American Democracy Will Continue to Decline for the Foreseeable Future
It took approximately 176 years for the United States of America to set into law the democratic values that had underlain its founding. With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nearly two centuries of battles that led to the continuing expansion of the right to vote in America came to a conclusion. Though we started as a country that only allowed white male property owners to participate in elections, finally we had universal suffrage for all Americans 21 years and older.
But Americans’ democratic fervor wasn’t over. Six years later, the 26th Amendment was enacted, giving every American 18 years and older the right to vote. For a time, it seemed like despite our partisan differences, we held firm to the democratic values we had long espoused and were finally living up to. Even 35 years after that, when the Voting Rights Act came up for renewal in 2006, the Senate voted 98–0 and the House voted 390–33 to approve it, and President George W. Bush put his signature on a bill first signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.
Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court heard a case, Shelby County v. Holder, which challenged the Voting Rights Act. And, in a 5–4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts, along with his conservative contemporaries, struck down one of the vital components of the Act that prevented states from enacting voting restrictions without receiving preclearance from the federal government. In Roberts’ alleged view, the country had “changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” According to him, the law passed in 1965 was not suitable for 2013 because the country had changed. Whether his expression was genuine or not, it was wrong. Following the ruling, 23 states passed laws enacting new voting restrictions. After only 48 years, universal suffrage was over. And it would only get worse from there.
Too many Americans had taken their right to vote for granted. Even as states threw up new barriers to voting, Congress refused to act and few voters demanded action. A complacent public did not feel that democracy was under threat, even as the worst laws since Jim Crow poll taxes and literacy tests took effect. But that initial inaction only inspired those that sought to limit who can vote, and Supreme Court decisions continued to embolden them.
After Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election, both the former President and his supporters launched a coordinated effort to delegitimize the newly elected Commander-in-Chief. The unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and newly concocted conspiracies combined with Trump’s refusal to accept the election results all culminated on January 6, 2021, when many Republicans in Congress voted to reject the Electoral Vote just before insurrectionists stormed the Capitol Building. Even after nearly a decade of creating voting restrictions to affect election outcomes, Republicans had lost the White House, the House, and the Senate to the Democrats. While rational political actors in a democracy are supposed to accept loss and adjust policy to better fit the electorate, the Republican Party instead decided that those voting restrictions didn’t go far enough.
Between January and May of this year, 14 states enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to the vote. And there are more on the way. Texas Republicans just passed a new law at the end of August to further restrict access to voting. Republican state legislatures are doing their best to make sure only the people they want to vote can vote. Maintaining a perpetual majority by any means necessary has displaced the democratic values that these elected officials were once expected to hold sacred. That is an existential threat to American democracy that has the potential to rip the country apart. But even as the threat remains real, urgent, and dangerous, it is rarely covered by the media and has led to little action from the judiciary and even less from the Democratic Party.
While lower courts may keep hope alive, the Supreme Court just recently ruled in favor of state voter suppression laws in June. In Brnovich v. DNC, Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion where he claimed, “We doubt that Congress intended to uproot facially neutral time, place, and manner regulations that have a long pedigree or are in widespread use in the United States.” Arizona’s new voter restrictions were allowed to go into effect because they were facially neutral, i.e., they didn’t specifically target anyone in the text of the law. But of course, Jim Crow laws rarely did so either. It was merely obvious what the results of poll taxes and literacy tests would be. And it is obvious what these new voter laws are intending. And it is just as obvious where the 6–3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court stands in regards to our democracy. They ended universal suffrage and they will not help us get it back.
With one branch of the U.S. government supporting voter limitations, it falls to the other two branches to step in. And for the first time since 2010, the Executive and Legislative branches are controlled by the Democratic Party. Though, in theory, this gives Democrats the opportunity to reestablish America’s commitment to the right to vote, they have found practical action much more challenging.
While there have been no limits to the tweets and speeches Democratic lawmakers have spouted off in support of new voting rights legislation, there has been little more than symbolic action in turning that legislation into law. Despite the House passing a new voting rights bill, titled the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, it has little chance of reaching the President’s desk because of an obscure and outdated rule in the U.S. Senate.
The merits of the Senate filibuster, which has turned into a 60-vote threshold for any bill to become law outside of budget reconciliation, have been debated since Republicans first tried to get rid of it in 2005. But as American democracy approaches a precipice, many Senators have come around to either reforming or abolishing the rule. Unfortunately, with only 50 Democrats in the Senate, any one of them can object in order to save the filibuster. And that is just what is happening.
