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What are Democrats willing to do to save our democracy, and how far are they willing to go? That’s the question they must answer now, while there’s still time to protect our flawed and fragile democracy from an extremist, countermajoritarian Republican Party hellbent on subverting the political process to implement rule by and for a white Christian minority.
For the past few months, it appeared that Democrats would respond to this daily threat—with the former president talking about how his office was stolen from him and his former national security adviser calling for a coup while the party’s lawmakers fight tooth and nail against any examination of the Jan. 6 insurrection—with nothing more than some strongly worded rhetoric and finger-wagging.
But then Texas Democrats kicked the hornets’ nest and walked out of the Texas House of Representatives to temporarily block a vote on a dangerous Republican voter suppression bill. Then over 100 prominent scholars of democracy signed a “Statement of Concern” urging Congress to do “whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—to pass national voting and election administration standards.” And finally President Biden appointed Vice President Harris to lead an effort to combat Republicans’ voter-suppression efforts and declared June a “month of action” during his address commemorating the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre. It’s a start.
The “month of action” should have started in January, right after his inauguration, but now democracy itself is up against the clock as we race towards the 2022 midterms. You might think that’s an alarmist statement, but listen to Larry Sabato, director of the UVA Center for Politics and one of the signatories of the statement who told me, “It's not just the threat of a Jan. 6-style coup attempt again. It is the possibility of a silent coup in 2024, where state legislatures controlled by the GOP ditch the electoral votes for the popular-vote winner (because of made-up "fraud") and appoint Republican electors in their stead in swing states.”
That’s not inevitable. If Biden is serious about “fighting like heck” against the GOP’s full-frontal assault on democracy, here are five things his party must do to save it.
1.Kill the Filibuster: I’ve written about killing the filibuster before, but it bears repeating that this Jim Crow relic used by Republicans to hijack the will of the minority, obstruct progress, and turn the Senate into a legislative graveyard must meet a swift, ignoble end. Just like he did with President Obama, Senator Mitch McConnell has committed himself “100 percent” to obstructing President Biden’s entire agenda. Zero Republicans voted for Biden’s relief bill during a deadly pandemic, and McConnell called in a “personal favor” with Republican senators to kill the proposed bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection where five people died and others were trying to lynch Vice President Mike Pence for his refusal to throw out the constitution and declare that Donald Trump had won the race he’d plainly lost.
If they’re willing to make Pence a human sacrifice, they’ll do it to anyone not named Trump. When people show you who they are for the 4,080th time, believe them.
Biden just needs 50 votes in the Senate to kill the filibuster, but unfortunately we can’t have nice things thanks to Senators Joe Manchin, who is perpetually “deeply disappointed in the GOP and prepared to do nothing” yet still believes in a magical unicorn known as bipartisanship, and Kristen Sinema, whose sole talents so far appears to be her remarkable lack of accountability and tone-deaf responses to progressive causes, such as giving a thumbs-down vote and curtsy to a minimum wage increase while wearing a Lululemon bag. One way to move these two useless vessels of archaic moderation is to legally bribe them with lavish attention and pork that will help their states. Or Biden can play bad cop and join the progressive chorus in openly shaming them, which is what he flirted with at his recent speech where he called them out, not by name, as two members of his party whom he said vote more with the GOP than Democrats.
It’s time that fellow Democrats start openly asking Manchin and Sinema why they are supporting an instrument of Jim Crow to suppress the Black and brown voters who helped Biden win the election.
2. Flex Your Power. Did you know that Democrats currently control the White House, House of Representatives and hold the tiebreaker in the 50-50 Senate? I always lament that Democrats bring a policy paper to a knife fight and the GOP brings a bazooka. You don’t have to guess who’ll win in the end. Although Biden and his team are predicting his popular policies and civil tone might be enough to barely win in 2022 and 2024, why play it safe and mild against an aggressively extremist party threatening our democracy and the rights of millions? The Texas Democrats showed the party how it’s done as they temporarily blocked an oppressive voter suppression bill that could endanger the sanctity of the 2022 election. They said they were sending a “very, very clear” message to President Biden: “We need a national response to federal voting rights.”
Norm Eisen, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and an expert on law, ethics, and anti-corruption, praised the Texas Democrats and said their actions should be “an absolute role model” for Democrats moving forward. “Was it wrong to do one thing they had in their power? No. It was right. You have to fight with every tool you have,” he told me, wearing his “activist hat.”
