In my last post, I wrote that we are facing a crossroads in our politics, with an expanding party representing an emerging multicultural majority confronting a declining party determined not to relinquish power. Big transitions like this are rare but not unusual — in fact, roughly every other generation has grappled with one during the past two-plus centuries. What makes this transition distinct — and dangerous — is that one of the two major parties is refusing to play along. With the anti-democratic chaos of the Trump years culminating in an insurrection aimed at preventing the certification of the 2020 election, the Republican Party has put the nation on notice that it is invested in preventing the empowerment of the other side at the cost of distorting or destroying democratic mechanisms which, if allowed to function equitably, would eventually make them a permanent minority. This is most evident in the way Republicans have moved aggressively in Georgia, Texas and across the country to codify rules that would discourage or disenfranchise Democratic voters, and it puts the entire political system at risk.
This puts pressure on Biden and congressional Democrats to prevail in the upcoming electoral cycles and prevent anti-democratic Republicans from reclaiming power while the possibility of establishing one-party minority rule remains viable and tempting. As I wrote previously,
Republicans will need to suffer an unambiguous string of losses in the next two or three national elections to recognize that they will not be able to disable the emerging electorate and hold power through extra-democratic means. Only after it is clear that attempts to take power by force will fail can we expect Republicans to consider enduring a wrenching separation with their nativist base and begin the hard work of redefining themselves as a center-right opposition party. Unless and until that happens, we face the stark choice of having a democratic government run by a progressive majority or risk corporate nationalism imposed by autocracy.
For all who value preserving constitutional democracy and restoring healthy two-party competition, the discussion starts and ends with the recognition that at the present time only one major party is committed to popular sovereignty. Regardless of your appetite for the agenda of the Democratic Party, they are the sole institutional line of defense against the unfinished project of the Trump administration to lock in minority rule at any cost. This will remain the case for the next few years, until the slow generational realignment gradually propelling Democrats to majority status takes hold in enough places to force Republicans to confront the fact that the unpleasant prospect of reforming from within is the only path left to them. (When will that happen? When Republicans lose their grip on Texas.) Until then, a Republican Party that places its own survival over the survival of the republic is too dangerous to allow to return to power. This leads to the ironic conclusion that for those who value healthy two-party competition — and I include myself in that group — it is necessary to temporarily lock one party out of power until we once again have two parties invested in playing by the same rules.
The big thinking we’ve seen emerge from the Biden White House suggests the new president is fully aware of the stakes and has a plan to address them. Whether he succeeds is the most important open question of our time, but it is worth noting that Biden is already on his way to checking off the first big items on a daunting list of policy and procedural reforms that are preconditions to keeping his party in power and preventing Republicans from staging a second and potentially successful insurrection against the Constitution. The strategy entails demonstrating that government can meet the needs of key constituencies to give voters a good reason to keep Democrats in power while making procedural and institutional changes to ensure their voices will be heard and their votes will count. It will be necessary for Biden to be successful with at least the first four of the items listed below before the 2022 midterm campaign absorbs all the political oxygen next year, and with all of them before the 2024 presidential campaign.
Think of the following as a to-do list for preserving democracy:
- Return life to normal. Of all the crises Biden faces, the paramount reason he was hired was because he promised he could use the power of government to end the pandemic, and he has moved rapidly to make it happen in the wake of continued resistance from those who view vaccines and masks through the lens of personal liberty rather than public health. Despite inheriting a broken vaccine distribution pipeline, Biden has blown past his promise of 100 million shots in his first hundred days, and passage of Covid recovery legislation should boost an economy that’s primed to take off once it’s safe to congregate again. Polling makes it clear that the public is pleased with the administration’s pandemic response, and Democrats are counting on a surge of good feeling as we emerge from isolation to be a source of political capital for Biden to use at a point when most presidents get bogged down in the post-honeymoon doldrums. He will need that support in order to advance some of the more difficult items on this list.
