Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says the US Senate must prove to the American people that elections matter by enacting transformational legislation such as the American Rescue Act and the proposed American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan. But, to do that, the Senate must also defend democracy by passing the For the People Act, the package of voting rights protections and election reforms that passed the House as HR 1—but that Schumer likes to refer to as S 1.

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, he spoke about how the January 6 insurrection heightened his fears for the country, about the filibuster and the work he must do to unite his caucus, and about his sense of urgency regarding the future of democracy at a time when Republican legislatures are enacting voter suppression legislation. This lengthy interview was lightly edited to provide context and continuity.

John Nichols: A big theme of President Biden’s speech to the joint session of Congress in late April was democracy. He spoke, in particular, about the importance of proving that democracy can work in the 21st century. Do you share that view?

Chuck Schumer: Absolutely. So I’m going to tell you a story as a way of explaining

JN: Go for it.

CS: It’s about my January 6th, and you’ll see where I’m getting. I call it the best of times, the worst of times, after the first sentence in Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities.

January 5th, as you know, was the elections in Georgia. When we started out, we thought it was an uphill fight, nearly impossible. By the time January 5th rolled around, we thought we might be the underdogs but we had a real chance to win. So I’m on tenterhooks all day. I stay up all night listening to the results.

Tuesday night melts into Wednesday morning. I’m on the computer. What’s the vote count in Chatham County? How many African Americans are turning out in DeKalb County, etc.? Four am, it becomes clear that [the Rev.] Raphael Warnock’s the winner, and it becomes clear that [Jon] Ossoff is going to win as well.

So now I’ve achieved my longtime goal of being majority leader, and the first emotion is, as one you might expect, just joy, total joy.

When you’ve set a major goal for yourself—it could be personal, it could be family, it could be professional—and you achieve it after there’s a lot of detours and logs in your path, you feel great.

But almost immediately, I had a second emotion, which crept up on me and it surprised me, how quickly and how strongly it came on. I’m trying to think of the right word for it. The best word I can think of is awe—not in the way my teenage daughters used to use it—“Gee, Dad, that movie was awesome”—but sort of in the biblical sense. When the angels saw the face of God, they trembled in awe.

I realized what a tremendous responsibility was placed on the shoulders of our new Democratic majorities, and now it was on my shoulders as their leader.

JN: How did you see your responsibility?

CS: I would divide it in three categories, three imperatives I guess I’d say.

The first is substantive. Obviously, we have lots of substantive things to do, not just get us out of the Covid ditch but deal with the major problems our society faces. This is the first opportunity we have to do that, controlling House, Senate, and presidency. Climate, income inequality, racial divisiveness, democracy. Those are the four categories I’d say are the major categories, and lots of subcategories. So there was a substantive imperative.

The second was a political imperative. So many people say it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference who I vote for. We had a real opportunity to show people it could matter in terms of direct, tangible things. We could get them checks, and we had campaigned in Georgia on checks. We could get them vaccines. We could start getting help to small businesses and little restaurants and things like that. We would have a real opportunity to show people that their vote did make a difference.

The third imperative was what I call “moral.” What do I mean by that? Well, you probably asked yourself the same question I’ve asked myself so often since the election: How could 70 million people vote for such a horrible human being as Donald Trump, a lying, nasty, divisive, bigoted, egotistical man, only out for himself? The answer I came up with was sort of simple, and that is that, for too many Americans, the American Dream in what had traditionally been a sunny and optimistic country was fading.

If you ask the average American what is the American Dream to them, they put it in very simple terms, nothing fancy. They say, “It means if I work hard, I’ll be doing better 10 years from now than I’m doing today, and my kids will be doing still better than me.”

When that dream fades, when you no longer believe in it—or when you’re “losing faith in it” is a better way to put it—you can turn to a demagogue, somebody who just says, “Blame the immigrants” or “Blame this” or “Blame that.”

If we didn’t change America around, that would happen. That could well happen in 2024. We could either get Trump or someone worse than Trump.

JN: Many people feel we’ve already passed a tipping point.

CS: I tell this story that in simple terms exemplifies it to me.

I have interns every summer, and they’re a diverse group, diverse geographically, racially, ethnically, and economically. Some come from well-to-do families, some come from poor families, and in between. Every summer I’ve had lunch with them, and I ask them the same question.

I ask them a series of questions each year, and one of them is, “Do you think you’ll be doing better economically than your parents?” From 1999, the first year I was a senator, to 2012, every single one raised his or her hand. And I said, “Oh boy, the optimism, isn’t this nice?”

Starting in 2013, it wasn’t unanimous. This year, only two raised their hands, and one young lady came over to me at the end. She said, “I want to tell you why I didn’t raise my hand.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to hear that.”

She was a working-class gal. She said, “My parents could afford a house. I’m not sure I’ll be able to. My parents got out of college debt-free. I have loads of debt. And, maybe worst of all, my parents had some paths as to how they could have a good life and make a good income. I don’t know what path to follow. Things are changing so damn fast and things you thought were secure five or 10 years ago aren’t anymore.”

