During his Memorial Day speech on May 31, President Biden declared that American democracy is “in peril.” That claim may seem overblown at first glance. But it’s not.
Across the country, 48 states have introduced nearly 400 bills placing arbitrary and senseless hurdles between voters and the ballot box, attempting to kill democracy through a death by a thousand cuts in order to impose minority rule.
In Michigan, the GOP has been on the warpath against democracy for years, and, as has been the case across the country, the most sinister attacks are occurring through unflashy manipulations of the legislative process. Just last month, the Michigan state GOP introduced a package of bills that makes small improvements to voter access while smuggling in voter ID and absentee ballot restrictions, and limiting the ability of county clerks and the secretary of state to help voters navigate the process. Faced with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s inevitable veto, Republicans are relying on a legislative initiative process that allows them to enact an unpopular anti-democratic agenda with a minority of voter support.
Michigan voters, meanwhile, have long defended people’s ability to participate in democracy. In 2018, they overwhelmingly said yes to automatic and same day voter registration, along with straight-ticket and no-reason absentee voting. Still, Michigan’s Republicans, like the rest of the GOP, are seemingly obsessed with limiting people’s ability to influence their government.
To overcome Republican attempts to scalpel out voting rights for groups they don’t like, it will likely take an explosion of organized grassroots pressure from below, of the type being taken up by the Poor People’s Campaign and other pro-democracy groups. Just last week, more than 20 people, including Revs. Jesse Jackson and William J. Barber II, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign, were arrested for civil disobedience during a large protest in Washington, D.C. demanding passage of the For the People Act, which would expand voting rights across the country.
This is the type of resistance that can help create outside pressure on Congress — and on the Biden White House to make democracy reform a priority. The best shot today’s voting rights advocates have at repeating the success of their forerunners in the 1960s is to revive that era’s spirit of disruption and confrontation with political elites.
Experts ring the alarm
As nearly 200 scholars of democracy warned in a dire letter for the think tank New America in June, “our entire democracy is now at risk” as hundreds of Republican-sponsored bills in states across the country threaten to either block or exhaust voters to the point of surrender. The letter’s authors warn that “the recent deterioration of U.S. elections” means that “several states…no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”
They go on to highlight examples in nearly every corner of the country. Harsh limits to voting rights have either already been adopted, will soon be adopted, or are under serious consideration in Republican-run states including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and Texas, to name a few.
In the long run, the experts argue, the United States could soon become a country of “extended minority rule,” which calls “into question whether the United States will remain a democracy” since majority opinion will be increasingly unable to shape government decisions. And without aggressive federal intervention, Republicans could “reverse the outcome of a free and fair election,” making the sloppy attempt by Trump and his backers to overturn the 2020 results look amateurish by comparison.
This is bleak stuff for a country that democracy experts have already labeled a “civil oligarchy” in a Cambridge University Press study, where “economic elites” and “business interests” enjoy massive influence over policy “while average citizens…have little or no independent influence.”
The success of the Republican Party depends on banishing voters they don’t like from the political landscape. The reason is straightforward: they know that, essentially, no one likes their ideas. The GOP has failed to persuade a lasting majority of Americans that corporations should answer to no one, that inequality is a natural phenomenon, and that weaker nations must be strong-armed into obediently serving American interests. The only remaining option then, as the country becomes increasingly repellent to Republicans’ ideas, is to make sure that the majority who oppose them can’t govern. As the New York Times’ Ezra Klein says, “Republicans are setting off a ‘doom loop’ for democracy.”
The shaky path forward
Democracy’s defenders can defeat today’s attempts to subvert the will of the people by using the same tool used to overthrow its Jim Crow forefather: “federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections,” the scholars write.
That will also require abolishing (or at least reforming) the filibuster — the Senate rule that makes it essentially impossible to pass anything without a 60-vote majority, and an artifact of the days when open, chest-thumping segregationists ruled Congress.
