Time may well be running out on American democracy.
The election of Joe Biden and a razor thin Democratic majority in Congress provided a chance for the country to move away from the increasingly authoritarian tilt of the Republican Party.
For a time, it seemed as if President Biden and Democratic leaders had learned the lessons of the Obama administration, which proved that efforts to achieve bipartisan agreement, even with the Republicans of old, was futile. Yet, here we are at the brink of Congress’s summer recess, and it appears that the White House and Democratic leaders may be falling for the same rope-a-dope strategy that stymied the Obama administration, clearing the way for a Republican resurgence in 2010. The 2022 mid-terms could look a lot like 2010 for any number of reasons.
The Democrats have long known that they have just two years to demonstrate that American democracy can still meet the challenges posed by the 21st Century. And President Biden talks a good game. He has an ambitious agenda to grow the economy from the bottom-up, address climate change, and make life a little easier for average Americans. All of Biden’s wish list is popular with Americans. Most of it is popular even with Republicans. His proposals would make a real difference in people’s lives and just might help voters connect those benefits with a certain party preference.
It would be nice to think that the future of American democracy didn’t hinge on the election of one party over another, but that is the reality that we face today. The hard-right authoritarianism represented by a Republican Party controlled by Donald Trump and his supporters isn’t going away. In fact, it’s getting worse, through a process of political de-evolution within the GOP that appears to have no bottom and is increasingly attracting the most extreme individuals. When the only standard is fealty to Donald Trump, there are no standards.
A Trumpist GOP might seem unelectable, but there are factors that provide the Republicans innate advantage. The Senate, for one, is inherently undemocratic because it provides outsized representation to small, rural states, which have shown a greater affinity for Trump and his authoritarian tendencies. One and a half million residents of the Dakotas, after all, are represented by four senators, while 39 million Californians are represented by just two.
The Senate filibuster gives states like the Dakotas, which are far outside the American mainstream, virtual veto power over policies that would benefit the vast majority of Americans, including many of their own citizens.
Extreme gerrymandering, which the GOP undertook with extraordinary precision during the 2010 redistricting, has kept Democrats at a tremendous disadvantage in the U.S. House. In state after state, Democratic candidates for the House routinely win more votes than the GOP candidates overall, but those state delegations are often overwhelmingly tilted in favor of Republicans because gerrymandering has roped large numbers of Democratic voters into a small number of congressional districts. Nationally, Democrats have regularly drawn more votes in House races than Republicans, yet after several such elections, Republicans still maintain large majorities in the House.
What’s more, Republicans in control of state governments have spent the past few months passing new laws designed to restrict voting, particularly by people of color, who tend to vote Democratic. The impact of these laws vary by state, but they were designed to give Republicans the advantage in coming elections.
Add to this the weight of history, which shows that the party in power regularly loses seats in their first mid-term, and it’s apparent that even with a remarkable string of Biden policy successes, Democrats will face an uphill fight in next year’s election. The deck really is stacked against them.
That is why our democracy is in trouble. The GOP is demonstrating that it has largely abandoned the concept of fair elections. When given power, they use it to restrict voting or to shift the power of deciding elections to legislatures they control. When they lose a fair election, they falsely cry fraud to justify further undermining of the democratic process. It’s a race to the bottom, fed by falsehoods.
Trump and his ilk feed off the sense that democracy is broken, which is why his supporters want failure in Washington. Effective government is the best medicine against the disease of authoritarianism. If Trump and his allies ride back to power on the coattails of Democratic failure in 2022 and 2024, they will have no intention of ever relinquishing their grip.