The Next Battlefield in the War Over Democracy’s Survival

This piece ran as an op/ed toward the end of June, 2021.

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Major conflicts often get focused on a particular battlefield. Like Gettysburg– in the American Civil War. Like Waterloo—where the battle that ended the Napoleonic Era was fought.

In America in these times, the “war” is over whether America will remain a democracy—i.e. whether the American government – as founded to be of the people, for the people, by the people — will perish from this earth.

(A recent poll indicates the 87% of Americans are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that the United States is becoming less of a democracy.)

The Election of 2020 was one major showdown in that conflict. In that Election, the great American democracy dodged a bullet.

Already, in the Trump presidential term of 2017-2021, the foundations of the constitutional order had suffered major blows. Had the 2020 election gone the other way, most experts believe – and I emphatically agree — that the second term of Donald Trump would have moved the nation far toward authoritarianism, an abandonment of the Constitution and the rule of law.

While the nation dodged that bullet, the battle to safeguard American democracy is by no means over. And the next major battle has taken shape: one of the combatants – today’s Republican Party – has chosen for this fight to be joined on the battlefield of voting rights.

All over the nation, Republican legislators in the states are passing bills – under the pretense of safeguarding “election integrity” – whose clear purpose is to erect barriers to voting that will disproportionately impact demographic groups (racial minorities, legal immigrants, the young, the poor) that vote disproportionately for Democrats.

The Republican Party has won the popular vote in only one presidential election since 1988 (2004). As is often observed, today’s GOP has decided that its route to power lies not in finding ways to appeal to majority of Americans but rather in making it more difficult for the American majority to express itself at the polls.

(It is fitting that the brokenness of this assault on America’s basic principle of “the consent of the governed” is justified by the Republicans by another mighty tool of brokenness — a Lie, specifically, by what is widely called the Big Lie: i.e. that the 2020 Election was “stolen.”)

And some Republican-controlled states are passing measures to enable their legislatures to overturn the will of even those who manage to vote.

Thus are the Republicans waging their side of the battle.

Meanwhile, the other side of the battle takes the field as the Democrats of Congress, attempting to pass measures at the national level to protect the voting rights of all American citizens. Several different voting-rights laws are being proposed by Democrats to try to assure that American citizens can make their voices heard, without undue or discriminatory burdens.

The passage of such measures would counter the Republican efforts in the states to gain power by dismantling the fundamental processes of our Democracy.

However, under current Senate rules, no such measures can be enacted without at least ten Republicans supporting them. And this week’s vote – in which every Republican Senator voted against even having a discussion or a debate of these essential measures —  makes clear that there will be no such Republican support.

That means the survival of American democracy – voting rights and fair elections being the foundations of that democracy – will be substantially lost unless the Senate’s rules are changed.

The rules in question involve the “filibuster,” which currently makes it very, very easy for a minority of Senators to paralyze the nation (thwarting the will of the majority on everything that doesn’t concern budgetary matters).

(These rules are not in the Constitution, and indeed runs counter to the way the Senate was set up to work, as a body in which a mere majority can rule. Every state senate in the nation operates just fine that way, without any filibuster that gives a minority a weapon that enables them to defeat the majority.)

What this means is that the battle over the survival of American democracy will come down to that battle over whether those rules will be changed.

The Republicans insistence on protecting their voter suppression measures all around the nation makes it imperative – in this 50-50 Senate – that the Democrats maintain complete unity. They can’t afford a single defection.

For reasons that remain unclear – their explanations of their reluctance to change the filibuster rules don’t hold water – two Democratic Senators have attracted a lot of attention to themselves by talking like they are the defectors that can squander our democracy and aid in the paralysis of the nation.

The weight of history will be upon them if they choose such an indefensible role. And maybe also the weight of public opinion.

The great majority of the American people favor the Democratic proposals on voting rights.

(A majority of Americans also favor a variety of Biden’s proposals that the Republicans look poised to filibuster to death.)

Perhaps the outcome will depend on whether the American people come to understand – through the ongoing series of votes where Republicans use the filibuster to kill measures the public wants enacted –that the real political choice in America right now is between

  • changing the rules in the Senate, or
  • allowing American democracy to fail.

That “failure” of democracy has two parts. In addition to the “stealing power from the American people” part (through the “legal” rigging of the elections), there is a “paralysis” part as well (incapacitating the American government at a time of crisis).

That paralysis part fortifies America’s adversaries (Putin’s Russia and Communist China), who tell the world that democracy doesn’t work, and that dictatorships like theirs are the way forward.

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