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Can We Still Save U.S. Democracy?

 Wally Gobetz / flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This is the way democracy ends: with a whimper.

The day after President Biden’s fiery Jan. 12 speech in favor of eliminating or reforming the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema let it be known that they were a big “no” vote on that.

Without their votes, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act are dead in the water, because no Republican is going to support expanding the franchise. On Jan. 19, Sen. Chuck Schumer forced a vote on amending the filibuster, but it was purely performative. No reasonable observer expected any other outcome.

And that means the Democrats’ already uphill fight toward the November midterm elections just got a lot steeper.

To be honest, this ignoble outcome has been growing in likelihood since Biden took office one year ago. There was a concerted early push by Democrats to get laws passed to counteract the dozens of new state laws that are placing new restrictions on voting rights.

But Biden was missing from the fight. His priority was his Build Back Better agenda, which, no surprise, was also left to die after Manchin and Sinema refused to support it. (But they waited until after the bipartisan infrastructure bill was passed—with most climate change provisions stripped out of it—to say so, despite a previous agreement with progressives to bundle the two together.)

So here we are, in January 2022, staring down the next 10 months until the midterm election, during which time we can expect state-level Republicans to redouble their efforts to hinder voting rights. Meanwhile, newly drawn electoral maps will be put in place (with predictable lawsuits to come against those that are too gerrymandered to the benefit of Republicans and White voters), and Democrats will once again be looking for reasons to convince voters to support them.

There is a chance that the Republican plan to secure an electoral victory before the voting even starts will fail—that a groundswell of voters in numbers too big to manipulate will prevail. But that’s the bare minimum that’s needed if we dare to maintain hope that Congress will eventually enact legislation that protects or strengthens voting rights. And it will have to continue to happen every two years until the composition of Congress better reflects a nation that is trying to keep its democracy going.

But the odds are even greater that the GOP will take over one or both chambers of Congress, or, barring that, that the Democrats will barely hold on, continuing the body’s deadlock for another two years.

And that’s where the real risks to democracy lie: in the gradual whittling away at our democratic republic’s ability to govern, giving even fewer reasons for a burned-out nation to muster the energy to care about its future.

Our two political parties can now best be described not just as moderate-liberal versus conservative, but as pro-democracy (with a few holdouts) versus authoritarian. That’s not a state that can persist in a healthy democracy, because authoritarianism is absolute: Its only end points are complete power or complete destruction (or one followed by the other). Any democratic party whose primary goal is to keep the other party out of power is always going to be one election away from obliteration and risks becoming reactionary. That’s precisely what’s happened to the Republicans under Trump, with sitting members of Congress by turns denying and excusing the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The Republican Party is no longer conservative; by rejecting the legitimacy of elections unless they win, the party undercuts the rickety legs holding us all up. And the Trumpist party base has increasingly come to believe that violence is an acceptable tool to achieve political power.

The key aspect that makes democracies work is the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. The loser in a fair and free election respects the results and comes back to try again in the next cycle. That’s what gives elections legitimacy, and it’s what allows successful democracies to persist.

We saw how well that went on Jan. 6, 2021. But more than trying to obtain and keep power in the hands of the more liberal of the two major parties, our collective objective must include the preservation of a system of government that maintains its legitimacy for both Liberals and Conservatives.

We need a conservative party in the United States, because that’s the only way conservative voters will feel they can participate in civic life and have their voices heard. The so-called “constitutional wing” of the Republican Party—the Liz Cheneys, Mitt Romneys, Adam Kinzingers, and others no longer in public office—need to present a real alternative to the authoritarianism their peers have embraced. They may say they are doing just that within the confines of the GOP. But they’re confusing their access to the party machinery and fundraising with actual power to shape outcomes.

A lot of publicity surrounded the recent release of the book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by historian Barbara F. Walter. Much of the buzz was about the prospect of the United States dissolving into a violent civil conflict.

Which could happen. But a key takeaway from the book was how countries that are on the precipice manage to avoid conflict. On MSNBC’s The Mehdi Hasan Show, Walter said countries that have experienced one civil war are more likely to experience another, but that there is also a way out of that cycle of violence.

“When you look at all countries over many, many decades, what you find out is that the ones that escape the conflict trap all do the same thing,” Walter said. “They institute significant political reforms, and they strengthen their democracy.”

Precisely that happened in South Africa starting in 1990, when then-president F.W. de Klerk reversed the policies of the previous apartheid presidents and committed to creating a multiracial democracy. South African elites, especially businesses being hit by punitive sanctions, joined with the African National Congress to get behind the program, and what could have been yet another outbreak of violence in a country with a bloody history was avoided.

Not all breakups are necessarily violent, either. The best modern example is the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the country’s subsequent breakup in 1992. In that latter instance, the key factor was a nationalistic movement in the smaller, poorer Slovak part of the country, and the willingness of the Czech political class to just let them go, reasoning they’d be better off without them. (They were, at least initially, as 1990s Slovakia was led by a barely reformed autocrat, and the Czech Republic became one of the more liberal-leaning nations of the former Eastern Bloc. The situation in Eastern Europe is more complicated now.)

With a militant Right itching for violent confrontation and a second civil war in the U.S., it’s even more imperative that an alternative be presented. That means the Left can’t also embrace violence, but instead must double down on pushing pro-democratic reforms in every venue possible, embrace direct nonviolent action, and, if worse comes to worst (a second Trump administration, or the election of another more competent fascist), mobilize for a general strike. These tactics may not forestall a schism of some sort, but they might prevent a much bloodier outcome, ranging from rampant terrorism to a violent dissolution of the union.

The United States hasn’t fallen off that cliff yet, but we’re teetering on the edge. Businesses that once said they wouldn’t back politicians who supported the Jan. 6 insurrection are back to writing checks for them. Despite some Republicans initially condemning Trump’s attempted coup, nearly all elected Republicans have fully committed to his Big Lie and insist Biden’s election was fraudulent. And the fuel for the fire, the politics of White grievance that Trump has nurtured for six long years, has coalesced into a political movement led by Trump and his top cheerleader, Fox’s Tucker Carlson, that continues to grow in strength.

The rest of us non-politicians can still vote. But, as before, we’re going to have to do so in overwhelming numbers to compensate for increased suppression and hope the next Congress will have both the numbers and the political will to enact meaningful reforms. It’s not a lot to count on, but it’s what we have left.

Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.
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