The Missed Opportunities to Save American Democracy in 2021
As I’ve written about before, American democracy is currently in a decline that has the potential to lead to an authoritarian state or worse. Such a trajectory is not inevitable, but the result of the actions and inactions of both democratic and anti-democratic actors throughout the country. 2021 turned out to be a successful year for democracy’s opponents. State after state limited who can vote, changed who is in charge of elections, and enabled state legislatures to intervene in election outcomes. Meanwhile, democracy’s proponents found themselves unable or unwilling to offer a sufficient response to the degradation of the democratic system. Though there were plenty of opportunities to counter anti-democratic moves, each chance was squandered away. And there is even less time to act in 2022.
With Republicans in control of an outsized number of state legislatures, they have used their power to enact strict election laws to better ensure favorable election outcomes, including giving those state legislatures the final say in those outcomes. But in Washington, Democrats control the Legislative and Executive Branches, which theoretically means they can pass voting rights legislation in Congress and have the President sign it. This national law would, in theory, override the state restrictions to preserve the democratic system. Most Democrats seem aware of this and have been pushing to pass two bills: the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and the For the People Act of 2021.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is intended to restore the parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down and strengthen voter protections. While it passed in the House, it has been stalled in the Senate. The For the People Act creates new campaign finance and ethics rules, bans partisan gerrymandering, and also expands voting rights. It, too, passed in the House last year before dying in the Senate. Though these two laws don’t address every action taken in an affront to democratic norms, they are a strong response in an attempt to uphold democratic ideals. But they have been held up in the Senate, not because there is not a majority that would support them, but because there is not a supermajority.
Though Democrats control the Senate, they do not hold 60 seats, which is how many would be required to overcome the archaic Senate rule known as the filibuster. Short of that supermajority, they need at least 10 Republicans to join them in voting for a bill for it to make it through the chamber. For their voting rights proposals, they have none. As the filibuster is only a rule and not a law, they could technically change it with only 51 votes, if not for the obstinance and unreasonableness of two Democratic Senators. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have inexplicably chosen to uphold the filibuster as-is even at the expense of American democracy. Whereas just mere months ago they voted for a filibuster carve out that allowed Democrats to raise the debt ceiling, they refuse to support any changes that would allow for the passage of voting rights. They bask in their own maverick-like behavior and assure Americans that they’ll be proven right in the long run while denying what is so clearly happening before their very eyes.
In an ideologically diverse caucus that includes Senators like Angus King and Bernie Sanders, forty-eight Democrats have gotten behind the new push for voting rights at the cost of the filibuster. Manchin and Sinema have faced persuasive calls from their colleagues, from former Senators, from interest groups, and from the President. But they stand in the way not because there are not convincing arguments, but because they cannot be convinced. Publicly they embrace faulty history and myths about the benefits of the filibuster, but their hollow justifications only coat the unfortunate truth: they cannot be moved. And it is ultimately the personal failings of these two elected officials that will cost the Democrats their much-needed voting rights legislation, and will likely cost the country its very democracy.
With the Legislative Branch stymied by only two Senators, it falls to the Executive Branch to intervene on behalf of voting rights. But given the challenges the Biden Administration has faced on multiple fronts, it hasn’t been a priority up until now. Between the pandemic, inflation and supply chain challenges, infrastructure, and the Build Back Better bill, most of the President’s attention has been occupied by other issues. That is not to say the Administration hasn’t noticed what’s been going on at the state level. Though there was the feckless suggestion that activists could overcome these suppression efforts, Biden did give a speech on the matter last year, and the Justice Department has taken some action on voting rights. But the Executive Branch is limited in what it can do because of recent Supreme Court rulings, and without new legislation, is helpless to act against both state legislatures and a Trump-dominated court system that sides against Democratic efforts. Biden could devote the next several months talking about this issue in the hope it might break through, but the elite media would likely downplay or ignore it as it has for the past year.
