“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. We are witnessing a concerted, systematic and unrelenting effort to undermine our democracy. The sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and Donald Trump’s continuing effort to discredit the 2020 presidential election that he lost are just part of the offensive. The attack on democracy is supported by Republican politicians, donors, and party organs at state and national levels. It is reinforced by the partisan Republican-appointed right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.
The campaign began with the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen — a lie that is repeated even though refuted by independent audits, Republican judges, Trump’s own attorney general, and Republican election officials. Yet most Republican voters still believe the election was stolen.
That lie then is used by Republican lawmakers to push legislative measures designed to make it harder to vote — limiting mail-in ballots, reducing the days for early voting, cutting the hours that polls are open, eliminating polling places, imposing burdensome ID requirements, and purging voting lists. By February, 253 bills were introduced in 43 states. 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.
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 congressional delegation even if they lose a majority of the votes. 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 right-wing Supreme Court justices. In a series of decisions, they have opened the floodgates to corporate contributions and dark money, gutted the Voting Rights Act and ruled that they won’t limit gerrymandering or the purges of voting rolls.
This reaction spreads by sowing racial fears and division.
We have witnessed this kind of reaction before. After the Civil War, Congress passed constitutional amendments to outlaw slavery, guarantee Blacks the right to vote, and guarantee equal protection under the law. Multiracial coalitions were forged in many former Confederate states and passed progressive reforms to expand education and opportunity. The former Confederate elite 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 Blacks 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, Blacks suffered another century of political repression and second-class citizenship.
Will today’s reaction succeed? Democracy already faces institutional obstacles. The Senate is structurally biased against states with large populations. Republicans can capture a majority of the Senate with a minority of the national vote. The Electoral College imposes a bias on the presidential election. In the Senate, the filibuster has been turned from an instrument rarely used to a routine tool to obstruct any progress.
Biden called on leaders 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 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 but are blocked in the Senate by Republican use of the filibuster.
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.
Citizens of conscience across the country must rise up and demand action before it is too late.
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