Democrats have a tendency to engage in a kind of two-step. When they grow frustrated with GOP radicalism, they angrily denounce it — while simultaneously telling themselves that if it can be overcome in the short term, it will be rendered a dead letter forever.

When President Barack Obama ran for reelection in 2012, he insisted that victory might mean more GOP compromise, because the party’s “fever may break.” It didn’t.

When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, he declared that if Republicans lost, they would seek “consensus” after having an “epiphany.” Republicans denied his win for weeks, and even after Donald Trump incited a violent insurrection to overturn the outcome, GOP leaders are now gravitating to Trump’s defense.

A new piece from the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein spells out the stakes of the failure to accept the true implications of this GOP radicalization. It argues that the single most consequential decision for Democrats is whether to end the legislative filibuster to pass reforms that would expand voting rights and unwind GOP counter-majoritarian advantages going forward.

Congressional Democrats are coalescing around a package of reforms that would dramatically expand access to voting by requiring states to implement automatic voter registration, extensive early voting and same-day registration. It would restrict voter suppression tactics and hurdles on vote-by-mail.

The reforms would also require nonpartisan redistricting commissions — a strike at the next round of GOP gerrymanders — while restoring protections in the Voting Rights Act and blocking states from disenfranchising felons. The reforms would go far in curtailing Republican counter-majoritarian tactics for years to come.

Any such package will be filibustered by Senate Republicans. That would mean the wielding of yet another counter-majoritarian tool to further entrench GOP counter-majoritarian advantages for the foreseeable future.

There are three reasons why a filibuster of this package could have truly far-reaching effects, as Brownstein spells out.

The first is that Republicans are responding to their 2020 loss by intensifying their voter suppression efforts in numerous states, fake-justified by the same lies about voter fraud that animated Trump’s effort to overturn the election results.

That effort was supported by a large swath of the Republican Party, which shows that the GOP is only getting more radical in its willingness to wield counter-majoritarian tactics. That will continue.

The second reason this decision will be so consequential is that the conservative hold on the Supreme Court makes it more likely that GOP voter suppression efforts will be upheld.

The third is that the Democratic coalition will be increasingly reliant on younger and non-White voters, as the more diverse millennial and Generation Z voters swell into a larger share of the electorate.

Measures expanding the franchise and nixing voter suppression tactics would likely bring large numbers of those voters into the electorate, Brownstein notes. So the question of whether these reforms happen could have a large impact on the makeup of the electorate in coming years.

Brownstein summarizes:

For all these reasons, many experts in voting and elections believe that the choices Democrats make regarding their democracy and voting-reform agenda represent a fundamental crossroads in American politics. Passage of these laws wouldn’t guarantee a sustained period of Democratic political dominance: In both 2016 and 2020, Trump’s incredible mobilization of infrequent white voters demonstrated that Republicans could compete in a high-turnout environment.
But failing to pass the laws might ensure the reverse: a lasting Democratic disadvantage. The absence of national election standards would further entrench the current system, which has allowed Republicans to frequently control Congress, the White House, or both during the past three decades, even though Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections.

As democracy scholar Lee Drutman tells Brownstein, if these reforms don’t happen, “there is a very good chance that America will wind up under an extended period of minority rule in which the party that represents 45-46 percent of the country can have a majority of power in Washington.”

Democrats might tell themselves various stories about these inconveniences. One is that Trump had a unique ability to generate turnout among low-propensity White conservative voters — and a profile that maximized GOP counter-majoritarian advantages in the electoral college — that won’t be duplicated by another GOP presidential nominee anytime soon. That also helped lift GOP down-ballot candidates in 2020.

So Democrats might tell themselves that without another Trump, their tendency toward majoritarian advantages in popular voting will be less easily overtaken by GOP exploitation of counter-majoritarian structural factors.

Another might be that the GOP’s increasing radicalization will continue to alienate women, suburban voters and educated Whites. Still another might be that this realignment favors Democrats because those voters turn out in off-year elections, mitigating a traditional GOP advantage.

All these might prove true. But it would be folly to count on them. Just as Trump drove uniquely high turnout on his side, so too did his unique horrors inspire an enormous outpouring of energy on the Democratic side.

It would be nice if these high levels of engagement were to continue of their own accord. But there is no guarantee that in future elections, Democrats will have the same hyper-torqued civic energy of the past two cycles, energy that rendered them prepared to crawl across broken glass to get to the polls. Old patterns could reemerge. Ramped-up GOP voter-suppression tactics and extreme gerrymanders might work.

Democratic leaders are making public comments that strongly suggest they grasp the need to deliver in a big way to restore faith in democracy and usher in a post-Trump phase of civic renewal.

That’s good. But we need to hear more of a recognition that the GOP’s increasing radicalization when it comes to anti-democratic tactics will also require a fundamental Democratic reset going forward. That means being genuinely prepared to do away with the filibuster if it comes to it.

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