Is Performative Progress the Best Democrats Can Do on Voting Rights?

Is Performative Progress the Best Democrats Can Do on Voting Rights?

Is Performative Progress the Best Democrats Can Do on Voting Rights?

So far, it seems like it. The apparent game plan requires patience, but that’s in short supply among progressives right now.


What the hell happened during yesterday’s daylong Senate voting rights drama, in which the outcome was almost entirely predictable? Anything we didn’t know going in?

Let me start with the most optimistic spin on it. It’s progress that Senate Democrats finally pressed a vote on the For the People voting rights and campaign reform act, knowing Republicans would filibuster. Majority leader Chuck Schumer clearly hoped that display of GOP obstruction might convince West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and maybe even Arizona faux-maverick Kyrsten Sinema, that the filibuster they inexplicably still support is incompatible with voting rights.

Yes, we already knew Republicans would filibuster, blocking even a debate on the bill, which effectively kills it. (They only needed 41 votes to do so, but they got all 50.) Yet Democratic leaders, including President Biden, apparently believe Manchin needs to see this show of obstruction up close and personal, and repeatedly, in order to believe it exists. (Or maybe, more accurately, Manchin believes his West Virginia constituents need to see it.)

The day featured another small victory for the bill: Manchin, who opposes the sweeping legislation and supports a modified version, nonetheless agreed to at least vote to debate it, after Democrats offered amendments to the House bill and promised to take up Manchin’s larger revision. “These reasonable changes have moved the bill forward and to a place worthy of debate on the Senate floor. This process would allow both Republicans and Democrats to offer amendments to further change the bill,” Manchin said. It was important to show Democratic unity around the issue—a Manchin defection would have allowed the GOP to crow about “bipartisan opposition.”

Weirdly, though, in a statement issued before the Senate voted against proceeding to debate, he added, “Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues refused to allow debate of this legislation despite the reasonable changes made to focus the bill on the core issues facing our democracy.” That proved what many of us had already said: It was obvious the Senate GOP would stay united behind minority leader Mitch McConnell, who has denounced not just the For the People Act but Manchin’s proposed compromise too as “rotten”—dismissing the latter with four other words, “endorsed by Stacey Abrams,” which branded Manchin’s proposal as Black. And yes, Manchin knew it, too.

So then what did Tuesday’s developments prove? Was all of that merely performative—by Manchin, as well as Senate Democratic leaders?

Yes. And for now, it seems to be the only strategy Democrats have.

By bringing the bill to a vote, Democrats surfaced the party’s unity, and the GOP’s determined obstruction. Despite the fact that Republicans voted to block formal debate, there was nonetheless a sort of debate before proceeding to that vote, and it showed the deceit at the heart of many GOP arguments against it. First of all, many Republican senators invoked the record-high turnout in the 2020 presidential race to argue that, in the words of Maine Senator Susan Collins, “it’s very difficult to make the case that this bill is necessary, as some have said, ‘to save our democracy.’”

No Republican deigned to acknowledge that the record turnout, especially by young voters and voters of color, provoked a tsunami of legislation from GOP states designed to put barriers in front of those very voters. (It should be noted that one of the many reasons the For the People Act needs revision is that it was written before those laws were enacted and doesn’t deal with some of their abuses—especially moves by state legislatures to grab power from localities in terms of governing elections and certifying their results.) Instead, Republicans cherry-picked aspects of the voter suppression bills that mark some improvement in access and ignored the ways they thwart it.

But all of that was predictable, and so was the vote—a 50-50 tie on the question of whether to proceed to debate, when Senate rules required 60. An angry Schumer promised that wasn’t the end of the bill. “We are going to explore every last one of our options. We have to. Voting rights are too important.” Vice President Kamala Harris, who presided as Senate president over the dispiriting day, declared, “The fight is not over.”

Also predictable: As he left the Senate, Manchin renewed his vow to protect the 60-vote threshold: “I think y’all know where I stand on the filibuster. The filibuster is needed to protect democracy.” It felt like a slap to all his Senate colleagues who said voting rights reform is what’s “needed to protect democracy.” When the 50 Democratic senators who voted to at least debate the bill represent 43 million more Americans than the 50 Republican senators who opposed it, as Ari Berman noted in Mother Jones, democracy is in real trouble.

Is that the end of the road for voting rights reform this session? It’s hard not to think so, despite the promises of Schumer, Harris, and Biden to keep fighting. What’s the best case for eventual success? It’s flimsy, but it goes like this: Manchin has been here before, sort of. He opposed the American Rescue Plan, and voiced skepticism about using reconciliation—which requires only Democratic votes—to pass it. And then, after some amendments, he voted for it via reconciliation. He came out, strongly, against the For the People Act, but then offered an alternative proposal many voting rights advocates, including, now notoriously, Stacey Abrams, said they could support. And then he voted to proceed with For the People.

I think it’s a lot harder to imagine a similar evolution on the filibuster—for Manchin to, say, back creating a “carve-out” to allow voting rights bills, like budget matters and Supreme Court judges, to pass with a simple majority, given his many absolutist statements against any kind of reform. But it’s not impossible, I guess. Progressives, most notably Indivisible cofounder Ezra Levin, have blasted Biden for not doing more to pass the bill—he gave exactly one speech on voting rights, back in April, and has only been working behind the scenes in the last week.

Biden’s allies say it’s more productive to work that way. No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin admitted “I’m not sure” when asked by reporters what happens next on voting rights, but promised that Biden is “doing a lot of things that haven’t been announced publicly.”

For his part, Schumer has promised to bring up the bill, or perhaps pieces of it, again. A version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a narrower voting-rights bill that Manchin mostly supports, is proceeding, but isn’t on track to hit the Senate until the fall at the earliest, since Democrats are trying to write new federal requirements for “preclearance” of voting legislation that will stand up to the John Roberts Supreme Court (which struck down preclearance in 2013). Maybe it could be fast-tracked, but there is no version that can imaginably get 10 GOP votes (so far only Lisa Murkowski seems interested).

That brings us back to the filibuster. Democrats can get rid of it, or reform it, with just 50 votes (plus a tie-breaker from Harris). But they can’t do it with 48. Like it or not, they seem stuck with finding a way to bring along Manchin and Sinema, whose specious Monday Washington Post piece defending the filibuster was too dumb to even debunk (though Greg Sargent did ably expose its inanity.)

After a meeting on Manchin’s proposals last week, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a staunch voting rights advocate, said Democratic “unity” was crucial. But when The Atlantic’s Russell Berman asked him how they’d get such unity on filibuster reform, he replied, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” It made me think of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where John Lewis almost lost his life for voting rights, and wonder how Democrats get Manchin and Sinema to show half that passion and courage.

I’m not sure that party leaders’ performative strategy—we can show Joe and Kyrsten they’re wrong!—will work. But, sadly, I haven’t heard a better one so far.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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