Two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have become the public face of preserving the filibuster. They have closed their eyes to Republican actions across the country, and in doing so, indirectly provided support for continued limitations on the right to vote. When it has seemingly come down to whether this country remains a democracy or the Senate preserves the filibuster as is, they have so far chosen the filibuster. Should this country go down an even darker and authoritarian path, these two Senators will deservingly receive blame for standing in the way of one of the few chances America had to uphold its democratic values. And in hindsight, their obstinance will only look worse.
Recently, Senator Manchin signed on to a new piece of voting rights legislation. But his support is ultimately meaningless if it cannot pass the Senate. There is a hope among Democrats that he will come around when zero Republicans sign onto what shouldn’t be a controversial bill, but if the Trump Presidency and the January 6th Insurrection haven’t opened his eyes to what’s happening in this country, it is doubtful anything will.
With the Legislative option logjammed by the Senate filibuster, it falls to the Executive branch to enforce what remains of American voting rights. But given that voting remains a state right and not a national one, there is little the Biden Administration can do to combat state voter suppression laws. Attorney General Merrick Garland promised that his Justice Department would pursue and prosecute cases in the defense of voting rights, but those cases will only end up in the courts. And that could bring them right back to the Supreme Court, whose initial decision ended universal suffrage eight years ago and whose members have only gotten more hostile to voting rights since then. Without being able to sign legislation, President Biden may be forced to watch as Democratic voters are dropped from the voter rolls and turned away from polling places without being able to do anything about it.
With a hostile Judicial branch led by the conservative Supreme Court, an ineffective Legislative branch impeded by the Senate filibuster, and a helpless Executive branch limited in its Constitutional ability to enforce voting rights, it would seem that the entire national government is presently powerless against the new wave of state voter suppression laws. Democrats have seemingly missed their chance to uphold American democracy through their control of two of the previously mentioned branches. But Republicans, including those that did not support former President Trump, have squandered their chances as well.
Donald Trump may have called the 2020 Presidential election fraudulent because he lost it, but experts called it the most secure election in American history. This obviously baseless claim was the first chance that Republican officials had to distance themselves from the inanity that Trump had injected into their party and their politics. They could reject it outright, and while some did, too many decided to embrace what has become known as the Big Lie. On January 6, when it came time for Congress to vote on accepting the Electoral College results, 138 Republican members of the House and 6 Republican Senators chose to vote in favor of the Big Lie and the idea that a Democratic candidate’s election victory was inherently illegitimate. But the events of January 6 gave them another chance to reaffirm their commitment to democracy, and at first, it seemed like they would.
While the Electoral Vote was being counted and objected to on January 6, a throng of Trump supporters marched from a Trump speech down to the Capitol Building in an effort to prevent the vote from being certified and thus preventing a President Biden. After being evacuated from the legislative chambers during the storming of the Capitol, it seemed like many Republicans had realized what Trump and Trumpism had awoken in their party. “Count me out,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” House Leader Kevin McCarthy said on the floor. “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” Senator Mitch McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. When Trump was impeached for his role in stirring up the January 6 insurrection, 10 House Republicans voted in favor of it and 7 Republican Senators voted to convict. But where it seemed the fever had broken by the end of January, the following months proved that not only had it returned, but it had gotten worse.
Starting at the very end of January, Kevin McCarthy once again embraced Trump with a visit to Mar A Lago. The next month, Senator Graham took a trip there to reestablish ties with the former President as well. By May, Republican Congressman Clyde was calling January 6 a “normal tourist visit.” Senator Johnson claimed it wasn’t a riot or insurrection. When attempting to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 Insurrection, only 35 Republican representatives voted for it, and only 6 Republican Senators supported it, not enough to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. These Republicans, who had lived through the events, had chosen to whitewash the insurrection rather than come to terms with what it meant. That so many in the party now offer support to the insurrectionists, or downplay or dismiss the events of that day, bodes poorly for the future of American democracy and what it might mean if and when it happens again.
