That’s an existential crisis, and it should be treated like one. At least six things are needed to turn the tide.
First, we need a collective national effort focused at the state level — either to block anti-democratic laws from passage or to at least get their worst provisions removed. Since the states adopting these provisions are so dominated by Republicans, there is often little the Democrats there can do. National Democrats and nonpartisan groups have to interject themselves into these fights. Most important, since these are conservative-leaning states, businesses and pro-democracy Republican politicians, both local and national, need to speak out forcefully, too.
Former president George W. Bush is concerned about the GOP’s direction and lives in Texas — why isn’t he condemning the aggressively restrictive voting law his party is pushing there? Why isn’t Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)? I understand that businesses are wary of offending conservative customers and running afoul of GOP politicians. But democracy should come before profits — and, anyway, democratic decline is not going to be good for businesses.
Second, we need federal legislation. Today’s voting-rights fights aren’t perfectly analogous to the 1960s, but there is a major similarity: Conservative White lawmakers holding power want to limit voting by Black people in particular, because they fear that those Black people will vote against them. So just as in the ’60s, we need the federal government to step in and set new national voting-rights standards. The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act include vital provisions, particularly on early voting, gerrymandering reform and reinstatement of federal pre-clearance of voting laws in places with a history of discrimination. Congress also needs to act to combat legislation adopted in Georgia and being considered in Texas that would make it easier for partisan officials to ignore election results they don’t like.
All that will require weakening or eliminating the Senate filibuster, of course, so Democrats need to get serious about that, too. Presidents (Obama, Biden) will need to start publicly naming holdouts — Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and perhaps others such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Everyone else needs to start bluntly describing this debate: “Are you for White conservatives making it harder for Black people to vote?”
Third, we need courts to start acting in a decidedly pro-democracy way. No right is more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote. Judges performed well last fall in rejecting bogus challenges to the 2020 election; now we need the same skepticism toward legislation making it harder to vote and easier to disqualify votes, overturn results or create districts so gerrymandered that it’s effectively impossible for a party in power to lose. No piece of federal legislation can anticipate every sneaky vote-suppressing move by officials at the local and state level. We need judges to use common sense.
There are a lot of Republican-appointed judges out there, so this will require some of them to put democracy over party. It will also require some to acknowledge prior mistakes. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s 2013 Supreme Court opinion striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act implied that Black Americans no longer needed to worry about attempts to deny their voting rights. Can he still believe that’s true?
Fourth, we need the media to permanently adopt the avowed pro-democracy posture it took as President Donald Trump sought to overturn the 2020 election. That doesn’t just mean covering the GOP’s anti-democratic drift negatively, but also covering it constantly. Democracy erosion is the most important story right now, but it’s largely happening outside of Washington. So news organizations need to react accordingly — centering more of their political coverage in the states.
Fifth, we need leaders in every sector of America, from faith to business to sports, to emphasize democratic values. It won’t be enough if the pro-democracy message is carried only by politicians and the media. And it can’t be vague “voting is important” rhetoric. Those taking democracy-eroding actions — like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Trump — have to be named and shamed.
Finally, we need a full-scale pro-democracy movement, with rallies in cities across the country. Such a mass mobilization will help alert those who may have thought Biden’s election returned everything to normal that the threat to democracy remains very real.
I know some of these six are unrealistic. But I think we need all six to happen, because the problem we face is so big: Top officials in one of our two political parties, and perhaps a majority of its voters, are embracing undemocratic steps to preserve their power. America needs a huge coalition of small-d democrats — Democratic, Republican and independent — to come together to stop this anti-democratic drift.