This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Earlier this summer, the president of the United States traveled to the city where the Constitution was written, debated and signed and warned of mounting perils to American democracy. He invoked Jim Crow and called new election laws and voter suppression efforts in state legislatures the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free elections in American history.
“We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,” President Biden said in his speech at the National Constitution Center. “That’s not hyperbole,” he added, before repeating “since the Civil War.”
That’s a frightful warning from an American president, many of whom tend not to make such stark comparisons with two of the most bitter and poisonous eras in our history — let alone as a means to double-down and insist that such an apocalyptic warning doesn’t overstate the threat. Biden sees the threats to representative democracy clearly: A nation drifting toward one-party, minority rule at nearly all levels of government, that citizens are powerless to control via the ballot box. A nation where one party remains captive to a “Big Lie” of election fraud that inspired an insurrection at the Capitol on the day when Electoral College votes were to be tallied. The Big Lie has swollen in influence over the past year as we witness fraudulent audits across the nation and a steady stream of voter suppression efforts in our most competitive and quickly changing states that could ensure a deliberately anti-majoritarian outcome in 2024.
It would, of course, stand to reason that a president who believed this moment rivaled almost five years of bloodshed between North and South, rooted in this nation’s original racial sins, would exert every moral and persuasive power he could to ensure that our democracy withstood every threat.
But since then, while Democratic lawmakers in Texas battled a brutal voter suppression bill by leaving their families for a month to deny a quorum necessary for its passage, while tens of thousands of Americans marched on Washington and in state capitals in support of the For The People Act and a renewed Voting Rights Act, the president has been disappointingly reticent. Rolling Stone did report this week, citing unnamed sources, that “President Joe Biden and his advisers have said in recent weeks that Biden will pressure wavering Democrats to support reforming the filibuster if necessary to pass the voting bill.” Rolling Stone also reported that the President told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently to “tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.” It is long past time.
But that is all very behind-the-scenes maneuvering. And even more disquieting, many of the statements that have come from the White House during these weeks have not only failed to meet the urgency of this moment, but seem to hardly grapple with the real challenges. Administration officials suggested that partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression could be out-organized. They announced a multi-million investment in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts for the 2022 midterms.
That’s as if Abraham Lincoln decided to fight the Civil War with a series of public service advertisements in 1860s newspapers and perhaps a pamphletting campaign. Greater turnout doesn’t defeat partisan gerrymandering; it simply runs up your vote totals in the handful of districts where urban Democrats have been packed. Just ask citizens in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin how well that has worked for the last decade, as Democratic state legislative candidates routinely win hundreds of thousands more votes, but Republicans haven’t surrendered a single chamber for more than a decade. To out-race today’s surgical voter suppression efforts, meanwhile, requires defeating an opponent with a huge head start while strapping on 10-pound weights to both legs.
Biden, and indeed, the entire Democratic party, need not force that extra burden onto its most committed activists, especially since these weights would be borne by Black and Latino voters who have had the most targeted barriers placed between themselves and the ballot box. Biden and the Democrats, after all, control the White House and both branches of Congress, for now. Black voters helped put them in power by organizing and winning two U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia last January. Democrats could use the power those activists already deployed to helped them win, neutralize the assault on voting rights coming from state legislatures, and restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act which have been systematically gutted by the Roberts Court.
They could do all of this by simply passing two laws: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Even more than that: They could do this by passing two very popular laws that command widespread support among Democrats, Republicans and independents. It would be good politics and good for America.
Those acts, of course, will apparently need Democrats to rework Senate rules around the filibuster — which requires assent from 60 members to bring a bill to the floor for passage — even if it holds majority support. At least two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Kristen Sinema, still oppose changing those rules, even if it’s a one-time workaround for voting rights. Manchin and Sinema have remained unyielding. The President can’t force them to change their mind. But Biden and congressional leadership do control carrots and sticks. They must try harder, and publicly. What priorities at home can Biden help Manchin and Sinema advance? Or, what might be stripped for funding packages, what federal programs or military bases, might they hate to lose?
It’s certainly understandable to wish, as Manchin and Synema clearly do, for electoral reform and voting rights to garner bipartisan support. But we must also live in the real world. When the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006, it cleared the Republican-controlled U.S. House 390-33, won unanimous acclaim in the GOP-run Senate, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Times have changed. When the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was voted on by the U.S. House last month, there was not a single GOP supporter. The situation appears similar in the U.S. Senate, where there may be one or two Republican supporters, but not the 10 necessary to overcome the filibuster, itself a relic of previous racist efforts to preserve power in the face of a nation struggling to meet its highest ideals.
