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Mcconnell and Manchin

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in the House Chamber on Tuesday, February 4, 2020. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Getting Real About Democratic Equality "For the People" in the Face of Republican Authoritarianism

It is highly unlikely that the kind of measures that are necessary to safeguard democracy from its imminent threats can be signed into law this year or the next given the current balance of forces.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

The "For the People Act" has been a central legislative priority for the Democratic party, and especially its progressive wing, ever since its introduction, and passage, in 2019. There have been especially high hopes for this bill since January, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection and the ongoing Republican "Stop the Steal" election subversion, and with the start of a new legislative term, with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency.

These hopes have now been dashed, at least temporarily, by the successful Republican effort to block not simply the law but discussion of the law on the floor of the Senate. The "For the People Act" is now dead on arrival. What happens now remains in question. Chuck Schumer promises to bring the bill back. Kamala Harris says the administration remains determined to see such legislation pass. But what this actually means, and what if anything is politically possible, is anyone's guess.

There was never any way that any Republicans would vote for the Act, and it became increasingly clear that Senate Democrats would be unable to summon a majority to override a Republican filibuster.

It is hard to be surprised by this outcome. Disappointed, yes. But not surprised. There was never any way that any Republicans would vote for the Act, and it became increasingly clear that Senate Democrats would be unable to summon a majority to override a Republican filibuster. The Senate is perhaps the most reactionary institution laid out in the Constitution. And Senate procedure, predictably, doomed H.R. 1 even before the bill arrived.

This is no surprise. But it is also no reason to disparage in any way either the Act itself or those who have worked hardest and most earnestly to get it passed. For it is only they, and not those favoring a more "business as usual" approach, who have taken the full measure of the crisis we face.

Unfortunately, the disparagers have wasted little time in doing their business, offering predictable, boilerplate commentary about the importance of "realism" and the failure of Democrats to understand this. MSNBC's Chuck Todd–who chastised Senate Democrats before yesterday's vote for going ahead with the vote even though they "knew it wouldn't pass"—now declares on cue that "the biggest Democratic divide on voting bill is between the activists and the pragmatists." The pragmatists—the only Democrats named in this connection are Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—apparently understand that it is simply impossible to pass the Act in the face of a Republican filibuster, and also understand, in Todd's benighted words, that the Act "doesn't meet the moment of the post-2020 GOP state bills that have the potential to subvert election counts — by creating new election powers, changing election administration and punishing election officials who don't perform their duties." But "activists" stubbornly believe that "the legislation . . . is the only true way forward," choosing to ignore the Senate math, but also the fact that "President Biden won the Democratic nomination in large part because he came from the pragmatist wing of the party."

Todd–he of the furrowed brow, sad comb-over, and woodchuck-like smile—is incredulous.

The New York Times's Nate Cohn—in all ways less tendentious and obtrusive—is no less "pragmatic" in his "news analysis," which bears the headline "A Bill Destined to Fail  May Now Spawn More Plausible Options." Like Todd, Cohn claims that while the bill's defeat "will come as a crushing blow to progressives and reformers, who have portrayed the law as an essential tool for saving democracy," serious analysts know better: "it was a flawed bill that had little chance of testing the limits of what, if anything, is still possible in Washington. Voting rights activists and Democratic lawmakers may even find that the collapse of this law opens up more plausible, if still highly unlikely, paths to reform." Like Todd, Cohn faults the bill for failing to include explicit provisions against "the most insidious and serious threat to democracy: election subversion, where partisan election officials might use their powers to overturn electoral outcomes." Also like Todd, he faults the bill for its grandiosity, containing "hot-button measures — from public financing of elections to national mail voting — that were only tangentially related to safeguarding democracy, and all but ensured its failure in the Senate."

Both Todd and Cohn, so taken with their own "pragmatism," seem unaware that it hardly makes sense to chastise the bill's strongest advocates for being too "activist"—a clear stand-in for "radical"—and also take them to task for not inserting new measures that Republicans in Congress would have no reason to like any more than the old ones.