Another tool Democrats have is a congressional majority in the House which brings with it oversight powers. “The Republicans are the arsonists at the crime scene and congressional Democrats have the ability and the authority to use the levers of oversight however they see fit,” Kurt Bardella, advisor to the DCCC and former staffer to Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, told me. He said Democrats need only look at what Republicans did during the Obama years with their majority to issue over 100 subpoenas, countless depositions, and wasteful and prolonged hearings on Benghazi and Clinton’s emails solely to attack her presidential run, per Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s own admission in 2015. He says these hearings were successful in damaging Obama, changing the narrative in favor of the GOP and harming Clinton during the 2016 election.
With Trump and his acolytes, there’s actual evidence of criminal behavior that demands legitimate oversight and investigation. Speaker Pelosi must jettison any hope for a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection and have Democrats initiate it on their own, issuing subpoenas and calling witnesses to hold their Republican colleagues who incited and supported the mob to account. Democrats should use all the levers of oversight they have at their disposal and bring transparency and accountability to Trump’s malfeasance, criminality and abuse of power, dragging along any accomplices along the way. It has to happen soon, because “we are running out of time,” says Bardella. “History will repeat itself and it will probably be much worse and violent.”
3. Blitzkrieg the Media. Democrats need to be in the media every day delivering a simple message about how the GOP is an extremist party actively attacking our democracy, including supporting the lethal Jan. 6 insurrection. They need to remind voters that Republicans refused to vote for a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection—and that zero Republicans voted for the relief bill. This has to be done continuously because people have fickle, short-term memories and Republicans are great at manufacturing outrage, headlines, attention and winning votes by raving about Mr. Potato Head, critical race theory, cancel culture and “woke” corporations.
Sabato told me: “It is vital for voters to understand just how critical the situation is. Our democratic institutions are in disarray or decay.” Biden’s recent remarks in Tulsa and his comments over Memorial Day where he said “democracy itself is in peril” were a start but that rhetoric has to be ramped up and hammered home, again and again.
Unfortunately, we have two sides to the media: a right-wing echo chamber centered around Fox News and then “both sides” news operations that feel compelled to be neutral umpires as they elevate and enable bad faith actors who promote lies and conspiracy theories, gaslight the nation, and undermine democracy in front of our eyes. Journalists have to make a decision about whether they will allow themselves and their platforms to be used to accelerate this attack on our democracy or will they be biased in favor of preserving and protecting it. They need to actively press every Republican elected official each time they appear as to why they or their colleagues support regressive voter suppression laws, endorse the Big Lie, and pal around with extremist militias. Every Republican official has to be asked if they believe Joe Biden is the president and if he won the election, and anyone who refuses to answer should be taken off the air until they will. These politicians need these media outlets to win voters, because believe it or not, not every Republican can get by on just OANN, Newsmax and Steve Bannon’s podcast.
4. Support Black women and their grassroots leadership: Stacey Abrams and Georgia. Case closed. In case that isn’t enough, listen to Steve Schale, a strategist who helped Obama win Florida twice, and told the AP that “Black women can assemble Democrats’ ideal alliance for statewide elections: older Black voters, younger voters across racial and ethnic lines, urban white liberals and enough white moderates, especially women, in metro areas.” Last year, I wrote a piece telling Democrats to stop chasing Amy, that mythical Rust Belt moderate white voter, and start investing in Black women and elevating them as Democratic candidates. This is what’s happening right now at local and statewide offices and there’s a chance these women can help give Democrats much-needed victories in competitive elections. Black women, according to Schale, “can rebuild [Obama’s coalition] better than anyone.”
5. Build a “grand coalition.” Speaking of coalitions, Eisen agreed with my list, but he told me he had to put on his “scholar hat” and add one more suggestion: building a “grand coalition” with Republicans, such as Rep. Liz Cheney. I reminded him that she was recently “cancelled” by her own party for standing up to Trump and “moderate Republicans” are now an endangered species. He responded by citing his recent Brookings report, Democracy Playbook, which he said reveals that “backsliding democracies” like the U.S. can only hold up if they form a “grand coalition around the idea of democracy itself and with those willing to commit to that idea”—which in our case means joining forces with Republicans like Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
I don’t share Eisen’s optimism about creating this “grand coalition” because I believe the GOP’s base will further radicalize and is best represented by the Three Stooges of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and white nationalist Paul Gosar. But if aligning with Cheney is what it takes to save our democracy then so be it, so long as that “grand coalition” doesn’t compromise on a progressive platform that continues to fight and advocate for policies that will bring about real equity and progress.
Biden and Democrats have what could be their last chance to save democracy and promote progressive values at the same time but they have to stop playing nice and finally throw down and use the powers that the people trusted them with while they still have them, to get it done by any legal means necessary.