In his first address to Congress on April 28, Joe Biden invoked the January 6 insurrection, saying, “The images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol, desecrating our democracy, remain vivid in all our minds.” He added, “The insurrection was an existential crisis—a test of whether our democracy could survive. And it did. But the struggle is far from over.”
These were uncharacteristically bold words from Biden, but they are not hyperbolic. On January 6, a sitting president incited a mob to attack Congress in order to sabotage the certification of his successor. Shocking as that was, it was only the flash point in a larger war against democracy. In truth, Donald Trump’s clown coup had little chance of succeeding. The more serious threat lay in the very fact that he was able to do something so reckless and yet remain the standard-bearer of his party, someone whom most congressional Republicans still wouldn’t vote to impeach.
Though Trump has left the White House, the Trumpification of the GOP continues apace. Those few brave but hapless Republicans who stood up to Trump, like Congresswoman Liz Cheney, are finding themselves pariahs in their own party, stripped of their positions and scorned by party loyalists. The GOP has embraced the Trumpian Big Lie that the election was stolen, an idea endorsed by 53 percent of Republicans according to a May Reuters/Ipsos poll. Trump is not so much an ex-president as a pretender to the throne, the exiled king of Mar-a-Lago whom elected Republicans cross at their peril.
The Big Lie is behind the efforts of state-level Republicans to roll back voting rights. As Geoffrey Skelley reported in FiveThirtyEight, “In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers have pushed new voting restrictions in nearly every state. From making it harder to cast ballots early to increasing the frequency of voter roll purges, at least 25 new restrictive voting laws have been enacted, with more potentially on the horizon.” The most disturbing innovation in this rollback of democracy is the idea that state legislators could be empowered to overturn election results and pick their own presidential electors. In that scenario, Biden or another Democrat could win the popular count in states that carry over 270 electoral votes and still be deprived of the presidency.
According to Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr., “If Republicans win the governorships of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin next year, taking total control in those key swing states, they could impose all kinds of electoral barriers for the next presidential election. The Republicans are laying the groundwork to refuse to certify a 2024 Democratic presidential victory should the GOP hold a House majority.”
Only the complacent would dismiss this as fanciful. Considering all the antics Trump pulled to try to overturn the 2020 election—and the fact that most elected Republicans are now going out of their way to grovel in front of him—2024 will almost certainly be an even bigger test of American democracy.
Democrats have a very narrow window of opportunity to shore up our democracy against the ongoing GOP threat. The good news is that the party has put forward two very strong measures—HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—which are the most robust pro-democracy reforms in a generation. Taken together, they would make it easier to vote, make voting more secure, limit the power of dark money in politics, and push back against antidemocratic shenanigans like gerrymandering.
Such measures are all extraordinarily popular with the general public. Writing in The New Yorker in March, Jane Mayer reported receiving a recording “of a private conference call on January 8th, between a policy adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups—including one run by the Koch brothers’ network—reveal[ing] the participants’ worry that the proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too. The speakers on the call expressed alarm at the broad popularity of [HR 1’s] provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors.”
The two voting rights acts proposed by the Democrats are both necessary and popular. Even with their narrow hold on power in Congress, it should be a no-brainer to push them through. Alas, it’s very hard to pass a prodemocratic measure in an antidemocratic system. Joe Manchin, with his cult of bipartisanship, is one major stumbling block. The West Virginia senator, as Luke Savage notes in The Atlantic, “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.”
Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema supports HR 1 but, like Manchin, is also a fetishist of the filibuster. Since neither bill can be passed by reconciliation and both lack Republican support, the only way for either to get through the Senate is by overturning the filibuster. The core truth is that Manchin and Sinema are committed to the old order, even if following the established path leads to a successful Republican coup.
Ultimately, this issue is a test of how serious Biden and the Democrats are about their own rhetoric. If American democracy is indeed facing an “existential” crisis, then Biden should pull out all the stops to win over Manchin and Sinema: offer them any inducements that he has available—and threaten them with severe punishments for not toeing the party line. This is what Republicans are doing to recalcitrant members like Cheney and Mitt Romney. If the GOP can be in deadly earnest trying to undermine democracy, we have every right to expect Democrats to be just as organized, just as dedicated, and just as ruthless in preserving democracy.