The most important job ahead for Democrats

The most important job ahead for Democrats

Democracy reform is a prerequisite for any livable political future.

(If you don’t want to read the post, click play above and I’ll read it to you.)

Hello, beloved readers and listeners! Today I’m going to make an argument that is very important to me: Democrats must pass substantial democracy reform before the 2022 elections. If Dems don’t get this done, the US is in for a long period of political darkness. Democracy in America could very well perish. Climate change will become unsolvable. Every goal progressives seek — taxing the rich, funding infrastructure, fixing immigration, boosting unions, you name it — will move out of reach. It is, I say with some risk of understatement, the most important thing in the world.

Let me try to explain why.

Biden’s 2020 victory temporarily arrested, but did not stop, the US slide toward minority rule

When Biden was elected in November, I felt a conflicting mass of emotions. Most of all, of course, was relief. It is no exaggeration to say that a second Trump term would have meant the end of the American experiment with democracy.

But alongside that relief was a persistent sense of dread. The larger context of the 2020 election is an ongoing process whereby America’s mostly white, rural, and suburban conservative minority — which hasn’t won the popular vote in a presidential election since 2004 — is gaining greater and greater structural political advantages each passing year. Republicans are overrepresented in the Senate, overrepresented by the Electoral College, gerrymandered into safe House seats, and busy passing voter suppression bills at the state level.

What Dems needed in 2020 was commanding majorities in both houses and a few key state legislatures, enough to stop the next round of GOP gerrymandering and pass substantial democracy reform through Congress.

They got majorities, but, far from commanding, they are whisker thin, smaller in the House than in 2018. And Republicans maintained control of all the state governments key to redistricting. That makes Democrats’ job much, much more difficult.

Nonetheless, it remains the job. Getting Trump out of office was the first step, but it won’t mean anything in the mid- to long-term if Dems don’t repair democracy. Absent substantial structural reform, the most likely outcome remains the one that Matt Yglesias predicted in 2015: “America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.”

I would put it this way: Democrats either pass substantial democracy reform (including statehood for DC) through Congress in the next 18 months or they will lose one or both houses in 2022 and remain locked out of congressional majorities for a decade if not longer.

Without voting system reform, Dems are screwed in 2022

The most likely outcome of the 2022 elections is that Democrats lose their House majority. To keep it, they would have to defy both history and Republican gerrymandering.

Historically, midterm elections are a “shellacking” for the president’s party, as Obama (whose party lost 63 House seats in 2010) put it. With only two exceptions — Clinton Democrats in 1998 and Bush Republicans in 2002 — this has held true all the way back to 1934.

Even if they defy that historical trend, Democrats won’t be fighting on a level playing field. Because they retained control of the key state legislatures involved in redistricting, Republicans could win a House majority in 2022 purely with new seats created by redistricting, even if they don’t flip a single blue seat red.

To buck these trends and keep the House in 2022, Democrats will need not just the historic turnout that elected Biden, but more. It would take something of a miracle.

“If we replicate the GOP’s post-9/11, 2002 midterm performance, we have a chance,” political analyst David Shor told New York magazine’s Eric Levitz. “If we replicate the second-best presidential-party midterm from the past 40 years, we lose.”

The Senate will be more competitive in 2022: out of 34 races, Republicans are defending 20 seats and Democrats 14. Nine of those races are considered competitive, roughly evenly divided between parties.

But it almost doesn’t matter: if Democrats lose the House, legislation of any substance will become impossible. And odds are getting increasingly stacked against Democrats in both houses, so it could be a long-ass time before they have Congress again.

Perhaps there’s some path to bipartisan democracy reform? Ha ha, no.

Republicans will fight democracy reform to the death

If either house of Congress goes to Republicans, any kind of positive voting reform becomes impossible. If they get unified control again, they are much more likely to pass national versions of the kind of targeted voter restrictions they are passing at the state level.

Democrats will never get a scrap of help from Republicans on democracy reform, only implacable, relentless opposition. Conservatives will fight it with everything they’ve got, for the same reason they fought it during Reconstruction or the Civil Rights era: to the extent voting in the US becomes easier, fairer, and more representative, they lose power.

The right has a congenial and enduring Supreme Court majority and a growing network of militias willing to use intimidation and the threat of violence against legislative activity they dislike, as they have in Oregon and Michigan (oh, and the US Capitol). They have shown no hesitation in using either.

Dems need to understand that Republicans will escalate the war over voting reform as far as they are able, full stop. It’s existential for them.

Passing democracy reform means doing the Manchin dance

With the current dysfunctional and distorted electoral system in place, this could be the last time Democrats hold the presidency and both houses of Congress for a decade or longer. That’s why it’s now or never on democracy reform.

Getting there will require a delicate dance. A lot of things have to line up.

My hopes for Democrats were dim going into 2021, but thus far Biden has been astonishingly effective. He led with a blitz of executive actions, may get everyone vaccinated by May (!), got most of his cabinet nominations approved, turbo-charged a unionization drive in Alabama, and just got a stimulus bill almost exactly the size he wanted — $1.9 trillion — through Congress. That bill contains state and local aid, extended (tax-free) unemployment benefits, a child allowance that could halve US child poverty, and loads more.

It’s a lot of concrete aid to a lot of people in a short period of time (exactly what I advised/hoped). Biden has done all this while maintaining a low personal profile, giving Americans the peace from politics they needed. He remains resolutely boring as a public figure — no provocative tweets, no inserting himself in passing culture-war battles, no unnecessary theatrics.

A democracy-reform bill, though, can’t pass through reconciliation with a bare majority the way the Covid relief bill did. To pass it, Democrats will need to either scrap, reform, or otherwise bypass the filibuster.

