, I think he’s still stuck in the past and trying to show his relevance to keep people from jumping ship. I get people who say, “Well, he’s better than Trump.” But that’s such a low threshold and there’s too much at stake. Saving democracy isn’t about simply electing the right people to office. It’s making sure they follow through on what’s necessary to ensure democracy for generations to come.

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JS: I interviewed historian Thomas Zimmer last week. He said: "The country is turning into a dysfunctional pseudo-democratic system at the national level and on the state level will be divided into democracy in about half the states and stable one-party rule in the other half." How does that comment square from your perspective?

AC: I think that’s probably a fair assessment. Without real action, investment and planning by the Democratic Party, we will continue to see Republican majorities run over the rights of people who are gradually becoming the majority of the country’s population.

This doesn’t mean Democrats should talk to all voters. I don’t think people should ignore the base to chase Republican voters. But there are lots of communities that vote a certain way out of habit or misinformation. Some organizing could help flip votes and seats.

The mistake Democrats made this year was acting like control at the federal level meant democracy had been saved. The actions and policies need to follow. That requires the will and fight to get it done.

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