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Do Democrats Care About Democracy? How Much?


Nancy Ohanian didn't include either Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema in this depiction of elected officials destroying democracy

In his Washington Post column this afternoon, Greg Sargent-- butting into an argument between well-respected progressive free-lancer John Ganz and National Review writer Michael Dougherty-- asked a simple question, Are Republicans No Longer Small-D Democrats? Ganz has explained how the GOP has pretty much abandoned democracy and Dougherty made some kind of an incoherent and intellectually dishonest case that they hadn't. Sargent twists himself into knots trying to be fair to Dougherty's deceitful and unselfish aware arguments. "Yes," wrote Sargent, "Republicans have mostly condemned the rioters. Yes, it’s unfair to conflate the rioters with all Trump supporters. Yes, many Republicans do accept electoral losses. Yes, some Republicans rebuffed Trump’s pressure to subvert the 2020 election’s outcome. In fact, those Republicans were instrumental in preventing it. But Dougherty’s framing evades a great deal. Many Republican lawmakers declined to contest Trump’s claim that the outcome was illegitimate for many weeks, which probably helped inspire the rioters. They’re refusing a commission that would place the riot and the role of Trump’s election lies (and the GOP nurturing of them) at the center of its investigation. Meanwhile, Republicans who did vouch for the integrity of Trump’s loss are facing purges, censure and primary challenges. And the House GOP just elevated someone who strengthened her case for a leadership position precisely through her public questioning of the legitimacy of that loss and through her support of active efforts to further delegitimize it."


It’s hard to gauge the degree to which such activities define an entire party. But they plainly represent a serious retreat on commitments to democracy. They clearly raise valid concerns about how far Republicans will go in disregarding the idea that future electoral outcomes are binding and in seeking to invalidate them.
But Dougherty declines to engage with the real meaning of all that.
Dougherty also insists liberal Democrats confuse conservative suspicion of unchecked majoritarianism and faith in “republican institutions” with hostility toward democracy. Dougherty grants that conservatives don’t support “unqualified majority rule,” but calls on critics to acknowledge “different types of conservative resistance to democracy,” noting that conservatives take cues from James Madison’s suspicions about democracy.
But as Steven Taylor notes, this confuses Madison’s suspicions of direct democracy (as opposed to representative) and allows these to overshadow his more germane belief that majority rule is the core of republicanism.
...Liberal Democrats increasingly believe the electoral college and Senate flout fundamental majoritarian principles of representation. Conservative Republicans don’t find that concerning. The former think voting should be as easy as possible. The latter think restrictions are good and are escalating them in many states.
It’s hard to specify the point where such GOP stances cross over from legitimate views of how the rules of political competition should be structured into something more fundamentally hostile to democracy. That itself will be perpetually contested.
But it seems obvious Republicans are moving on a spectrum toward greater reliance on anti-majoritarian tactics, and toward increasing manipulation of those rules toward that end. And it’s fair to worry that Republicans are moving toward maximal tactics in resisting hated electoral outcomes.
I think those who sympathize with conservative populism-- as Dougherty does-- should acknowledge that such sympathies demand a more forceful challenge to these developments, and if they disagree, to defend that position.

At The Atlantic this afternoon, Luke Savage asked a related question, If Democracy Is Dying, Why Are Democrats So Complacent?. I wonder if all those "sky is falling" e-mails from the DCCC has something to do with it. But that isn't exactly where Savage was headed. "If you’ve followed recent Democratic messaging," he began,"you’ll have heard that American democracy is under serious attack by the Republican Party, representing an existential threat to the country. If you’ve followed Democratic lawmaking, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the threat is actually a rather piddling one. The disconnect, in this case, isn’t attributable to Democratic embellishment, but to inexcusable complacency." That's not good-- and far worse than DCCC e-mails. When Biden spoke about the 'worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War' in his address to Congress in April, he "was both pointed and emphatic, tying the events of January 6 and the broader effort to delegitimize November’s election to a wider crisis of democracy. 'Congress,' he declared, 'should pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and send them to my desk right away.' Biden is far from the only Democratic leader to have made the connection. In urging the Senate to pass H.R. 1, which would improve voter access and election security, Senator Chuck Schumer (hardly anyone’s idea of a firebrand) said in March that state voter-restriction laws 'smack of Jim Crow rearing its ugly head once again.' He went as far as warning that 'if we don’t stop these vicious and often racist actions, Third World autocracy will be on its way.' Schumer hasn’t been shy about naming an antagonist, either, citing a 'concerted, nationwide effort to limit the rights of citizens to vote' and even declaring that 'we won’t let [Republican-controlled legislatures] create a dictatorship in America.'"


