The average consumer of political news can be forgiven for not being entirely sure how much to panic about the state of our democracy. On the one hand, one can read in the mainstream press that “more than 100 scholars of democracy have signed a new public statement” warning that “the future of our democracy itself” is in jeopardy. The president, a kindly old moderate who touted his ability to work across the aisle, even echoed this line, calling on Congress to fight back against the Republican “assault on democracy.”
One can then read, from the same outlets, a White House statement saying that “the President hosted Senator Capito for a constructive and frank conversation in the Oval Office about how we can drive economic growth and benefit America’s middle class through investing in our infrastructure.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito is a Republican from West Virginia. The subject of her conversation with the president was the White House’s current legislative priority, an infrastructure bill, the size and contours of which the administration is currently negotiating with the Republican minority that it also casts as an existential threat to representative democracy. Capito and Biden had another call on Friday and agreed to “connect again” on Monday. These negotiations have not only delayed action on an infrastructure package, they have sidelined every other piece of the ambitious agenda Joe Biden and congressional Democrats ran on last year. But even if the negotiations are doomed, they serve an important political function, according to insiders: “White House advisers like Steve Ricchetti have told Democrats that a concerted bipartisan attempt would benefit Democrats politically.”
Does this “concerted bipartisan attempt” perhaps contradict the president’s call to resist the Republican assault on democracy? Our hypothetical consumer of political news—upon hearing both that Republicans are hell-bent on curtailing democracy and that it is politically important to be seen negotiating with them in good faith—might conclude that Democrats don’t actually believe the first claim, no matter how emphatically they state it.
That would be an entirely reasonable interpretation of the disconnect between Democratic rhetoric and action. But the rhetoric is actually correct. The modern Republican Party is opposed to majoritarian democracy; it is straightforwardly engaged in undermining or dismantling many democratic elements of our system of government. Those aforementioned “scholars of democracy” have the right of it. New York’s Jonathan Chait recently collected and summarized examples of state legislative efforts—in Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere—not just to make voting more difficult but to make invalidating elections easier. It sounds hysterical to put it in these terms, but the plain truth is that Republican politicians are trying to create a legal framework for canceling elections they lose, and once that framework is in place, they will assuredly use it.
So, under these circumstances, why spend weeks negotiating infrastructure in an attempt either somehow to win over 10 Republicans or simply to be seen as having tried to win over 10 Republicans? As Luke Savage points out in The Atlantic, Democrats are telling voters “that a deliberate effort is under way to deprive citizens of the franchise,” while declining to take the steps necessary to stop that effort—and continuing to treat the people behind the voter suppression campaign as legitimate negotiating partners.
This is a strange mismatch, one that critics have tried to explain with three possible theories:
- Democrats are timid, terrified of backlash, convinced that it’s politically safer to move slowly and only tinker around the edges rather than try to fundamentally change anything. Paralyzed by their cowardice, they are capitulating to Republican bad faith.
- Democrats truly believe the “fever will break” theory of the Republican Party and think that, outside a few outliers, like Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert, their colleagues across the aisle are reasonable people who can be negotiated with. Thus, in order to pass major legislation, they are doing everything in their power to make it easier (both politically and in terms of policy) for those Republicans to come to the table.
- Democrats publicly argue for bipartisanship and caution in order to disguise their actual ideological (or straight-out purchased) opposition to even a moderately left-liberal economic agenda, and would rather see their own party lose power than see left-wing forces gain influence within it.
My best explanation for the current political moment is that all three of these things are true. Not universally, for all elected Democrats, but for particular Democrats at particular times.
The second explanation, that sincere belief in essential Republican reasonableness, may seem the least believable, given all the weight of evidence against the idea of secretly reasonable Republicans. But it explains why even moderate Democratic members of the House are increasingly exasperated with the Senate’s addiction to drawn-out negotiations and its fealty to its ridiculous counter-majoritarian rules. Representative James Clyburn, no one’s idea of a radical, said Friday that while he agreed with Joe Manchin that it’s always better to have bipartisan buy-in, he “cannot understand in feeling that if the only way to get it done is to go it alone, then you should not get it done.”
