American Democracy Still Up for Grabs
As Donald Trump rapidly fades from public life, it would be easy to imagine that the threat to America’s democracy has passed. Joe Biden’s first few months of administration have been competent, stable and popular. A degree of normalcy appears to be returning.
Yet, rather than reflect on a brand that has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections, Republicans have chosen instead to double-down on their commitment to minority rule. Driven in part by the ‘big lie’ that Trump won the 2020 election, 253 bills in 43 states are now in progress, all squarely aimed at election manipulation and voter suppression. Political commentator Robert Reich has described the measures as ‘the biggest attack on voting rights since Jim Crow’.
In Michigan alone, the GOP is trying to pass 39 ‘election reform’ bills, but it’s the State of Georgia that is currently in sharpest focus, following governor Brian Kemp’s signing of sweeping new state election laws. The new legislation restricts absentee voting, voting by mail and drop-box locations, and makes it illegal to offer food or water those queuing to vote. Most worryingly, the bill offers the state General Assembly much greater legislative control over elections, in effect allowing those in charge to appoint their own superintendents and decide whether an election result should be challenged.
Kemp signed the 100-page omnibus bill behind closed doors, accompanied by six white men and in front of a painting of a notorious slave plantation, just in case there was any room for doubt as to what was going on.
It is abundantly clear that the modern Republican party has abandoned the idea of contesting elections based on ideas and persuasion, and now seeks to game the system in order to gain and retain power.
Which brings us to the filibuster.
Democrats are far from blind to the danger ahead. Two pieces of legislation aim to decisively defeat anti-democracy efforts by the Republican party. In early March, Congress passed HR1 (also known as the ‘For the People Act’), a once-in-a-generation voting rights reform and anti-corruption bill. Hot on its heels is the Jon Lewis Voting Rights Act, which aims to protect voters from racial discrimination and other suppression measures. Both acts now reside at the Senate, and await debate and a vote.
But both bills also currently require sixty Senators to allow the matters to be voted on, and with the Senate split 50-50 and Republicans certain to vote as a block, the status quo offers zero chance of progress.
For many matters in the Senate, sixty senators are required to agree to end debate of a bill (a ‘cloture motion’), allowing a vote. This means that, in theory, a Senator could deliver a debate speech forever, stopping a bill from being voted on. It used to be that this led to arduous and exhausting speeches from Senators unable to sit or leave the chamber (as exemplified by Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’). That happens much less these days – the simple threat of a filibuster is usually enough to kill a bill.
Yet the elimination of this arcane procedural relic is itself quite easy. A simple majority (with Vice-President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote) could do it tomorrow. There are complications. Centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin waver on whether to take such a consequential step. There are half-measures available, like the ‘talking filibuster’, which would force intransigent Senators to once again take to their feet. And removing the filibuster risks rebounding, should Republicans again take control of the chamber.
Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer may judge that the benefits now outweigh the risks. Democrats have only had control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress for four of the last 28 years. The new President has enormous political capital, and is likely to soar in popularity this year as the long pandemic comes to an end. The wind is firmly at their back, at the precise moment that Republicans are taking these radically anti-democratic steps.
‘There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’. Shakespeare’s Brutus argues that the best time to act boldly is when circumstances are at their most advantageous. That time is now. If Senate Democrats vote to remove the filibuster they can pass these two historic voting rights acts, restoring equilibrium to American democracy. This in turn might also finally force Republicans to address the minority rule dogma that forces them towards more and more extreme anti-democracy positions.
Republicanism used to be defined by clear issues – small government, lower taxes, muscular foreign policy and social conservatism. Trump shredded what was left of this dogma, and today’s Republicans offer very little in terms of policy and vision for America, instead defining themselves through victimhood, outrage and a sense of entitled loss. Should the Republican party in its current form again gain political power, the threat that America’s democracy will be functionally crippled remains very real.
Democrats must abolish the filibuster.