The bottom line is that it is worse than tendentious to take an excessively lawyerly approach to the bill. For the bill has a very particular history: it was a response to a range of long-concerning problems with the political process that came to a head with the rise of Trumpism and with the ways that Trump in office attempted a frontal assault on constitutional democracy, aided and abetted by almost the entire Republican party. Cohn actually acknowledges this:

It's true that the 2020 election and Mr. Trump's unprecedented attempt to undermine it revealed the fragility of American democracy in different and more fundamental ways than even the most perspicacious legislator could have anticipated. Originally, the bill was seen as a "political statement," a progressive "wish list" or a "messaging bill," not as the basis for a realistic legislative effort.

But this very characterization fails to take the full measure of the Republican effort to subvert democracy. On the one hand, it gives much too much credence to the notion of "realistic legislative effort," in a situation in which Republican leadership has made it clear that it seeks to support Trumpism and to destroy the Democratic party and has no interest in compromise. On the other hand, by distinguishing between a "realistic" bill and a "messaging bill," it severely underestimates the utter importance of messaging as part of a broader approach to the real mobilization of democratic voters and democratic constituencies.

When H.R. 1 was first passed by the House in 2019, it was a consequence of the 2018 "Blue Wave" election that restored Democratic control of the House by a substantial majority, and was intended as a "rallying cry" for a party seeking to oppose Trumpism and hoping to win big in 2020. No House Democrats, from Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis to Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, regarded passing the Act in 2019 as a "realistic legislative effort" in a context in which Mitch McConnell controlled the Senate and Donald Trump was in the White House.

From the very beginning, the Act was a declaration of sorts: "we support democracy, and are 'for the people,' while the Republicans support autocracy." It sent a message and signified a political intention. 

Obviously, the Democratic margin of victory in 2020 was much thinner, and more precarious, than had been hoped. And just as obviously, under such circumstances, the chances of passing the For the People Act in the Senate this year were near impossible given Senate filibuster rules.

So what?

What would have constituted a "realistic legislative effort" to "safeguard democracy" for Congressional Democrats in the wake of January 6, and the Republican defeat of Trump's impeachment, and the Republican refusal to support an independent commission, and the manifest obstructions of the Republicans on all legislative matters, and the commitment of party leadership to the "stop the steal" lie, and the efforts of state Republicans to rush to enact authoritarian measures? What "bipartisan" legislative bargain is possible under such circumstances? None.

And so House Democrats expeditiously passed the bill for a second time, as they had promised to do, and sent it along to the Senate. The Senate vote called by Chuck Schumer was not some idiotic effort to pass a law that had no chance of passing. It was not a substitute for serious legislative crafting. It was the only political move possible to call the Republican party on its authoritarianism. Had the Republicans allowed debate, something like Joe Manchin's compromise might have been the outcome. But Republican leadership made clear that even such a compromise was impossible.

Nate Cohn notes in his piece that the defeat of the bill now makes possible "realistic legislative effort." Perhaps. Perhaps it will incline Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema to reconsider their opposition to ending the filibuster. This would not be a bad thing. Democratic passage of Manchin's compromise, on a strict party-line vote, would be a good thing, as even Stacey Abrams has acknowledged. But this will require a move on the filibuster that the party as a whole does not seem ready to make, and that two or more Senate Democrats continue to oppose.

All of the punditry about the grandiosity and insufficient "realism"  of the For the People Act in the face of the Senate math is beside the point.

The bottom line is that every single measure contained in the For the People Act has a justifiable purpose. Any doubters can simply consult the Brennan Center's web site or read its 82-page "Annotated Guide to the For the People Act of 2021."  Nate Cohn might regard the legislative overturning of the Supreme Court's  Citizens' United decision, or the many other Act provisions not supported by Joe Manchin, as "hot-button measures . . . only tangentially related to safeguarding democracy." But such a statement is preposterous. Voter suppression is by no means the only practice that limits democratic equality. It might well be that the inclusion of so many provisions in the Act "all but ensured its failure in the Senate." But this does not mean that these provisions are superfluous. It simply means that the Republican party is against democratic equality.

Cohn is correct that the For the People Act was "destined to fail." But it is not because of the overzealousness of progressives and "activists" and "reformers." It is because the long-festering limits and corruptions of U.S. democracy have coalesced into a situation where there is a serious crisis of legitimacy, and where one of the two major political parties is determined to exacerbate this crisis, to undermine the norms and procedures of constitutional democracy, and to do what it can to lock-in its permanent political domination.

Of course Republican actions since January 6—related to voter suppression, undermining the autonomy of election officials, supporting far-right organizing, and much else—require measures not included in the For the People Act. This means that a proper Act now needs to be made more ambitious, not less.

