The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Democrats want to win, they must change the venue

An attendee listens as President Biden delivers remarks on voting rights in Atlanta on Jan. 11. (Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg News)
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Our democracy is already badly injured. One political party flirts with violence and seeks to undermine the sanctity of elections. And many voters seem indifferent to the fate of democracy going into this year’s midterm elections.

When Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the man most likely to be House speaker should Republicans retake the chamber, snubs a committee investigating the former president’s involvement in an insurrection, we know the rule of law is crumbling. And when Republican “leaders” cannot curb a batch of conspiracy-theory spouting, violence-infatuated crackpots — e.g., Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Madison Cawthorn (N.C.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.) — we know we are staring at an era of chaos.

Democracy took more hits last week. Senate Democrats, thanks to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), will not be able to protect democracy without asking permission from their Republican colleagues, who are rooting for fewer voters and partisan election administration. It would be funny if it were not so morally vacuous.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has lost credibility as a guardian of democracy and constitutional government. Its right-wing justices seem untethered to the Constitution or statutory text. On Thursday, they made up a new requirement that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cannot regulate workplace hazards (i.e., covid-19) unless they appear only in the workplace. This is not textualism; it is partisan hackery. Such a distinction appears nowhere in federal law.

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This follows the Supreme Court’s handiwork in neutering democracy by undercutting enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, making mincemeat of the “effects” provision in Section 2 of the law and eliminating Section 5′s preclearance provisions. The court also seems ready to throw out decades of precedent protecting the right to an abortion. This is not how our democracy is supposed to function.

President Biden, having reached these dead ends in the Senate and in the courts, must fight on different terrain. This is different from dumping what his critics complain is an excessively “progressive” agenda. (If voting rights is now only a progressive issue, we are in deep trouble.) He and his Democratic allies need to seek different venues to bolster democracy, not surrender to authoritarians.

When it comes to voting rights and, frankly, all constitutional rights, Biden must take his case outside the Beltway. The theme is simple: Do not let politicians control voters. Preserve Americans’ control over their government and their own lives.

That means Democrats need to double down in support of state-level, pro-democracy referendums akin to anti-gerrymandering initiatives that have succeeded in curbing partisan redistricting. Voters can insist on nonpartisan redistricting and shield election workers from removal without cause. They can also block abortion “bounties” and other schemes that impair women’s physical autonomy.

Democrats also need to win elections for state judges to ensure that those interpreting state laws and constitutions value democracy and privacy rights. Democrats should likewise invest heavily in state legislative and executive races (i.e., governor, secretary of state, state attorney general). If they win more of these contests, they can hamper Republicans’ agenda. Quite simply, this is a battle to prevent authoritarians from thwarting the will of the people and the rights of individuals.

Yes, Democrats will have to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering. But that does not mean they are incapable of winning more statewide races, firing up and expanding their base, making headway in state courts and enlisting popular support for voters to maintain control over politicians (not the reverse).

Broadly speaking, this is putting democracy on the ballot. In concrete terms, it means stopping Republicans from disempowering voters. Arrogant incumbents who figure out ways to avoid getting voted out of office can pursue wildly unpopular policies — from dismantling gun safety measures to empowering government to force a woman to complete her pregnancy.

Impairing democracy is central to Republicans’ ability to retain and expand power. Only their status as a minority party has prevented their radical agenda from becoming reality. They have already signaled that once in power, they are not going to focus on covid, inflation or the climate but on demonizing immigrants, impeaching the president and sowing chaos (e.g., shutting down the government, threatening to default on the debt).

If Democrats cannot convince voters that Republicans up and down the ballot want to minimize voters’ power and instead pursue their own unpopular, extremist agenda, we will surely find ourselves ruled by anti-democratic, radical MAGA soldiers answerable only to their cult leader. Put differently, if Democrats cannot persuade voters that Republicans are the party that covers up a violent insurrection; roots for book burning and removing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from school curriculums; plots to overturn elections; and wants to force women to give birth, we are headed for an era of radical GOP rule.

Biden cannot remake the Supreme Court. He cannot change Republicans, nor can he reason with Manchin and Sinema. What he can do is get more Democrats elected. The way to do that is pointing to Democrats’ successes (addressing covid, increasing jobs, investing in infrastructure) and making sure voters understand how Republicans plan to impose their extremist vision on Americans.