A federal bill to protect American democracy already exists. It is called the For the People Act and its main provisions are wildly popular. Polls show that 80 percent of Americans support the steps the bill takes to get unlimited corporate money out of politics. And 60 percent support its expansions of early voting, same-day voting and automatic voter registration. Perhaps most importantly, voters back the bill’s creation of nonpartisan redistricting commissions so that no party can weasel their way into unearned power. In 2012, for example, Democrats won 51.1 percent of the national vote and all they had to show for it was 46 percent of the seats in Congress, thanks to Republicans’ crafty manipulation of the congressional map-drawing process.
So there is a bill in Congress that expands voting rights, enjoys wide popular support and has already passed through both the House and, as of last month, a version of it was voted for by 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats. So why isn’t it heading straight to President Biden’s desk? Because Republicans filibustered it.
It’s long been obvious that the GOP would never consider serious voting rights legislation. As Vox reported in 2019, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell “openly mocked” the bill the second it was introduced, calling it a “terrible proposal” that “will not get any floor time in the Senate.”
Facing this obstruction, building support to alter or abolish the filibuster is inescapable. Democrats only have (at best) 51 votes, meaning that the party must remove the filibuster in order to shield democracy from the people (and party) dedicated to destroying it. But there’s at least one thing standing in the way: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has long voiced opposition to ending the filibuster.
In a June 6 op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin portrays his filibuster defense as a noble crusade to protect “the already weakening binds of our democracy.” It could be hard to imagine any path to changing the mind of a senator who writes an article that “might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow,’” as progressive Rep. Mondaire Jones (D‑N.Y.) says.
But those who think Manchin is immovable forget that he’s still a politician who responds to prevailing political winds. His own history proves it. As Manchin’s 2011 support for filibuster reform shows, he is clearly willing to change positions. If Biden wanted to force Manchin’s hand, he could take him into his office and demand to know what he wants in order to get back to that position — and then make it happen.
The other reliable way to change the political terrain, and how policy makers behave, is by taking demands to the streets. That’s the path the Poor People’s Campaign took this month when they led a “Moral March on Manchin” in West Virginia, with hundreds of residents calling on the senator to support both filibuster reform and the For the People Act.
As Rev. William J. Barber II, co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, put it: “We are here to bring street heat and moral heat to the legislative processes. The voices of the people in West Virginia will be heard.”
The Poor People’s Campaign is a part of a growing web of grassroots groups organizing to pass robust voting rights protections. Black Voters Matter, a national advocacy group, recently wrapped up a “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” bus tour, curving through the South before its grand finale in Washington, D.C. this month.
And ahead of the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom this August, a coalition of labor and civil rights groups, including Service Employees International Union and the National Action Network, plan to host commemorative “March On for Voting Rights” rallies across the country.
The tyranny of the filibuster
As writer Adam Jentleson argues in his new book Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, the filibuster was created nearly a century after the country’s founding by Southern senators “driven to create a new means of obstruction by one overriding goal: preserving white supremacy.”
John C. Calhoun, South Carolina senator and champion of slave labor camps and elite minority rule, first used what would become the modern filibuster in 1841 “as part of a white supremacist mission to preserve slavery” at the time the abolitionist movement began to grow. He did so using the familiar invocation of “minority rights,” which was really “a cloak for the interests of the wealthy, the powerful” and “the white supremacist,” as Jentleson writes. That racist use of the filibuster continued in the decades that followed.
Far from being wielded in defense of grand principles like “minority rights” and “deliberation,” as Calhoun faked, the filibuster was and continues to be a blunt weapon that “guarantees a minority of predominantly white conservatives the ability to impose their will.” In “the 87 years between the end of Reconstruction and 1964” Jentleson writes, “the only bills that were stopped by filibusters were civil rights bills.”
If Democrats don’t quickly change the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation, Republican state legislatures will continue to extinguish democracy, entrench extended minority rule, and use their power to enact a broadly unpopular agenda across the country.
It’s no surprise that GOP politicians and their corporate backers tremble at the thought of genuine democracy. But every time progress has been achieved, it’s because popular movements have exerted enough pressure to make elites comply.
With the axe swinging over the head of democracy, it’s clear that massive and organized public pressure is fast becoming the only pathway to political change. There’s no time to waste.
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.