“Renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” President Joe Biden announced at the recent Summit for Democracy. Over the last 10 years, democracy has been in decline across the world, even as Biden admitted, in the United States.
This is an understatement: American democracy is under siege. Today we witness a concerted, systematic and unrelenting effort to undermine our democracy. The sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and former President Donald Trump’s continuing effort to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election that he lost are just one part of the offensive. The attack on democracy is supported by Republican politicians, donors and party organs both at state and national levels. It is reinforced by the partisan Republican appointed right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.
The campaign begins with the Big Lie that the election in 2020 was stolen — a lie that is repeated even though refuted by independent audits, by Republican judges, by Trump’s own attorney general and by Republican election officials. Despite this, a majority of Republican voters now believe that the 2020 election was stolen.
That lie then is used by Republican legislators to push legislative measures designed to make it harder to vote. They seek to limit mail-in ballots, reduce the days for early voting, cut the hours that polls are open, eliminate the number of places to vote, impose burdensome ID requirements and purge voting lists. By February, 253 bills were introduced in 43 states. And now Republican state legislatures in states from Arizona to Pennsylvania are seeking not simply to replace independent election officials with partisans but to empower legislatures to overturn elections if they don’t like the results.
On top of that, in states where Republicans are in control, partisan redistricting committees are gerrymandering districts to ensure that Republicans can capture the majority of the state legislature and the congressional delegation even if they lose a majority of the votes in the state. They are a minority party that is intent on taking and keeping control no matter what most voters think.
The campaign isn’t a secret. It is open, brazen and shameless. “We’re taking action,” Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s White House chief strategist, said last month, “and that action is we’re taking over school boards, we’re taking over the Republican Party through the precinct committee strategy. We’re taking over all the elections. Suck on this.”
This effort is aided and abetted by the tong of right-wing Supreme Court justices. In a series of decisions, they have opened the floodgates to both corporate contributions and dark money — secret — contributions. They have gutted the Voting Rights Act, weakening restrictions on discriminatory voting restrictions. They have now ruled that they won’t limit gerrymandering or the purges of voting rolls — even when the partisan and undemocratic intent and effect are clear.
This reaction spreads by sowing racial fears. Right-wing commentators and activists rail about “replacement theory,” that the growing numbers of people of color threaten to “replace” white America. Trump and his acolytes claim — despite the absence of any evidence — that urban areas are cesspools of voter fraud, again stoking racial division.
We have witnessed this kind of reaction before. After the Civil War, the Congress passed amendments to the Constitution that outlawed slavery, guaranteed Black Americans the right to vote and guaranteed equal protection under the laws. Multiracial coalitions were forged in many of the former Confederate states and passed progressive reforms that expanded education and opportunity. The Confederate elite — the plantation owners and allies — were enraged. They organized the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize the reformers. They spread libels about corruption and voter fraud to discredit the emerging coalitions. Eventually, they cut a deal with northern Republicans to remove federal troops, enabling them to impose apartheid — segregation — on the South, and suppress the right of Black people to vote. A divided Supreme Court — in Plessy v. Ferguson — ruled that separate but equal was constitutional, essentially gutting the post-Civil War Amendments. Across the South, Black people suffered another century of political repression and second-class citizenship.
Will today’s reaction succeed? Democracy already faces institutional obstacles. The Senate — with every state given two senators — is structurally biased against states with urban areas and large populations. Republicans can capture a majority of the Senate with a minority of the national vote. The electoral college imposes that bias on the presidential election — as we saw when Trump was elected despite winning fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the Senate, the filibuster — requiring 60 votes to pass legislation — has been turned from an instrument rarely used (mostly by Southerners blocking civil rights legislation) to a routine tool to obstruct any progress.
Biden called on the leaders assembled at the summit to improve their democracies over the next year. In this country, protecting democracy will require passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — reviving the Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act — which would limit secret money, end partisan gerrymandering, and provide federal standards to protect the right to vote. Both have passed the House of Representatives and would have majority support in the Senate but are blocked by Republican use of the filibuster. The most undemocratic tactic of the most unrepresentative house of Congress is obstructing the effort to save our democracy.
American democracy itself is at risk. As we saw after the Civil War, a minority party enforcing minority rule can succeed only with violence. The Jan. 6 sacking of the Capitol is but a prelude. The officials who refused to endorse Trump’s big lie have been deluged with threats of violence both to them and their families. Rigged elections that ensconce a minority will have less and less legitimacy. Citizens of conscience across the country must rise up and demand action before it is too late.