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Democrats Shouldn’t Just Restore American Democracy. They Should Reinvent It.

Joe Biden says that our institutions are under assault, but saving them will require more than Trump’s removal.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At long last, it seems like nearly every Democrat in Washington finally agrees on something: impeaching Donald Trump (a second time) and removing him from office. Nancy Pelosi has declared that she is ready to move forward with an impeachment vote if Trump doesn’t resign immediately. All it took was for the president to incite a riotous coup of white supremacists to violently storm Capitol Hill.

In the wake of Wednesday’s events, Democratic leaders have recognized that such steps are necessary to restore democracy. As Joe Biden said at a news conference on Wednesday night, “Our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.” He later added, “The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, of honor, of respect, the rule of law.”

In response to Trump’s Cabinet standing by as the president disintegrated into darkness, Pelosi declared, “Are they ready to say for the next 13 days this dangerous man can assault our democracy?” They’re right. The violent mob that refused to accept the election results, and the man who told them they would “never take back our country with weakness” must be dealt with. But there is a danger that Democrats will see these steps as sufficient to meet the current crisis—that come January 20, when the real adults take charge, democracy will have been, well, saved.

The actual imperative to restore democracy—a dubious implication that democracy has ever fully existed here—must expand far beyond what happens in direct response to the perpetrators and instigators of Wednesday’s events. While the riot was a rivetingly visual and visceral example of the crumbling of our government, anti-democratic forces have long seeped through our system.

These forces are often quiet instead of clownish; insidious, rather than brazen. Some have persisted for so long that they are taken for granted as inherent and necessary to our democracy, such as the Electoral College—that quadrennial coup d’état. Or, like the gusher of corporate money that sluices through our politics, they can be more akin to a magician pulling the tablecloth out from under us: While companies like Coca-Cola disavow “the unlawful and violent events” on Wednesday as an “offense to the ideals of American democracy,” they discreetly pour money into getting Republicans elected in states that are systematically dismantling the Black vote, as The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu recently pointed out. Meanwhile, as a few people running a few monopolies quietly consolidate their wealth under a pandemic, organized labor is under assault.

The supposed stewards of democracy in our government have made basic civic participation something closer to a luxury good than a universal right. Poverty and racism are clear barriers to voting and running for office; lack of transportation, the fact that elections aren’t national holidays, outright voter suppression, a dearth of public campaign finance laws—all of these determine just exactly who gets to be a part of our country’s civic life.

Yet in spite of all of these structural odds, Democrats won a razor-thin majority in Congress. In the wake of the election, along with the energy in response to the Capitol riots, the party has a clear responsibility: It should aggressively push for policies that will actually make America more robustly democratic. Yes, give us those $2,000 checks—but make that the down payment on a more just future: Restore the Voting Rights Act, impose a wealth tax, and break up the monopolies dominating our political system with a tough antitrust agenda, so that actual, regular people have a fighting chance to make decisions for our country. Push to abolish the Electoral College; pass national automatic voter registration; turn D.C. and Puerto Rico into states—all things that would make our system more equitable. Overhaul our immigration policy so that the millions of undocumented people who live here actually have a voice in our system.

Inequality is one of the biggest barriers to a functioning democracy: To turn around a slide into plutocracy, Democrats need to address the fact that two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck right now. The party should fight to pass all of the policies that are increasingly popular among the American electorate but stymied by our anti-democratic system: raising the minimum wage, canceling student debt, universal childcare and health care. When Republicans inevitably block any of these attempts, party leadership needs to be ready to build a case to abolish the filibuster and use all of its leverage to get its policies through. It’s unlikely, of course, that it will do any of this without a mass popular movement, both inside and out, forcing those in power to actually deliver the goods. If Democrats truly care about the “assault on democracy,” they would welcome, not oppose, those movements that are already rising to meet this moment.

One way or another, Trump’s administration is coming to an end. But the real test as to whether Biden actually upholds his commitment to democracy will come in the months and years ahead. It’s easy to see a mob of MAGA supporters scaling the walls of the Capitol and cry that our democracy is under assault; it’s much harder to actually do the things that will fix the ways it had already been breached, long before Trump opened the doors.