I am not worried about what Mitch McConnell will do should Republicans take back the Senate in 2022. I am not worried about what Republicans will do should they retake all of government in 2024. I am not worried, because I already know the answer: When Republicans have power again, they will do “the worst.” I don’t waste a lot of time or mental energy contemplating the worst, because history has shown that I am simply not creative enough to imagine what evil Republicans will come up with next. No matter where I think the bottom is, Republicans will always find a new one.
Unfortunately, many centrist and moderate Democrats seem paralyzed by the fear of what Republicans will do if they take back the Senate or the White House. They’re afraid to pass sweeping policy or procedural reforms because of how they think Republicans will punish Democratic politicians in the future. It’s hard to even have a debate about big, structural changes to how government functions because too many arguments devolve to “If Democrats do anything, Republicans will be super mean.”
Consider filibuster reform. Amid all the angst, the discussion about ditching the filibuster quickly becomes no more than a vehicle for Democrats to share doomsday predictions about what McConnell and the GOP could do with just 51 votes. Conversations about court reform engender their own “But where does it end?” arguments, in this case about how Republicans will repack the court as soon as they regain the upper hand. Meanwhile, every time I turn on C-SPAN, I see Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz standing on the Senate floor as if they didn’t encourage a mob to storm the place mere months ago. Holding colleagues accountable for insurrection is also, apparently, something the Democrats are not interested in.
The basic argument from conservative Democrats is that the party should be cautious in its use of power. Taking aggressive, provocative actions, like ending or reforming the filibuster, might encourage Republicans to use power viciously should they ever get it again. But that argument is ludicrous. It proceeds from the false premise that Republicans are restrained by what Democrats are willing to do. The truth is that Republicans are restrained only by what their racist white voters will allow, and those voters have proved time and again that they will allow anything so long as their tribe comes out on top. Democrats are acting like they shouldn’t poke the sleeping velociraptor, when in fact that “sleeping” dinosaur is bait, and they’re already being hunted by other raptors waiting to pounce.
I will acknowledge that Republicans will use any action by Democrats as an excuse to further vitiate democracy, should they get a chance. If Democrats kill or even just weaken the filibuster, Republicans will use whatever small Senate majority they’re able to cobble together to ram through the most divisive and extremist laws they can think of. If Democrats add four justices to the Supreme Court, Republicans will add 10 when they get a chance. If Democrats prosecute Trump for corruption and tax fraud, Republicans will prosecute Joe Biden for having ice cream before dinner if they have to. That is their way.
Republicans are not bluffing when they promise retribution should Democrats use the power they have won. But so what? How is that any worse than what we have now? Republicans supported a whole-cloth lie about the results of the last election, which led directly to a massive insurrection against the government. Many of their voters were willing to capture and kill elected representatives or quietly supported those who would. Republicans have chosen to pursue power at any cost, and yet there are Democrats like Joe Manchin who think defending procedural gridlock will “heal” these divides.
Who in their right mind thinks Republicans won’t use all the power they have in, say, 2025 just because Democrats showed restraint in 2021? Republicans never hold their fire because they’re afraid of the Democratic response. They never say, “If we’re not careful, we might piss off Chris Coons.”
The only way to protect people from what Republicans will do once they regain power is to make it difficult for the white supremacist rump of the party to gain power again. The only way to do that, legitimately, is to secure voting rights. The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.
If everybody votes, Republicans cannot win. Even Republicans know that. The current incarnation of their party appeals to a majority of white voters, but even a two-thirds majority of white voters is a minority of Americans. Faced with this reality, with not being able to win, Republicans would either have to broaden their appeal beyond white supremacists or start another civil war for whiteness. (I’m counting on the former, because as we saw after January 6, most of these MAGA bros are front-running cowards who can’t organize without tacit support from Facebook and Twitter.)
Securing the vote is the only thing Democrats can do to protect themselves from Republican revenge fantasies. It’s the only thing that can neutralize the Republicans who still make it into office. And, not for nothing, protecting democracy is also in the literal job description of our elected representatives.
There are other things Democrats should have the courage to do to win the next elections. It would be nice to see the party support Medicare for All; it would be nice if the senator from Arizona found it in her heart to support wage earners’ getting an extra few bucks an hour while they serve her sangria. Democrats should be able to walk, chew gum, and distribute the Covid-19 vaccine at the same time. But the only way Democrats can win the next election is if they secure voting rights ahead of that election. Democrats could mail everybody a pot of gold and still lose if only white people are allowed to vote.
If securing voting rights means Democrats have to break the filibuster to pass legislation (and it does), then they must do that. If enforcing the constitutional protections of the right to vote means Democrats have to add justices to the Supreme Court (and it does), then Democrats must do that. If these and other acts of protecting democracy mean Lindsey Graham will go on Fox News and angry-cry while vowing vengeance, Democrats must risk that and sell tickets to the meltdown. Voting rights, voting access, and voting certification are among the only things that matter.
Democrats should not be paralyzed by fear; they should be motivated by it. As my ancestors would have surely noted, there’s no sense in worrying about what the slave catcher will do if they catch you. The only thing to do is to make it to freedom.