Manchin, for his part, has (as my colleague Matt Ford has written) only offered unconvincing and contradictory justifications for refusing to pass electoral reform without support from the party whose political success depends on electoral subversion. His current position combines “unilateral disarmament with performative groveling,” Ford said.
The increasing incoherence of the appeals to process over results from defenders of Mitch McConnell’s right to veto democracy reform (along with every other item of the Democratic agenda) is especially maddening because the Senate moderates willing to justify the current state of affairs clearly seem to prefer false history and logically absurd arguments to actually making substantive cases against provisions in the bills they actually oppose. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema argue—falsely—that “the filibuster” (meaning the recently adopted 60-vote standard for nearly all Senate business) is designed to foster bipartisanship (as opposed to invented to delay and obstruct liberal reforms, mostly around civil rights), rather than say they believe the “For the People Act” goes too far in its campaign finance provisions or anything else like that. The point seems to be to forestall negotiation—to make it clear that they aren’t going to engage in any horse-trading—rather than to encourage compromise.
But the Senate—where our president spent 36 years of his life—is a fruitless negotiation factory. Wasting months hashing things out with Shelley Moore Capito is all they know how to do, even when no reasonable observer can imagine a path to 10 Republican votes on the outcome, even when there is simply no evidence that engaging in these negotiations will do anything but make the eventual product less popular and eat up time that could be spent on everything else that a competent governing majority might be doing.
Meanwhile, in state legislatures across the country, operating without filibusters, Republican majorities are hard at work. The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein recently ran down some of what they’ve been up to. They are making it easier to purchase and carry handguns, effectively banning abortion, ruthlessly targeting transgender people for discrimination and harassment, curtailing teachers’ and professors’ freedom to teach about race and history, and, as mentioned above, trying to make it easier for a few solidly Republican-controlled states both to limit the vote and to have more political influence over election outcomes.
It is true that for Joe Manchin, or Kyrsten Sinema, or Chris Coons, or Mark Warner, fetishizing bipartisanship is often a fig leaf for their true opposition to particular liberal reforms. But it is also true that Washington Democrats, and senators in particular, have a distorted view of the nature of the opposition they are dealing with. “Are the very Republican senators who voted to impeach Trump because of actions that led to an attack on our democracy unwilling to support actions to strengthen our democracy?” Joe Machin asked in his Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial. “Are these same senators, whom many in my party applauded for their courage, now threats to the very democracy we seek to protect?”
The easy answer is Yes, idiot. Some Republican senators planned to support the invalidation of the election before the Capitol riot changed their mind. And only seven Republican senators even voted for the impeachment, which is short of the number needed to pass any meaningful legislation under Manchin’s standard.
But Manchin’s also right in some narrow sense. The Republican senators who voted to impeach Donald Trump are different from the ones plotting to rig elections. Shortly after the riot, Mike Davis identified a split in the Republican Party between Business Roundtable Senators and True Trumpists in the House. (The former should not be mistaken for “moderates.”) Democratic senators and White House advisers preaching the virtue of negotiation with Republicans wish to believe a handful of minimally principled Senate Republicans are the true face of the party. Their more fed-up counterparts in the House—who are openly harassed by “colleagues” like Marjorie Taylor Greene—have a clearer view of what the current GOP actually is. All of them would be wise to look to the state legislators.
Those Republican-led bodies are not the fringe outliers of the party: They are the party. They are its present, and, more importantly, its immediate future. When today’s Republican senators retire rather than seek reelection under these conditions, the people who replace them will be the ones currently working to decriminalize driving trucks into BLM protesters. They’ll be grateful, I’m sure, for whatever highway funding Joe Biden manages to get the Senate to commit to.