And she’s better off than such a large percentage of Americans who, if they have a car accident that costs them $500 or a medical bill that costs them $500, they can’t feed the kids or pay the rent.

That’s the moral imperative. We must, must restore that optimism in the American people, show them that they can advance their economic future, and have some faith in that.

The American people are reasonable. They don’t expect us to snap our fingers and make it all better at once, but they sure expect real progress.

JN: This is what you were thinking on the morning of January 6, as you realized that Democrats would be taking charge of the Senate. Then what?

CS: OK, so those were my emotions. I get in the car. Eleven o’clock I’m on the floor of the Senate, the first time as the putative majority leader.

I’m only on the floor for an hour, I haven’t given a speech yet, when a police officer in a big bulletproof vest with a submachine gun strapped across his waist grabs me firmly by the collar. I’ll never forget that feeling.

He says, “Senator, you’re in danger. We’ve gotta get out of here.” And you may have seen this, because they showed it in the impeachment trial, those overhead cameras caught it.

JN: Yes.

CS: They show us walking out the door of the Senate chamber. We turn to the right, we’re walking briskly, we go through a door, and 15 seconds later we’re running out the door full speed the other way.

I was within 15 feet of these bastards. Had one of them had a gun, two of them blocked off the door, who knows?

It was reported that one of them said, “Where’s the big Jew?” [Schumer is the first Jewish majority leader of the Senate.]

So, best of times, worst of times. Now we’re getting back into a little bit of the best of times.

JN: What do you mean by that?

CS: Four hundred of the people who invaded that Capitol have been arrested, and I have confidence that [Attorney General] Merrick Garland will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.

But more importantly, we have begun to show the American people that parties make a difference. We delivered the checks. We delivered the vaccines. We’re helping the small businesses. We’re helping the small restaurants.

But the reason [enacting] the American Jobs Plan and the American Family Plan are important is the moral imperative. We really have to make a difference in people’s lives. The first bill [the $1.9 trillion relief package approved in March] is a good rescue bill and it gets us out of the Covid ditch, and it does open people’s eyes to the fact that government can make a difference. But if you really want to change their lives, you need a much bigger, bolder plan like the one that Biden’s proposed.

So the answer to your question is, I think, it’s very much needed and I’m very pleased with the magnitude and scope of it.

JN: You link getting things done in the Senate to democracy. You believe that proving government can do things is vital to restoring faith in democracy.

CS: Right. Look, I have always believed that government is the answer, and that I share with [Massachusetts Senator] Elizabeth [Warren] and [Senate Budget Committee chair] Bernie [Sanders] and people like that.

When I first became minority leader in 2017, we issued a plan: “A Better Deal,” we called it. It was similar to the Biden plan. It was a trillion dollars, it called for a massive infrastructure and jobs bill, it called for breaking up the monopolies, it called for broadband to go to every rural home and every inner-city home.

So yes, I believe that democracy is at risk and we cannot fail. This democracy is at risk. But if we show people that the American dream is still alive—and the Biden plan does that in many very significant ways— we can restore and improve it.

JN: That puts a lot of pressure on you because the president proposes, the House passes.

CS: Yeah, look, they have a narrow majority, but they have much easier rules. [House Speaker] Nancy [Pelosi] can put something on the floor, just get a majority of votes, and no amendments, you know? And they’ve done a good job of it. I think it’s great.

JN: Not just on the big bills, like the Relief Act, but also on a host of measures that address structural issues: HR 1 [the For the People Act] and HR 4 [the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act], the democracy bills themselves…

CS: Yeah. We have many things we have to do, but at the top of the list are the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan—“build back better”—and what we now call S 1 in the Senate. It’s the same as HR 1, but to show its importance I gave it the S 1. It was the first bill we introduced.

JN: You’ve got these proposals, and you’ve got the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which I think goes to so many of the issues that have come front and center over the last year, but that speak to issues going back 400 years. So you’ve got all these bills either on your plate or very probably heading to it, and you’ve got a Senate where it is hard to do things. Suddenly, you’re in the position where, as you acknowledge, democracy is at stake. This is a vital moment. But it is not an easy moment. How do you make the Senate work?

CS: OK, well, again I’ll give you a little discussion on that.

I have a leadership team that meets every Monday night, 12 senators. We meet at 4:45. It’s been on Zoom, of course, lately. We discuss the upcoming week and the upcoming month and months.

On my leadership team—and, you know, we try to figure out how to go, where to go—are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and [West Virginia Senator] Joe Manchin and [Virginia Senator] Mark Warner and everyone in between.

I demand three things only of the leadership team: First, that we respect each other. Don’t call each other names. Don’t cast aspersions on people’s motives: “Oh, they sold out to this… “Oh, they don’t have a backbone…, “Oh, they’re just stupid and don’t see it,” you know, that kind of thing. Second, walk in the other person’s shoes. West Virginia’s not New York. And third, above all, we must have unity, because if we don’t have unity, we get nothing done and all is lost.