Most of the coverage of the Biden Administration has been negative. Journalists who aided in Trump’s rise by pushing false equivalency and offering him free airtime have learned little in the last five years. Instead of reporting on the return of a normal and functioning Executive Branch, they offer nonstop stories on inflation, Democratic infighting, crime, Afghanistan, and the supply chain, with the subtext that it’s all Biden’s fault. At the same time, they promote representatives that voted to overturn the 2020 election and believe Biden’s victory to be illegitimate, with little to no pushback from their interviewer. Even after January 6, few have been able to conceive that American democracy is on the precipice and they should be treating that as the number one issue. It is the failures of the fourth estate that will be just as responsible for democracy’s end as Manchin and Sinema.
If the mainstream media offered the same amount of coverage to what Republicans have done across states to suppress the vote as they did the Afghanistan withdrawal, it would be at the forefront of many Americans’ minds. Instead, it has been treated as a niche issue with the occasional story and maybe a map that highlights what states have passed voter suppression laws in the last year. But it should be the main issue, and it deserves outsized coverage on every show and network not called or copied from Fox News. Debates in state legislatures need to be televised. The exact wording of these laws needs to be put up on screen. It needs to be brought up in interviews with Democrats and Republicans. Nothing less than our very democracy is at stake. But unless journalists are willing to give it the time it deserves, it will not break through as a significant issue. That was made clear last November, when so much coverage of Virginia’s governor’s race was about education and critical race theory, which ended up defining Glenn Youngkin’s win. It is foreboding that Americans didn’t go to the polls with democracy as their number one issue when it’s never been more at risk, but it’s not that surprising when coverage hardly even mentions it as an issue. This needs to change.
One of the greatest missed opportunities to save American democracy last year comes from the American right. Or more specifically, the Never Trump Right. There are still many Americans out there that identify as Republican but detest the authoritarian track their party has taken. Yet in the coming election, these voters will only have the same two choices, and many will stick with the Republican Party for ideological or cultural reasons despite disagreements about its direction. This is ultimately the failure of leading Never Trumpers who last year threatened to form a new party and then didn’t follow through. A new conservative party free from Trump’s influence and fully committed to American democracy had the potential to prevent a Republican majority molded in Trump’s image. By strategically targeting certain districts and offering up pro-democracy conservative candidates that don’t have to compete in primaries, this new party could have reshaped American politics for the better. Instead, the Never Trumper threat proved to be empty, even as their party embraced the Big Lie and turned away from democratic ideals. Now, they are left to fight inside a party that doesn’t want them and compete in primaries they are likely to lose.
In the hours after the January 6 insurrection, it seemed like the post-election epiphany Joe Biden had expected Republicans to have was coming to fruition. In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol inspired by former President Trump, many Republican representatives were quick to blame him and ready to ostracize him from their party. Even one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, said, “Count me out.” This was the Republican Party’s chance to return to a policy-based party that embraced its long-held ideals. Its leadership seemed ready to roll the party back to pre-Trump times, with both Senator McConnell and Representative McCarthy publicly placing responsibility on Trump. Less than a month later, everything changed.
Though Republican officials in Washington were ready to put Trump behind them, the rest of the Republican Party was not. Conservative media rallied to the former President’s defense and cast doubt on the true nature of the insurrection. The rank-and-file followed suit, refusing to abandon their president and embracing his election lies. With the base still under Trump’s sway, the elected leaders in Washington decided to stick with him. A month after the attack, McCarthy and Graham both flew down to Mar-a-lago to visit the former President and renew their support. Most of the party fell in line, and the January 6 attack became just another partisan issue. Only Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger refused to re-embrace Trump, and for their heresy, they were ostracized from the Republican Party. Cheney was stripped of her leadership role, and Kinzinger was forced into retirement. Not only were Republicans unable to leave the Trump years behind, they would not even tolerate dissenters in their ranks. Because Republicans in Washington chose to follow their base rather than lead, to do what was politically expedient rather than right and courageous, they allowed their party to succumb to its anti-democratic fever. By missing this opportunity, Republicans have irrevocably condemned their party and their country.
2022 has already brought more disappointment, as Manchin and Sinema predictably saved the filibuster at the cost of voting rights. With the midterm elections approaching, and the anti-democratic party in a strong position to amass greater power, there may not be many opportunities left to save American democracy. At best, we are on a trajectory for entrenched minority rule. At worst, we may be on course for a totalitarian dictatorship. This dark fate is still preventable, but looking back, we have, so far, missed every chance we have to avoid it.