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Voting rights activists

Activists rallying for voting rights and the infrastructure bills are detained by Capitol Police as they block the doors of the Hart Senate Office Building at the U.S. Capitol October 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden will meet with House Democrats on Thursday morning to try and secure a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill and discuss his multi-trillion social policy spending bill. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

No Time to Lose: Why Democrats Should Include Voting Rights In Their Build Back Better Compromise

Nothing is more important to the future of the republic and to the future of the Democratic party than voting legislation.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

It seems like “last minute” negotiations about President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislative agenda have been dragging on for months. Even now, after Biden outlined his “bottom line” before heading for Rome, disagreements persist, about details and about the timing of a vote. Each time it appears that a common understanding has been reached, Joe Manchin recoils.

If Democrats do not act now, on voting rights, then the party, and the republic itself, will be in grave danger.

In many ways there is a real stalemate between the small number of so-called Democratic “moderates” and “problem solvers,” with Senators Manchin and Sinema in the vanguard, and the much larger number of progressives who long rallied behind Biden’s own original $3.5 billion plan.

It is clear that Biden has now backed far away from that plan, and that any viable legislative compromise will sacrifice major elements of the progressive agenda (which until recently had also been Biden’s agenda). It is also clear that this will be a very bitter pill for many progressives to swallow, and rightly so.

While for weeks attention has focused on these dynamics, it is both striking and disturbing that both Biden and the Democratic leadership have allowed talk about legislation about voting rights to fade from view. The New Republic’s Jason Linkins is exactly right: “The Biden Administration Doesn’t Take Voter Suppression Seriously.

Nothing is more important to the future of the republic and to the future of the Democratic party than voting legislation.

This is increasingly clear to many across the political spectrum (it is equally clear that the fate of the republic is now indissolubly linked to the fate of the Democrats, for the Republican party has become an anti-system party in thrall to Trump). Last week’s “Open Letter in Defense of Democracy” is one sign of this.

And it is quite astonishing that there seems to have been no public discussion of the most obvious way for Democrats to move beyond the current stasis—for the compromise about Build Back Better to actually be linked to voting legislation.

It’s simple. Why can’t Progressive Democrats get with Congressional leadership, and with the White House, and then announce a proposal tailor-made for Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema:

They will agree to support the much-scaled back, $1.75 Build Back Better plan, and to vote to pass the “Bipartisan” Infrastructure Bill immediately, in exchange for immediate passage of the Freedom to Vote Act engineered by none other than Joe Manchin.

Manchin doesn’t like ambitious social programs? Okay for now.

Manchin doesn’t think family leave is appropriate for reconciliation? Okay for now.

Manchin says he cares about voting rights and believes in the Freedom to Vote Act?

Fine. Then let him agree to override the arcane Senate filibuster rule, right now, for this pressing legislation, in the name of constitutional democracy and forward movement on social legislation.

Manchin can have his “physical infrastructure” bill now, and Progressives can have meaningful voting and election legislation now. And the details of the “Build Back Better” bill can be worked out in the coming days and weeks.

The Freedom to Vote Act is a pretty straightforward piece of legislation.

If Democrats are serious, they can pass it in both Houses in a matter of days, and then pass the Infrastructure Bill at the same time, with the understanding that “Build Back Better” will follow soon thereafter.

Manchin and Sinema and the other “moderates” will get what they want, now—the infrastructure resources, and the “victory” that might help to buoy Democrats electorally.

And progressives will get what they want, now—substantial voting rights legislation that represents a real counter to Republican efforts to subvert democracy, along with a promise for a decent if cheap Build Back Better bill soon.

The Democrats need some such compromise in order to avoid disaster at the polls in the next few election cycles. If Democrats can build their majority, then they can live to fight another day among themselves about the more ambitious policy agenda that the country needs, that Biden promised, but that, alas, he simply cannot now deliver.

If Democrats do not act now, on voting rights, then the party, and the republic itself, will be in grave danger.

The fate of social policy is inextricably tied to the fate of democracy.

It’s time to state this clearly, and to act on it, by linking the two matters to craft a legislative compromise. 

There is no time to lose.


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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