Those who imagine bipartisan support for voting rights must also explain the last decade of Republican efforts in state capitals nationwide to enact voter ID laws, voter purges, precinct closures, reductions in early voting hours and other restrictions, almost entirely in GOP-dominated states, and almost entirely along party lines. One cannot face down threats actively created by one political party by imagining a shared path forward. indeed, nearly every time in our history when a stalwart Congress has stood tall and pushed back against similar threats, it has been along party line votes. When bipartisanship is simply not possible, when white supremacy or authoritarianism must be countered, it is the responsibility of leaders to recognize that a party-line vote in defense of foundational rights is not partisan, but deeply American. In the days after the Civil War, when state legislatures and the courts threatened the foundation of representative democracy and the right to vote, Lincoln Republicans in Congress advanced the 14th and 15th amendments via near party-line votes, as well as the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1872 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. We are in such a moment again.
It’s American democracy that is very much at stake — with the clock ticking.
Any failure to address extreme partisan gerrymandering, as the next redistricting cycle begins, would abandon voters in Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Texas and many other competitive states to what could be a generation of GOP minority rule. It would also all-but-ensure a Republican takeover of the U.S. House next year. Democrats currently hold a wafer-thin five-seat majority that is entirely due to two state supreme court decisions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina that invalidated GOP gerrymanders and instituted fair maps that elected six more Democrats. Republicans could erase that edge simply by gerrymandering Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida alone — and engineer themselves a majority even if millions of voters once again prefer Democratic candidates.
Democratic candidates for the U.S. House won some 4.7 million more votes than Republican candidates in 2020. It’s entirely possible that Democrats could win by the same margin in 2022, but Republicans would rule the chamber nevertheless. That would put an end to any reform efforts. It would also mean that a rigged U.S. House, governed by a Republican caucus that owes its existence to gerrymandering, could refuse to recognize free and fair election results in 2024 if a Democratic candidate again won the White House. The 2020 election exposed just how rickety our procedures are and how much relies on historical norms and good faith. The 2024 election could break us entirely.
Who rides to the rescue then? A U.S. Supreme Court which has proven itself a wrecking crew for voting rights? The shoddy and wildly outdated Electoral Counts Act? “Responsible” voices inside the Republican party? Biden, after all, won the 2020 election by some 7.6 million votes nationwide. But he won the Electoral College by fewer than 45,000 votes in three states — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, and narrowly carried the single congressional district in Nebraska that has its own elector. Had those votes gone the other way, the Electoral College would have been knotted at 269 and the election thrown to the House for a vote by state congressional delegations that would have favored the GOP.
If things almost came off the rails last time, they’d almost certainly careen off the tracks next time. Since Election Day, those three states that have either proposed or enacted some of the most extreme electoral laws in the nation, including some that would give state legislatures the final say over the statewide popular vote, or award Electoral College electors by gerrymandered congressional districts. Nebraska Republicans may soon gerrymander that district around Omaha to help paint it red.
How would Democrats — or any Americans bristling over GOP minority rule at all levels of government — then respond to the very real possibility of a third Republican president elected without popular support in seven elections; a U.S. Senate that overweights the voices of smaller, whiter, rural states; gerrymandered rule in the U.S. House and state legislatures; and a U.S. Supreme Court where five of six conservative justices have been appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a Senate that does not accurately reflect the nation? This is how institutions lose their validity. This is how consent of the governed perishes.
Biden is right to see this as an existential threat. But existential threats on our doorstep require a more urgent response. This is not to imagine a superhero president. It is, however, to demand a president who understands what Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson did, and who uses the bully pulpit of the presidency to command public attention and demand action. It is to negotiate firmly with consequences of his own, even adding Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico as states if Republicans continue obstructionism, and advocating real judicial reform and Supreme Court expansion as well. It is to join the fight on the front lines, every day. Because eight months into his term, and Democratic control of the Congress, those days are dwindling. And once midterm elections arrive, the window for change may have closed, for good, for a generation if not longer. It is obvious to all that no Republicans will join the fight against what is happening in state legislatures. Biden either persuades two Democrats in the Senate to reimagine the filibuster, or two Democrats will have not only brought down their party’s majorities in Congress and pushed the second half of Biden’s term into gridlock and partisan investigations — but they might bring down representative democracy itself.
As Biden said in Philadelphia, this is not hyperbole. This is the very real threat of an authoritarian minority seizing power without any democratic or judicial means to protect free and fair elections. This will be his legacy. Will Joe Biden be the president who recognized these threats and acted to ensure the future of the republic? Or will he be the president who recognized the menace on the near-horizon, gave a pretty speech, but then did nothing?