But the bottom line is that it is highly unlikely that the kind of measures that are necessary to safeguard democracy from its imminent threats can be signed into law this year or the next given the current balance of forces.

That is no reason to abandon the possibility of something like the passage of a "Manchin compromise," or some other hybrid "John Lewis Act," on a strict party-line vote. But it is a reason to abandon the hope that such "realistic legislative effort" can "save us" from the great danger that in 2022 Congress can fall into Republican hands, and in 2024 the Presidency itself can so fall. That would be a disaster. And if it can be averted, it will require a much broader kind of politicking. And a lot of luck.

The recent announcement by Merrick Garland that the Justice Department will devote substantial resources to enforcing voting rights is a hopeful sign. In some situations Justice investigation, reporting, and litigation might play an important role in "safeguarding" democratic rights.

In an ideal world, the Democratic party itself would be reenergized, and figures such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would be marginalized or rendered superfluous by stronger Democratic majorities. 

A monumental, 50-state strategy of voter mobilization is also essential if Republican victories in 2022 and 2024 are to be averted—and indeed Republican obstruction of the For the People Act can play some role in such mobilization, by highlighting the real difference between the parties, and the reason why voters need to vote and make themselves heard. It remains to be seen whether such a mobilization strategy can and will be successfully pursued by Democrats. Biden might do more from his bully pulpit. A proposal has recently been floated by the Center for American Progress that Biden should appoint a National Task Force on Civic Engagement and Voter Participation. Stacey Abrams recently announced an organizing drive, called "Hot Call Summer," intended "to reach at least 10 million voters in battleground states that have either passed new laws with restrictions on voting or are advancing such bills. Ms. Abrams's group, Fair Fight Action, will also host virtual events and fund a paid media campaign to support the push." While progress toward passing national voting rights legislation is surely one goal of the effort, mobilizing voters for 2022 and 2024 is clearly as important. The same is true of Black Votes Matter's planned "Freedom Ride for Voting Rights." Mobilizing voters regarding voting rights is about getting them to vote.

In an ideal world, the Democratic party itself would be reenergized, and figures such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would be marginalized or rendered superfluous by stronger Democratic majorities. 

But we live in a world that is far from ideal. And in this world, the Democratic party is a very big-tent party in which people like Manchin and Sinema–and the people who vote for them in the red states they represent– cannot be disregarded. The Atlantic's Russell Berman is correct about the defeat of the Act, observing that the Democrats now face a "dead end on voting rights," and that "they claim that democracy is under threat, but they lack the collective will to save it." But the problem is not simply that Democrats "lack the collective will." It is that Democrats lack a sufficient strong and clear collective identity. And there are too many of them in office that don't really care about democracy, or care more about parliamentary procedure, or tax policy, or simply themselves. The Democratic party is barely a "collective actor" at all.

And yet the Democratic party represents the only hope for the defense of constitutional democracy in the U.S. But it is not a dynamic and progressive party, and the Biden administration, whatever its virtues, is not a dynamic and progressive administration. Meanwhile Congressional Republicans do their best to obstruct all Democratic efforts, Republicans in statehouses all across the country are energetically at work suppressing voting, abolishing fair vote counting, deceitfully "auditing" election results, and doing their best to play by the Donald Trump Playbook. And they are succeeding. 

Under such circumstances,  the "realism" of legislative markup and compromise is a phony realism.

It may bear some fruit. But the defense and deepening of democracy will require much more. Call it "messaging." Or "symbolism." Or "agitation." Or "education." Or mobilization.

Pragmatism requires us to acknowledge the serious obstacles, and determined adversaries, we face.

And realism requires us to recognize that the situation is grim.

Will a more savvy strategy of democratic mobilization be discovered? Will some individuals or groups rise to the occasion in unanticipated ways? Will Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema suddenly experience democratic epiphanies, start singing Walt Whitman verses, and become ardent leaders of filibuster reform? We can't know. We can simply do our best with the resources and opportunities at hand, and hope for the best. In an essay on "Freedom and Politics," Hannah Arendt observed that "if it is true that action and beginning are essentially the same, it follows that a capacity for performing miracles must likewise be within the range of human faculties. . . every new beginning, seen from the viewpoint of what has gone before . . . breaks into the world unexpected and unforeseen."

We could use a miracle right now.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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