The major figure in that drama is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has also, I must begrudgingly admit, outperformed my expectations thus far. He kicked up a fuss around the stimulus bill — a fuss that sounds like it was almost entirely about personal pique — but ultimately he signed on without fundamental changes.

More importantly, after saying nothing but harshly negative things about filibuster reform for months, Manchin threw a curveball last Sunday, when he expressed openness, not to killing the filibuster, but reforming it. “If you want to make [filibustering] a little bit more painful — make them stand there and talk — I’m willing to look at any way we can,” he told Meet the Press host Chuck Todd.

That’s only one small step toward filibuster reform — many problems and challenges remain — but it’s an important one.

Let’s say you wanted to interpret Manchin’s actions charitably. Perhaps he’s doing a dance, making loud noises about moderation and blocking Democrats and working across the aisle in order to play to his conservative constituents in West Virginia, while ultimately running cover for Biden’s extraordinarily ambitious agenda.

Voters, especially Democratic voters, love the optics of negotiation and compromise. Republicans have been incredibly effective at denying them those optics by refusing to compromise — it’s a way to ensure the Democratic agenda fails even as Democrats take the blame for not trying hard enough to be bipartisan.

In a sense, fighting and negotiating with conservative Dems like Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema provides voters (and political journalists) some of those optics, making it look like Biden has to shepherd his priorities past the watchful eye of skeptical moderates. It gives the public more confidence in the resulting legislation. (The Covid relief bill is enormously popular.)

Perhaps Manchin knows all that and is supplying those optics on purpose. Perhaps he’s accumulating “moderate” credibility that he plans to spend on filibuster reform when the time is right.

I still don’t quite believe that — I’m suspicious of 12-dimensional-chess explanations in politics — but let’s just say there’s been no disconfirming evidence yet. The theory still fits the facts.

Manchin is now saying that he doesn’t want to use reconciliation for the big upcoming infrastructure bill. Over on Axios:

Asked if he believes it's possible to get 10 Republicans on the infrastructure package, which could yield the 60 votes needed under normal Senate rules, Manchin said: "I sure do."

Again, there’s no way to know if he actually believes this or if he’s just setting himself up to look like he tried, but … it’s definitely wrong. There is no world in which 10 Republican senators vote for a major Democratic bill, infrastructure or otherwise. The question is what Manchin will do when Republican support for Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda doesn’t materialize.

Is there some demonstration of Republican obstinance that will drive Manchin to filibuster reform? If so, which bill might prompt it?

Every Democratic constituency, if it gets wind of the possibility of filibuster reform — or even one-time exemptions from the filibuster — will want its issue to be the test case. Key unions are even now calling for filibuster reform in order for the Senate to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act that the House just passed.

The filibuster must fall for a democracy reform bill

But if the filibuster is to fall — or waver, or reform — it must do so in service of the bill passed by the House earlier this month: HR1, which would implement nationwide automatic voter registration, mandate that nonpartisan commissions handle all redistricting, mandate early voting and no-excuses absentee ballots, institute campaign finance and ethics reforms, and restore felon voting rights, among other things.

Yes, it would help Democrats electorally. According to Shor, comprehensive election reform would raise Dems’ chances of keeping the House in 2022 threefold.

But it would help Democrats because it would allow more people to vote, in a fairer and more equitable way. No Democrat should be apologetic about backing it.

I hope that wiser heads in the Democratic congressional caucus will be able to convince their colleagues, most notably Manchin and other Senate nostalgists, that democracy reform must get a vote. Even if Republicans want to filibuster it, the filibuster has to end at some point; debate must come to a close and there must be a real, old-fashioned, majority-wins vote. Democracy is too important to let arcane Senate procedure stand in the way.

There are other things Democrats should do on democracy reform as well, including statehood for DC and Puerto Rico (if the people of PR want it) and expanding the Supreme Court, but HR1 is the core.

“Basically, we have this small window right now to pass redistricting reform and create states,” Shor told Levitz. “And if we don’t use this window, we will almost certainly lose control of the federal government and not be in a position to pass laws again potentially for a decade.”

Let’s not forget that Republicans, led by the president, tried to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. They were prevented from doing so by a few key state Republican officials and judges with integrity.

Democrats should think about what will happen in the next presidential election, with the House in Republican hands and state parties having purged all their non-Trump loyalists. There’s no reason to think they won’t try to cheat again and their odds are likely to be improved.

As they say over on Vote Save America: “HR1 or We’re Fucked.”

It’s a narrow path, with dangers on all sides, and it will take a great deal of trust, cooperation, and coordination among Democrats to stay on it. But if democracy reform doesn’t happen, the US will be gridlocked, unable to address any of its problems with legislation, trapped in a self-reinforcing anti-democratic cycle through which an increasingly nationalistic minority exercises control over a growing, younger, more diverse majority. That can not end well.

I am not particularly hopeful that Dems can, after passing this giant relief bill, hold on to their unity to a) pass a second giant reconciliation bill devoted to “building back better,” then b) push HR1 to the Senate floor and respond to the inevitable filibuster by c) convincing Manchin and other Senate holdouts to support filibuster reform, d) actually passing filibuster reform, and then e) passing HR1 into law. Oh, and then f) making DC a state.

But I wasn’t particularly hopeful about Biden from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, and at every juncture, he’s done better than I expected. It’s the same since he took office. The aura of low-drama competence he and his team have maintained so far is pretty close to my best-case scenario for a Biden administration.

So perhaps they know what they’re doing and will go to the mat for democracy reform when the time comes. Perhaps they can pull recalcitrant senators along with them. I suppose they’ve earned a little hope.

Mabel is freaked out at the prospect of a future without democracy reform. (Photo: Jennifer Roberts)
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)