On every major vote—and in each case, people predicted it would be hard—we’ve stuck together and succeeded.

JN: How so?

CS: There were three big votes in the Trump years. First, we stopped them from repealing the [Affordable Care Act]. Second, every Democrat voted against the horrible Trump tax cuts that were aimed at the wealthy and the big corporations; and even though we didn’t win the vote, because they only needed 51—they did reconciliation—we turned the tide on the issues, and in 2018, Republicans no longer campaigned on this trickle-down stuff: cut taxes on the rich and everything will be alright. Third was impeachment—the first impeachment, where everyone voted against Trump.

This year, in the majority, when we took over, everyone said, “Oh, you’ll never get this done. Schumer’s got three big things he’s got to do, and all in a month or two.”

One was the impeachment trial. Again, we all voted together.

Second was putting in the president’s cabinet. Except for the unfortunate defeat of Neera Tanden [Biden’s nominee for Office of Management and Budget director], every cabinet person got in.

Third was the American Rescue Plan, which we passed.

So, you know, it is a very hard job, but so far, at the end of the day, we’ve stuck together and done good things on just about every major issue facing us.

JN: But you have got a lot of bills backed up now, with HR 1, HR 4, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and a number of other bills that have come over from the House. Unlike some of the big proposals from the White House, where you might be able to do reconciliation, on some of these bills you’re going to have to deal with the filibuster issue.

CS: Right. So look, there’s a number of people in my caucus—not just one, it’s more than that—who truly believe devoutly in bipartisanship, and a lot of them come from more Republican areas or Republican states. Their neighbors, when they have a barbecue—and I hear this in upstate New York all the time—say: “Why can’t you work together? Why can’t you do something bipartisan?”

To this group, bipartisanship is really, really important.

Now let me say, I’d love to have bipartisanship, and it’s preferable to any other way of getting things done, provided we don’t make the mistakes of [the early years of former President Barack Obama’s first term in] 2009 and ’10 and dilute things so (a) they’re not consequential, and (b) take so long that you can’t get a lot done.

So I am happy to try things like the bills you mentioned—S 1, S 4, Justice in Policing, I forgot the last one you mentioned, guns, maybe—to put them on the floor. I’ve told my Democratic colleagues, “Go talk to Republicans. See if they want to join us, see if they have constructive changes, not just things that weaken it or make it milquetoast, and we’ll see.”

But I’ve also said, particularly on S 1, that if the Republican colleagues don’t join us or just try to drag things out, we’re going to have to put our heads together and figure out the best way to go. As I said, everything is on the table, and failure’s not an option.

One of the things I think that we have to realize—we as in [the Democratic] caucus—is that there’s a huge dichotomy between the Republican voter and the Republican senators. [Fifty-six] percent of Republican voters were for the American Rescue Plan. Not one [Republican] senator voted for it.

JN: Why do you think that is?

CS: I’ll give you a two-word explanation: Donald Trump.

Donald Trump controls the Republican primaries. He controls the media—he tells [Fox News host] Sean Hannity to say something, he will. He controls the money. And he controls the voters, because only about a third of the Republicans who vote in the general election vote in the primary, and they tend to be the hard-right Trump devotees.

So they’re all afraid to buck him. Some of them want to be with him, but a lot of them don’t like him but are afraid to buck him. That’s something that I hope will become apparent to the American people and to everyone in my caucus.

JN: And that’s the point at which you might be able to move some rules changes if you have to.

CS: Again, the way I put it is, everything is on the table.

JN: Let’s get more specific about what that means. On HR 1, this goes to something that is about more than proving democracy works. This goes to the actual functioning of democracy. It would seem to be vital for the Senate to act.

CS: We have to get it done by August.… There are many pieces to it, and I support the whole thing. But, by August, the voting rights piece [will become urgent]. In other words, some of the states will begin to set up their primaries—if they have early primaries—[during legislative sessions] in the fall of 2021. So we have to give the Justice Department the ability to go in ahead of that. So we’ve got to pass it by August.

JN: The legislation has a lot of components. But you’re not inclined to break it up.

CS: I’m for keeping it together…

JN: Before we finish, let me ask you about what’s happening in the states [with Republican legislatures assaulting voting rights in Georgia, Texas, and other states]. When we’re talking about this democracy legislation—HR 1, HR 4—there’s a sense of urgency. You’re looking at 2022.

CS: I think if the Republican legislatures are allowed to do these changes, it could make it harder for us to keep the majority and harder for the House to keep the majority, too.

JN: So that’s how much is at stake, that literally—

CS: That’s it. Yes. Yes.

JN: Do you think that an awareness of what’s at stake may allow you to unite the caucus to [make rule changes if necessary and] to take action on these issues?

CS: I think my caucus understands the consequences of this—substantively and politically.