As of March 24, researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice had logged some 361 bills containing provisions that seek to restrict voting--a 43 percent increase from about the same time in February. Many involve the usual suite of suppression methods introduced under the auspices of fairness and transparency (expanded ID requirements, banning same-day voter registration, limiting the use of mail-in ballots, etc.), and one in Arizona even aspires to give the state legislature the authority to override the certification of future presidential-election results by simple majority vote. A recording recently released by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, meanwhile, makes more or less explicit that Republican operatives plan to use every tool at their disposal to defeat the renewed push for expanded voting rights, despite its widespread popularity.
Suffice it to say, a concerted right-wing effort really is under way to limit popular democracy and suppress votes. So what are Democrats doing about it? In a legislative sense at least, a cogent and comprehensive response is already in the works, in the form of the two bills cited by Biden in his congressional address. If realized, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and H.R. 1 (also known as the For the People Act) would constitute the most sweeping acts of democratic reform undertaken in decades. The latter alone would establish automatic national voter registration, independent redistricting commissions for House seats to prevent gerrymandering, expanded mail-in voting, and a number of new measures to reduce the overbearing influence of organized money.
Neither currently seems likely to become law, however. Rhetoric about autocracy notwithstanding, some liberal lawmakers are quietly threatened by aspects of the legislation. A few Black representatives in the South, for example, worry that independent redistricting commissions may cost them their seat. And some establishment figures reportedly fear that more democratically structured contribution rules will embolden left-wing primary challengers propelled by small donations. Senator Joe Manchin, meanwhile, has reiterated his opposition to H.R 1 on the deeply spurious grounds that any prospective voting-rights legislation ought to pass with bipartisan support-- a DOA line of reasoning even when it comes to the watered-down version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that Manchin himself is proposing.
The single greatest obstacle, though, has to do with the rules governing the Senate, and whether Democrats are ultimately willing to match their language of urgency with a strategy even remotely proportional to it. Due to the chamber’s filibuster rules, most legislation requires 60 votes to pass-- an impediment that effectively empowers lawmakers representing only a tiny sliver of the electorate to block policies they dislike at will, including those designed to make American democracy fairer and more inclusive. (Especially frustrating, as the voting-rights expert Ari Berman has pointed out, is that Republican-controlled legislatures face no such supermajority requirement when passing legislation designed to restrict the vote-- a kind of “asymmetric warfare” in which those working to preserve minority rule have a majoritarian advantage.)
Although Biden has mused about the idea of reforming the filibuster, he has ruled out its elimination. Manchin, predictably enough, is resoundingly allergic to the idea of change, while his fellow conservative Democrat Kyrsten Sinema ironically stated her emphatic support for H.R. 1 within days of dismissing filibuster reform in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Schumer, for his part, says that “everything is on the table” when it comes to passing voting-rights legislation, and he has, like Biden, made some noise about at least modifying the filibuster.
One way or another, the next few months will reveal whether their suggestive speculations have any teeth. Liberal lawmakers cannot, one the one hand, contend that a deliberate effort is under way to deprive citizens of the franchise while, on the other hand, preserving an archaic legislative convention specifically designed to limit the power of representative democracy. If Democrats plan to match their rhetoric with action, they must train public attention not only on the existential problem of the Republican assault on voting, but also on the need to eliminate the main obstacle to countering that assault. This means doing whatever it takes to bring holdout senators onside, in private or in public.
Even with the filibuster removed or substantially modified, H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would still face barriers to becoming law. But to simply accept these barriers is nonsensical, the product of a fraudulent and conservative “realism” that is really defeatism by any other name. What, after all, is more important: the death of democracy, or the preservation of a Senate tradition that has been leveraged for decades to protect conservative minority rule?


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