It’s hard to think of an issue that’s inspired broader center-left consensus than the Republican threat to the right to vote. Jacobin informs us that “There’s Less Than Two Years to Save American Democracy.” A piece in The Atlantic keeping us to a tighter schedule says we’ve already arrived at the “Last Chance to Save Democracy.” “American democracy,” CNN concurred in early June, “is about to show if it can save itself.” I myself called our political moment “Democracy’s Moment of Reckoning” not long ago. Joe Biden is worried. Ilhan Omar is worried. And Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom have let us know that they’re worried, too. In a recent ad called “Transmissions From the Future,” they play haggard versions of themselves in 2055 urging the passage of the For the People Act as jackboots from an unnamed regime ram at their door. “This future doesn’t have to be,” Bloom says. “Save democracy while you can.”
Heeding Bloom’s harrowing warning, Senate Democrats finally moved to advance the For the People Act last Tuesday. They failed. Republicans used the filibuster to prevent the opening of debate; Democrats have yet to assemble the votes to eliminate or significantly modify the filibuster. Publicly undaunted, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted in a floor speech that the quest to save American democracy would continue. “The fight to protect voting rights is not over,” he said. “In the fight for voting rights, this vote was the starting gun, not the finish line.”
That specific fight is obviously important, and Democrats may well find some way to pass voting rights legislation between now and the midterm elections. But the broader project of “saving American democracy” is doomed for one fairly straightforward reason: America is not a democracy. At the federal level, we simply don’t have a democratic system to save.
One needn’t take a particular position on America’s origins or the meaning of American republicanism to see this; the statement holds true as a characterization of our current reality. The political outcomes produced by our federal institutions do not broadly and reliably correspond with the preferences of most Americans. And they fail to correspond because our federal institutions flout, to a comical degree, political equality in a one person, one vote sense.
If they didn’t, the For the People Act, a bill with broadly popular provisions, would have already passed and passed easily; the failure of the voting rights push thus far is entirely attributable to the rules and basic design of the United States Senate, which have disproportionately empowered a handful of pivotal senators representing a fraction of a fraction of the population and a Republican minority that represents 43 million fewer people than the Democratic majority it’s blockading. And the anti-democratic politics the For the People Act was crafted to combat can partially be understood as a consequence of these and other structural disparities. Largely insulated from public opinion and the political costs of public disapproval, the Republican Party has continued a steady, unchecked march to the right; its advantages have seemingly convinced many voters and policymakers that the electorate is more conservative than it is, bolstering the party’s sense of entitlement to rule.
It’s bent on making things worse. But as things already stand today, the Republican Party can return to power in Washington without the support of the majority of the American electorate. Democrats, by contrast, had to win more than simple majorities or pluralities to gain the power they tenuously hold now—if Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump by any less than 3.2 points in the popular vote, he would have lost outright in November. None of this is privileged information; these and other related facts have been widely disseminated in recent years by academics, analysts, and journalists who also tend to imply, nevertheless, that an undemocratic America is merely a hypothetical looming ahead of us. It isn’t. It is the quicksand we’re already in.
We all know this, even if we aren’t prepared to face the truth directly; the angst of the moment is less about the coming end of a functional democracy in this country than it is about the end of American politics as we’ve known it. Through suppression and its other shenanigans, the Republican Party is atrophying not only the right to vote but our sense that national political outcomes can be meaningfully shaped by the agency of voters and political actors. All the material we’ve long considered the real substance of politics—particular candidates and particular election campaigns; political scoops, gaffes, and scandals—have lost ground to larger concerns and ideas. It is no longer possible for the informed to believe or pretend that these things matter more than the structures and institutions underlying American politics and American life. This shift in consciousness isn’t purely a partisan phenomenon. Progressives might not be getting big structural change, but structures are big now for just about everyone.
The materialists of the American left have been ahead of the pack on this, of course, and the rise of systemic racism as a concept indicates the extent to which liberals have been pulled toward macroanalysis over the last decade. But we’ve also seen similar thinking on the right: As the writer John Ganz has noted, the conservative figures leading the crusade against critical race theory and cultural Marxism are as reliant on totalizing, systematizing diagnoses for America’s ills as the thinkers they criticize. Conservative moral panics like this are nothing new, but party activists are hitting some novel targets: The hidden forces pulling us toward degeneracy can be found not only within our perennially embattled public schools but also in the major corporations that loud voices on the right now denigrate as “woke capital” and the military, as well. The screeching about voter fraud and immigration is a cousin to all this—Republicans have come to believe that basic demographic shifts justify a structural assault on voting rights, obviating the need for political argument and persuasion.
The Democratic and Republican bases have arrived at structuralism from different directions. For Democrats, the backlash to the Obama presidency and the party’s inability to enact most of its long-standing agenda have encouraged both a reexamination of the rules of the game in Washington and a hunt for the origins of white identity politics. But for Republicans, the structural turn seems like a product of their decades of policy success. Taxes are low, the regulatory state has been weakened, the welfare state has been severely constrained for all but the elderly, the American labor movement has been decimated, and a chastened Democratic Party celebrates its efforts to win the GOP’s approval on its major policy objectives. The right’s turn toward amorphous sociocultural grievances less responsive to political action but ready-made for conspiratorial, system-level analysis shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise—there isn’t much more left on its wish list.
Politicians in both parties have nodded to the new discourses. But this president and the last have both, in their own way, been evangelists for the art of the deal—taking it upon themselves to revive faith in political agency and dynamism. Overcoming structural obstacles, they’ve told us, is simply a matter of putting the right man with the right temperament in charge at the right time. Joe Biden, for his part, is no closer to furnishing proof of this than he was in January. And even if the filibuster does eventually go and a voting rights bill is passed, all the straining to get those basic items done will have demonstrated something conclusively: The Democratic Party cannot reasonably be expected to deliver timely, large-scale policy change on the most important and complex issues facing the country.
However dearly some on the left might hope to take it over eventually, a party that struggled to advance an update to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will not be fundamentally remaking American health care, the American energy economy, or anything else anytime soon, given the ambivalence or opposition of its current leaders and the deepening biases of our federal institutions. The only force that might eventually transform those institutions is the transformation of the American electorate—a long project of ideological conversion that might gradually encourage voters to demand not the protection but the establishment of a system that we might reasonably call American democracy. A utopian aspiration? Yes. But our situation is what it is. If the basic trajectory of our national politics doesn’t change soon, progressives won’t have any other national political projects left in which to engage.