Opinion: Biden must embrace his own logic on voting rights
"Nothing better exemplified the dysfunctional and confused state of American politics than this week’s split-screen news cycle. It raised the question: How can you have normal government in a democracy in crisis?
Hours later, normal government was back as top Democrats across the party’s factions announced agreement on a $3.5 trillion spending bill ratifying most of Biden’s economic priorities. Once again, they belied predictions that self-sabotaging bickering between the center and left would doom sweeping social reforms and major investments to counter climate change.
Biden’s Philadelphia speech decried a “21st century Jim Crow assault” on voting rights embodied in Republican efforts in more than a dozen states to make it harder to vote and easier for GOP partisans to rig future vote counts by moving “from independent election administrators who work for the people to polarized state legislatures and partisan actors who work for political parties.”
Business as usual makes little sense in the face of such a fundamental challenge to the basic rules and understandings that allow a political system to function.
But business as usual is exactly what Democrats are called upon to engage in since they won the 2020 election.
If Democrats don’t govern and deliver, they will lose power — and deserve to. The party’s politicians seem to understand this.
But they will also lose if they don’t prevent our elections from being rigged and block the partisan gerrymanders Republicans are counting on to take back the House of Representatives.
It’s still not clear that everyone in the party understands this.
Biden’s speech assailing “merchants of fear and peddlers of lies” was refreshingly candid about the threats posed to democracy. They include the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Donald Trump’s scandalous falsehoods about the 2020 election — “The ‘big lie’ is just that: a big lie,” Biden said — and the mobilization of that lie to rationalize voter suppression.
Yet he declined to take the logical next step. If matters are as urgent as Biden said they are, there is no excuse — none — not to alter the Senate’s filibuster rule, which is getting in the way of legislation to protect voting rights, block gerrymanders and make access to the ballot convenient for every voter nationwide.
No one knows precisely how to move the reluctant senators to the next step. But Biden needs to understand that he now owns the democracy issue.
He and his team have been relentless in negotiating and cajoling to keep his investment program on track. Biden’s visit to the Senate Democratic Caucus lunch on Wednesday underscored his seriousness. He must be prepared to put the same effort and energy into changing the Senate’s rules so the For the People Act — “a national imperative,” Biden called it in Philadelphia — and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can become law.
One counter to the case for prioritizing these bills holds that day-to-day economics matter more than any other issue, including pro-democracy reforms. If voters see the impact of successful government in their own lives, they’ll respond in force and overwhelm the barriers to voting. The theory: Stick to the investment plan and all will be well.
This formulation is not so much dead wrong — of course performance matters — as it is incomplete. For starters, elections are often decided on the margins, so voter suppression can chip away at participation just enough to shift outcomes. And gerrymanders can put victory out of reach altogether.
The larger difficulty is that a democracy skewed against the participation of working-class voters, particularly those who are Black or Latino, will deepen alienation by producing policies that are also skewed against them.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) brought the two sides of this equation together in an interview Wednesday. “We’re in a fight for this democracy, and it’s not just our democracy. It’s democracy all over the world,” he said. “One dimension is the attack of voter suppression and of making it harder for people to cast their vote or to make electoral outcomes . . . represent a minority view of voters rather than a majority view.”
“But there’s another piece of this,” he added, referring to Republican obstruction, which attempts “to blow up our exercise in self-government and cause the American people to lose faith . . . in the democracy itself.” Democrats need to pass an ambitious economic program “not merely because it will affect our electoral fortunes, but for the sake of the democracy.”
Political reform and delivering the policy goods reinforce each other. Biden must be equally committed to both.