- Share the wealth. Can you remember the last time the country felt a sense of shared prosperity? You need a long memory. The promise of supply-side economics — that tax advantages given to the very top would trickle down to everyone else — instead helped create the greatest wealth imbalances since the Gilded Age. Biden’s rhetoric, his economic team, and his approach to Covid relief make it clear that he plans to take a different approach, looking to use the tax, spending and regulatory powers of government to boost the prospects of the poor and middle class. This is most evident in his massive infrastructure proposal, which is a jobs bill in the image of the New Deal (as well as a down payment on a Green New Deal without the incendiary phrasing). There is a good political reason why Biden has prioritized infrastructure as the number one item after Covid relief. Accomplishing both would put Democrats in their strongest possible position going into the 2022 midterms — an election they need to win in order to maintain their legislative majorities and prevent Republicans from gaining a foothold from which they will be better positioned to dismiss a potentially unfavorable Electoral College vote in 2024 like they tried to do last December.
- Reform the filibuster. Democrats are maneuvering to pass the infrastructure bill through the reconciliation process, which could be done with fifty votes the way Covid relief was passed, while Republicans — keenly aware of the political benefits the bill will produce — are looking for a way to blunt the impact by making it as small as possible. Although Democrats have a potential path to go it alone once bipartisan discussions fail to produce a compromise, that will not be the case for the key procedural changes further down the checklist, which they will not be able to move through reconciliation and which will certainly face a Republican filibuster. Much has been written in the Beltway press about how filibuster reform isn’t happening as long as Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are opposed, and it’s true that Democrats need a united caucus to make changes to Senate procedures. But it’s also true that the rest of the Democratic caucus is on board with some type of filibuster modification, and as we will see shortly the ability to recalibrate democratic institutions depends on it. This is where presidential (and Senate) leadership will be put to the test. If you are already at 48, good leadership finds a way to get to 50.
- Restore voting rights — Part I. The For the People Act would undo the damage being implemented across the country by Republican legislatures determined to sideline Democratic constituencies — especially constituencies of color — from participating in future elections. It is a comprehensive response to Republican efforts to hold power by gerrymandering their way to a House majority and derailing the participation of progressive voters in longtime conservative strongholds like Georgia, Arizona and Texas, and across the country. In classic good-government fashion, the For the People act would make voting easy and accessible, bring a degree of transparency to campaign financing, and end partisan gerrymandering by putting redistricting in the hands of nonpartisan commissions. It is designed to incentivize moderation and level the playing field enough to require both parties to compete on their records. It will take all fifty Senate Democrats to pass, which his why it cannot become law without first addressing Item 3.
- Restore voting rights — Part II. A companion to the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore provisions to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were gutted by the Supreme Court, preventing states like Georgia from passing legislation that selectively disenfranchises voters of color. It will also require the votes of all fifty Democrats, so — again — see Item 3.
- Reform the courts. Voting rights legislation that makes it to Biden’s desk will be aggressively challenged in a court system where the deck has been stacked by a brutally effective Republican strategy to guard against the possibility that Democrats would be able to bring about the first five changes on this list. Essential to the long-term protection of voting rights, court reform is also needed to correct the institutional damage that is constraining democratic institutions from serving democratic objectives. Salient among these is addressing how Republicans have treated the federal judiciary, blocking President Obama’s nominees — most prominently his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court — then rushing to place President Trump’s nominees in the enduring vacancies. Biden has created a bipartisan commission to look into judicial reform, but any meaningful recommendations they could make, like expanding the federal judiciary or placing term limits on Supreme Court justices, are unlikely to make it through the Senate even with filibuster reform unless Democrats pick up seats in 2022.
If Biden and congressional Democrats are able to get through Item 5 on the checklist, it should rebalance the playing field enough to give them a shot at competing in the midterms on their accomplishments. Even making it through Item 4 might be enough. But that is a frighteningly high bar. Accomplishing any one of these objectives would be a heroic achievement in normal times. To put four or five of them in place would be an accomplishment on par with the first years of the New Deal. And the politics gets harder the further you go down the list.
Fortunately, the Biden administration occupies a political moment that resonates with Roosevelt’s. The crisis of democracy is crashing directly into our health, economic, environmental and civil rights crises, giving Biden an opening for big initiatives. On this, he benefits from the chaos caused by his predecessor and from the fact that his agenda has proved to be broadly popular. The problem lies in Congress, where a heavily gerrymandered House and an anti-democratic Senate — made worse by the filibuster — give Biden no margin for error. But if the path forward is harrowing, the stakes are undeniable. Biden was elected to get the political system to respond to the overpowering needs of the moment, and there is no more essential objective than preserving the system itself.