Which of these alternatives sounds more radical to you — abolishing the filibuster to save our democracy, or destroying our democracy to save the filibuster? Make no mistake. This is the choice. And whichever way it goes will be Joe Biden’s most enduring legacy.
Not long after Biden assumed the Presidency, Freedom House, a democracy-watchdog group, ranked the state of democracy in the United States below that in Chile, Costa Rica, and Slovakia. Freedom House pointed to the increasing use in the United States of precise gerrymandering, the growing influence of money in American politics, and the continuing disenfranchisement of people of color.
Since then, the anti-democratic tide has risen substantially in the United States. Nineteen states have enacted thirty-three laws that make it more difficult for citizens to vote. Several states have replaced nonpartisan election administrators with partisan hacks. In other states, nonpartisan election officials have been threatened and harassed by Trump supporters, causing many to leave their positions. Republican legislatures in states that have begun to swing toward the Democrats, such as North Carolina and Texas, have redrawn electoral maps to disenfranchise communities of color. Legal challenges to the new maps are likely to be unsuccessful, given the increasingly Republican composition of the federal courts.
For years, Republican strategists had predicted that any enlargement of the American electorate would work against the election of Republicans. The 2020 election proved them right. Voters turned out in great numbers and sent a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress to Washington. Not surprisingly, Republicans have responded by doing everything in their power to shrink the electorate and make it harder to vote for those they assume will choose Democrats.
What will be the nation’s response to this noxious anti-democratic tide?
We know there will be a few speeches about America’s commitment to democracy. In the weeks ahead, Joe Biden will be hosting a virtual “Summit for Democracy.” Invitees will represent more than a hundred countries. When he announced the Summit in August, its apparent goal was to reestablish America’s moral authority in the aftermath of Trump’s squalid foreign policy.
According to the State Department, the Summit will “aim to show how democracies can deliver on the issues that matter most to people: strengthening accountable governance, expanding economic opportunities, protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, and enabling lives of dignity.” The State Department goes on to promise that “The U.S. government will announce commitments in areas such as bolstering free and independent media; fighting corruption; defending free and fair elections; strengthening civic capacity; advancing the civic and political leadership of women, girls, and marginalized community members; and harnessing technology for democratic renewal. The United States will also hold itself accountable to these commitments on a global public stage.”
But how exactly will the Biden Administration be accountable to those commitments when Republicans at every level are working so hard to undermine them? As Biden said in February, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”
Yet in that fight so far, Biden has been AWOL. He hasn’t used his bully pulpit to inform Americans of the clear and present dangers to democracy now underway. He hasn’t used his administration, including his Justice Department, to push back against the anti-democratic forces. He hasn’t acted forcefully in support of voting rights legislation and against the filibuster. His absence from the fight is fast becoming one of the most glaring omissions of his administration — a moral vacuum that is growing by the day.
Last spring, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a set of minimum national election standards intended to eliminate partisan gerrymandering, reduce the influence of money in politics, expand voting rights, and increase election security. But H.R. 1 was stymied in the Senate by Republicans who voted against bringing it to the floor for debate. Senate Republicans also sunk the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, designed to correct the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and allowed many of the state voter-suppression laws that have been passed since.
In September, Democratic senators, led by a group including Amy Klobuchar and Joe Manchin (who says he is committed to preserving the filibuster) presented a new election-related bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. It contains several new provisions to protect election workers, as well as measures in the For the People Act, such as same-day voter registration, a ban on partisan gerrymandering, and a restoration of voting rights to former felons. But in October, Senate Republicans filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act into oblivion.
Let’s be clear. As long as the filibuster stands, this will be the fate of all election-related legislation proposed by Democrats. There should no longer be any doubt about the choice ahead: It’s the filibuster or democracy. Senator Angus King, the Maine Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and who had earlier rejected calls to reform the filibuster (and whom I’m proud to claim as an old friend) recently concluded that “democracy itself is more important than any Senate rule.” Exactly.
Biden must use the full strength of his presidency – his bully pulpit, the power of the executive branch, his influence inside the halls of the Senate (and over his old putative friend, the senior senator from West Virginia), and the credibility that comes with being President of the United States – to end the filibuster, and thereby open the way for voting rights.
It is necessary. It is time.