Will the Constitution survive these troubled times? Should it? These are the questions at the center of Heidi Schreck’s powerful new play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which made its Broadway debut on March 31. Raw, righteous and brimming with humor, the play has become an improbable sensation, a sign of the collective anxiety that many Americans currently are feeling. “It is not just the best play to open on Broadway so far this season, but also the most important,” wrote Jesse Green, theater critic for the New York Times, who added, “It restarts an argument many of us forgot we even needed to have.”
That argument — about the very future of American democracy — has taken on renewed urgency in the Trump era. For years, partisan theatrics and policy clashes have obscured important debates over the impact of the electoral college, gerrymandering, money in politics and other key “democracy issues.” As a consequence, our country has gradually become less democratic. President Trump bears some of the blame, of course, but the main culprit behind this decline is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has consistently violated democratic norms to consolidate power at all costs. The latest example of McConnell’s machinations came just last week when Republicans in the Senate invoked the “nuclear option” to make it easier for Trump to pack lower-level courts with right-wing judges.
The United States’ crisis of democracy is taking center stage in the 2020 presidential campaign. At the same time that Democratic candidates are staking out bold stances on policies such as Medicare-for-all, they are also increasingly focused on the need to fix a broken political system. While it’s still early, voters seem to agree. Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has surged into contention with a reform agenda that includes abolishing the electoral college, granting statehood to the District of Columbia and expanding the number of Supreme Court justices. “Every other issue that I care about — from gun violence to climate change — isn’t going to get better as long as our democracy is this warped,” he contends.
Buttigieg is not alone. As The Post reports, at least eight Democratic candidates have called for the elimination of the electoral college, which has awarded the presidency to the loser of the national popular vote twice in the past five presidential elections. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) rightly points out that, in addition to distorting electoral outcomes, the current system deprives vast swaths of the country an opportunity to hear directly from those running to represent them. “We get to the general election for the highest office in this land, and no presidential candidate comes to Alabama or Mississippi,” she says. “They’re not going to Massachusetts or California, either. They are not coming because we are not the states that are in play.” In a speech Friday, Warren also endorsed abolishing the Senate filibuster, an idea that has provoked mixed feelings from other senators in the race. The leading candidates are unified in their support for overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are taking up the mantle of democracy reform as well. Last month, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced a legislative package that would eliminate the electoral college, expand early voting and provide congressional representation for the approximately 4 million residents of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories. The newly Democratic-controlled House passed the For the People Act, a comprehensive package of reforms that Democrats made the first bill they introduced after assuming the majority.
Some skeptics argue that Democrats’ increasing focus on democracy issues is a mistake. “It’s interesting to hear the discussion,” said Democratic former senator Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), now a senior fellow at the centrist Bipartisan Policy Center, “but I think it detracts from the message that matters most” on health care and other economic issues. But this line of thinking ignores the nearly insurmountable barriers to implementing even the most popular policies in a system that is designed to subvert the will of the people.
From Medicare-for-all to debt-free college to a Green New Deal, the bold ideas that Democrats are proposing will require major structural changes. Accordingly, the party is wise to offer an alternative vision that combines the “what” of progressive policies with the “how” of democracy reform. As the Rev. William J. Barber II wrote, “America’s future depends on yet another revolution — a movement of people committed to reconstructing democracy.”