Given the failure of each branch of the federal government and the two major political parties to fortify voting rights and democratic virtues, one might think it would fall to the fourth estate to step in and step up. Yet the mainstream media, populated by elite journalists and talking heads, while overwhelmingly rejecting the events of January 6, have behaved poorly in the face of anti-democratic political actors. Though warned that polarization in the parties had become asymmetric in the 2010s and the Republican Party was becoming far more extreme and radical, most tended to stick with their “both sides” template, creating a systematic false equivalence between right and left in their reporting. This poor excuse for nonpartisanship became the basis for reporting in 2016, where faced with a Republican candidate with an excess of scandals, journalists repeatedly brought up Hillary’s emails, to the point where it became the closing issue of the campaign and severely damaged her candidacy. And though it contributed to her defeat in the election, most journalists refused to acknowledge their mishandling of the issue or reflect on any of their unbalanced coverage. Only Jeffrey Toobin recognized and apologized for the abundant false equivalency in 2016 (and he would later have other things to apologize for as well).
Five years later, it has become apparent that the fourth estate learned nothing from its contribution to Trump’s victory in 2016. While coverage was less skewed in 2020, it was also less election-focused, as the pandemic occupied most of our minds and our lives. But even after both Trump’s election in 2016, his attempts at overturning the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection, the elite media has not fully grasped the dangers posed by anti-democratic forces in this country. While they have no problem harping on President Biden for his withdrawal from Afghanistan in the same way they attacked Hillary’s email server, they have yet to reliably report on the loss of voting rights and the autocratic, and yes, fascistic takeover of the Republican Party. If they covered that 24/7 for several weeks, that might inspire change in the Republicans or action in the Democrats. Instead, they’ve merely shown they don’t know how to cover a democracy in decline.
While the fourth estate fails the pro-democracy forces in the nation, a trio of television networks posing as legitimate news agencies has poisoned the minds of many Americans with lies and misinformation. Fox News, Newsmax, and One American News Network serve not only as propaganda outlets for the right-wing but as conspiracy generators that feed hate, mistrust, and anti-democratic sentiments. And while they may only reach a few million cable subscribers initially, their influence is amplified by social media. Irresponsible companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allow the rampant spread of posts and videos from these networks in addition to the other viral fabrications that go around daily on their sites. No branch of government seems willing to do anything with regard to regulating social media, and the only one consistently calling them out for their detrimental effect on society is Sacha Baron Cohen.
We are experiencing a systematic collapse throughout an entire setup that was meant to maintain a democratic republic. Stemming from one Supreme Court decision in 2013, the dominoes have continued to fall, knocking down a succession of democratic structures while, at the same time, the elected branches of the federal government have become less responsive and effective, one of two major political parties has embraced extremism and lost faith in elections, and the fourth estate has failed to properly cover the changing nature of American politics. This perfect storm can be better captured by one simple observation. Out of only two political parties, one is pro-voting rights and pro-democracy, and the other is anti-voting rights and anti-democracy. How long can we expect the pro-democracy party to stay in power?
Democrats have, so far, missed their chance to counter the anti-democratic values underlying their opposition. But so, too, have the moderate pro-democracy Republicans. In May, 100 Republicans signed a letter threatening to form a new political party if the Party continued its pro-Trump, anti-democracy course. Some months later, this seems like an empty threat. While the Republican Party continues to embrace Trump, his election lies, and the newfound distaste for democracy, there are no longer any rumblings that the moderates and Never Trumpers might take action. Where a new, conservative-leaning party could have smartly targeted Republican-leaning states and districts to challenge their former colleagues without playing as a spoiler in Democratic districts, they have instead done little but offer the occasional statement, article, or advertisement. The Democratic Party offers a big tent, but it cannot hold vastly differing ideologies in the long term. America needs a functioning and pro-democracy conservative party, but for now, we won’t be getting it. Instead, it’s two-time primary loser Andrew Yang forming a new party, which seems intended to strike back at the party that rejected him. That is far from what the country needs right now.
There is one last hope for our democracy, and it is with the Biden Presidency. Should President Biden have an overwhelmingly successful term with effective policies and consistent approval, enough swing voters may stick with him and the Democratic Party. But just eight months in, it’s not looking good. The same feckless forces that are unable to maintain our democracy are undermining the Biden Presidency. Judges have issued partisan rulings in an attempt to keep Trump-era policies in place. Congress is stymied by the filibuster and uncooperative members with big egos and little care for the success of the Administration. The fourth estate will harp on any bad news and often try to blame it on President Biden, whether he is deserving of it or not. This, along with the seemingly unending pandemic, is a recipe for sinking a Presidential Administration. Combined with the Republican Party embracing insurrection and rejecting elections that they don’t win as illegitimate, the state of American democracy is bleak. And without intervention, it will continue to decline until, like so many other failed states, we are a democracy in name only.