6 min read

U.S. Politics is Broken, But What if Politicians Don't Fix It?

U.S. Politics is Broken, But What if Politicians Don't Fix It?

Political scientists and advocates are raising alarm bells — again, louder, and with renewed enthusiasm — that American democracy is declining.

The 2020 presidential election was close. But not close enough for Republicans to subvert it. Despite state legislative interference and a right wing attack on the Capitol, our democratic experiment survived.

But rather than the Trump fever breaking after he became an ex-president, he and his brand of right wing authoritarianism continue to hold sway over the Republican Party. Trumpists ousted Rep. Liz Cheney (WY) from her House leadership position. They are running to fill secretary of state offices that oversee elections, introducing legislation to strip a Democratic secretary of state of their powers in Arizona, and passing a plethora of bills to make it harder to protest.

At the federal level, advocates say that Democrats now face a time of choosing: the filibuster or democracy.

But Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Krysten Sinema (AZ) are resistant to altering the Senate's rules. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (CA) has sent mixed messages, too, and other members of the Democratic caucus, while signaling openness to limiting or nuking the filibuster, aren't necessarily happy about it.

On a variety of other issues, including the pro-union PRO Act and hiking the minimum wage, Democrats remain short of the 50 votes they need to pass critical legislation via reconciliation and far short of the 60 votes they'd need with 10 cooperative Republican senators. Manchin has also come out firmly against DC statehood, another measure democracy advocates had hoped would mitigate some of the Senate's worst anti-democratic biases as well as restore fundamental representative rights to people who reside in the District.

Recent debates over the creation of a bipartisan January 6th commission have brought this possible time of choosing into sharper contrast: there were just 6 Republican votes for establishing a commission, so the attempt to create it failed despite the effort attracting votes from 54 senators.

Senators speaking with one another during the vote to break the filibuster on the January 6 commission. (ABC News, via Twitter)

But as much as the activists and voters who delivered the Democratic majority might want a clear time of choosing between the filibuster and democracy, I'd like to caution to consider what it means to be denied one. To muddle through another set of incremental debates for months and months until the next midterm rolls around.

One of the iron laws of politics is that it's extremely hard to get policymakers to alter the institutions in which they have succeeded. Nuking the filibuster dilutes the power of any single senator to hold up debate. Creating more states dilutes their power, too. Bolder policies such as unpacking the Supreme Court, expanding the House, and stripping the Senate of many of its powers, feel like pipe dreams.

Muddling through for several more Congresses may be the likeliest scenario we face, no matter how clear we think the case for democracy reform is logically, morally or practically.

To put this in starker terms: Joe Manchin does not have to abolish the filibuster if he is ideologically opposed to abolishing it. I had hoped that the wins in Georgia's Senate runoffs and the insurrection might have altered the thinking of more hold-out Democrats, helping them see that protecting and advancing democracy also aligned with their ability to govern, chair committees and pass legislation for their constituents. But institutions are powerful, stubborn things. There is an incredible status quo bias in our politics. The present moment—and the real dangers our democracy faces—may not be enough to pierce the bubble that our most political leaders thrive in, especially if they can still walk away from this Congress with some meaningful wins on bread-and-butter issues.

Democrats can also go it alone, largely, on investigations originating from House and Senate committees, railing against Republicans for blocking a bipartisan commission while doing what they can to expose what happened. They may wind up having to pass an incremental increase to the minimum wage and modest reforms to voting systems that don't deal with election subversion, too.

So what then? What does a pro-democracy agenda look like in the absence of enough Democratic senators who want one?

There may not be immediate policy solutions for all the problems that ail our democracy. But there are political ones, some of which intersect with policy.

First, we should recognize what an incredible job grassroots activists and union leaders did preventing democratic backsliding during and after the election. Our movements were nimble, thoughtful and deeply strategic as they avoided escalating street conflicts and effectively pushed policymakers at the right moment to ensure voters were counted and certified fairly. Hundreds of thousands of activists signed up for pre-mobilization events in the event of an emergency, something organizers perfected during the Trump presidency. Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendant's union, called on other union leaders to prepare for strikes in the event of a policy fight over certifying the election results. (We were so organized, in fact, that I shared a worry expressed by organizer extraordinaire Melissa Byrne that we were too prepared for election chaos and not spending enough time hitting the phones!)

This makes me hopeful. American democracy won't die because policymakers failed to act. It will only die if political movements fail to act. Democracies ultimately derive their consent from the governed. Denying that consent, through street action and work stoppages, forces government to compromise with the people. And that's something we can do, regardless of whether or not policymakers fail us (again) this Congress.

Second, organizers have effectively elevated voting rights and democracy to a top-tier issue. In my experience, most Democratic activists interpret that in a limited way: the rules regarding how we do elections. But democracy also happens in our workplaces and in the streets. In fact, when I've had the opportunity to survey Democratic activists about union rights, those issues specifically tend to rank lower, I suspect due to class differences among the average Democratic activist and the average rank-and-file union member. Maybe that's changing, too, and the deepening Democratic consensus on the PRO Act is heartening. Can large progressive organizations do more to forge alliances with labor at the grassroots level? Put another way, can they build more solidarity among the grassroots donor class and the working class at the heart of the Democratic coalition?

Third, we may need more litmus tests for democracy in party primaries and caucuses and all the attendant funding and volunteer time and energy that goes into them. Organizations like Indivisible have already elevated these issues when conducting candidate endorsements. Could such practices be spread to other organizations in and outside the progressive movement? Could business lobbies be persuaded to apply similar standards to their endorsements, too, given some of the nascent butt-covering they did after the insurrection?

Fourth, infrastructure isn't just for bridges and electric grids, it's for campaigns and organizers, too. Manchin may be among the last of the Appalachian Democrats at the federal level, at least for the next several election cycles. Sinema, meanwhile, represents a purple state that's trending blue. While our elections are increasingly nationalized, local organizing and infrastructure still matter—especially when it comes to who gets nominated, including in purple states, and how incumbents fend off primary challenges. Democracy reform may not be a blockbuster issue for voters during general elections, but organizations would be right to elevate it during primaries.

Relatedly, during the Georgia runoffs, Sens. Ossoff and Warnock were flooded with grassroots donations. But Stacey Abrahams, local organizations and Democratic activists from across the country ensured that that fundraising push also went to local organizations that would be there long after the campaigns wrapped up—win or lose.

There's a huge bias toward fundraising for campaign committees—and late money—under our system, so maybe it's time to persuade candidates to split donations with local grassroots groups more regularly, to help fund immediate election pushes as well as year-round organizing.

Katey Lauer, the co-director of West Virginia Can't Wait says there is no way to persuade Manchin to embrace big progressive priorities right now. Instead, she says:

Efforts to really help must include investments in long-term, locally-led work to win power...If this last election cycle taught us anything, it’s that we are in a generational fight for the future of our state and country. We’ve got to use our resources wisely, which means betting on deep, long-term, place-based organizing. If we don’t, we will find ourselves back here, chasing the next Joe Manchin.

I tend toward Lauer's view. The short game of lobbying and advocacy is tough. We're often fighting at the margins to get a handful of votes we need to pass good policy, with lots of compromises and ambiguity along the way. The long game is tough, too. But building infrastructure and a deep bench of democracy fighters in office means creating our own turf to fight on. As a professional, I find that kind of work deeply fulfilling. I think donors and activists do, too.

Policymakers may fail their time of choosing this Congress. But it's also our time of choosing.

Want more essays like this? Sign up for the newsletter here.