Democrats Battle for Democracy

An Arizona perspective on the filibuster: It need not be all or nothing, but Congress needs to do big things.

Eric Levitz published an intriguing article in The New Yorker this week. He opens with this:

For the Democratic Party as an institution, the stakes of enacting major reforms over the next two years are nearly existential. [Democratic] leadership appears to understand this, even if its marginal senators do not (and/or care not for their party’s fate).

Eric Levitz, New Yorker

Setting the stage, he writes:

 “[T]he trends bedeviling Democrats have been in motion for decades and are rooted in America’s most durable political divides. … the middle of our country is chock full of heavily white, low-population, rural states. This has always been a problem for the party of urban America — by boasting stronger support in rural areas, Republicans have long punched above their weight in the race for control of state governments and the Senate… Over the past two decades, however, urban-rural polarization in U.S. politics has reached unprecedented heights, while the collapse of local journalism and rise of the internet has made all politics national. Voters have never been less likely to split their tickets, and white rural areas have never been more likely to vote for Republicans. This is plausibly because the (irreversible, internet-induced) nationalization of politics has increased rural white voters’ awareness of the myriad ways that urban, college-educated Democrats differ from them culturally. If this is the case, then the Democratic Party may have only a limited ability to reverse urban-rural polarization in the near-term future.

Eric Levitz, New Yorker

Reflecting on the election just past:

“It took a series of minor miracles for the party to eke out its current 50-vote majority. By coincidence, Democrats happened to have their most vulnerable incumbent senators on the ballot two years ago, when the party rode anti-Trump fervor to one of the largest midterm landslides in American history.  … Meanwhile, attempts to mint new “Joe Manchins” – i.e., idiosyncratic Democrats whose strong local ties overwhelm the taint of the party’s brand in white rural America — have invariably failed in the post-Trump era. Two years after Jon Tester won reelection in Montana, the state’s Democratic governor didn’t come within ten points of winning his Senate race in 2020.Eric Levitz, New Yorker (Here in Arizona, we may have minted a new Joe Manchin with Mark Kelly — where his votes fall remains to be seen.)

So where do we go from here? According to Levitz, and we think he’s right, the outlook for holding the majority in the House of Representatives in 2022 isn’t much better than keeping the Senate given what Republicans will do with redistricting. Read the detailed bad news here.

Faced with losing both the Senate and the House in 2022, will Democrats go big? The choices are only two. Each of them involves going big and perhaps personal sacrifice for Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. (Though neither is up for re-election until 2024.)

  1. Rebalance the electoral playing field with major structural reforms
  2. Attain a degree of popularity that no in-power party has had since 1936.

Structural Reforms

Democrats “could significantly reduce the overrepresentation of white rural America in the Senate by granting statehood to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other U.S. territory.” Eric Levitz, New Yorker

“The party could also prohibit partisan redistricting, ban felon disenfranchisement, erode practical barriers to the political participation of working-class people and immigrants, make it easier for workers to form unions, grant citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, and pack the Supreme Court if it interferes with the implementation of these reforms.” Eric Levitz, New Yorker

But none of that will happen without undoing — at least in part — the filibuster.

Attaining Popularity

Potentially, the economy will surge in 2022 if COVID is under control. That always helps the party in power. Democrats could “juice” that recovery with a $15 minimum wage (even if it doesn’t fully kick in until 2025, the graduated amount will be a significant hike in many states). That could (probably) be done through budget reconciliation without killing the filibuster.

Whether a booming economy will be enough to maintain the enthusiasm of core interest groups is doubtful, however. Democrats need to deliver their (now decade-old) IOUs to civil-rights organizations, labor unions, and immigrant communities. “It will not be easy for Schumer to tell the NAACP, for example, that his caucus values a “Senate tradition” (that is anti-constitutional, historically associated with Jim Crow rule, and less than two decades old in its present form) more than it values a new Voting Rights Act.”

Moreover, Democrats must overcome the distrust of younger voters who came out in 2020 but still hold doubts about the two-party system. Major action on climate and income inequality is needed to win their votes in the long-term and drive their enthusiasm in the upcoming midterm election. Explaining to these younger voters that a crusty old Senate tradition is more important than their issues will be impossible.

Where To?

All this makes it difficult for the Democratic leadership to accept the constraints that the filibuster, and the ideological orientation of its marginal senators, place on the prospects for reform.

Eric Levitz, New Yorker

This said, the filibuster question won’t come to a head for a while. Budget reconciliation can pass the COVID rescue and the minimum wage bill. If the parliamentarian disagrees, Kamala Harris as president of the Senate can overrule just as Mitch McConnell controlled the parliamentary rulings when he was in the Majority.

Even when we come to the non-budget issues, there are ways for Sinema and Manchin to say they haven’t voted to “get rid of the filibuster” by simply narrowing its scope — as McConnell did by eliminating it for votes on judges and then for Supreme Court Justices. Perhaps the filibuster doesn’t apply to bills related to fundamental rights — like a new Voting Rights Act. Or, to world-life threatening events — like the climate crisis. Then we’ll find out if our two marginal Democratic Senators are willing to take the tough votes not only on the filibuster, but the tough issues they want to avoid.

The future of the Democratic Party lies in their hands — as does the future of democracy. For democracy cannot withstand another round of Trump-McConnell rule and if Democrats don’t “go big” in 2021, that is inevitable.

FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for bold legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” That’s our job; we the people must push our Senator for big change.

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