The 2021 off-year elections don’t offer too many opportunities to draw conclusions about where the country is heading. Nevertheless, talk of signs and portents abounds, even on these pages. A handful of local and mayoral elections may provide some indication of whether progressives might open new fronts to push policies on the municipal level. The New Jersey governor’s race, while little talked about, may open a window into whether the policy ideas that President Biden is pushing can find some beachhead of popularity. And of course, the Virginia gubernatorial race, once concluded, will probably draw the attention of scribblers looking to set a national narrative based on those results, if only because of the commonwealth’s close proximity to the Beltway hive mind.
Still, if you’re searching for that bellwether that might illuminate the national scene, perhaps it makes more sense to look past these coming contests and onto future election cycles. In fact, you might consider taking a broad look, not at key House or Senate races themselves but at the possibility that those elections to come might not even be free and fair, that those who want to participate may not be allowed to do so, and that the results could be overturned by some form of skulduggery.
Someone needs to pay attention to these concerns, because many lawmakers in Washington—even those who are most at risk of losing their seats due to voter suppression and electoral subversion—don’t seem to be doing so. And it’s not clear the president is, either.
This week, TNR, in conjunction with The Bulwark, published an open letter in defense of democracy, in which luminaries from across the political spectrum raised their grave concerns about the state of voting rights and elections in the United States, urging Democrats “to pass effective, national legislation to protect the vote and our elections, and if necessary to override the Senate filibuster rule.” Efforts by House Democrats to address this have, of course, so far been dashed by several Senate colleagues who prefer maintaining the filibuster to preventing a postmodern rerun of Jim Crow America. The Senate’s grand vizier, Joe Manchin, had floated a voting rights deal of his own but only secured the support of one of the necessary 10 GOP senators needed to pass his measure, which failed to advance.
There is, of course, nothing more naïve than the notion that 10 Republicans might take up the cause of voting rights. The GOP has one ongoing policy mission, and that’s to subvert democracy. That mission is well funded, operating on a nationwide basis, being pursued on multiple fronts, and—most importantly—already succeeding. Voter-suppression laws are being passed, state laws that govern who has control over the electoral levers are being enacted, and a wave of violence and intimidation is chasing honest election workers off their supervisory posts. It’s hard to see what a compromise on voting rights would look like, outside of everyone agreeing to an old-school poll tax or limiting voting rights to property owners.
What is the answer from the Biden administration? The president has belatedly announced some support for at least “altering” the filibuster to advance a voting rights bill, but it’s come so laden with caveats that The New York Times’ Charles Blow seemed to strain himself to refer to Biden’s rhetoric as merely “tepid.” It is, however, a slight improvement on the plan the White House enunciated in August, which was to ask voters to “out-organize voter suppression.” A tall order, to say the least—and one that seemed to ignore the reality that “organizing” is one of the very things the GOP is working to make as illegal as possible. Perhaps it was imaginable that voters might pull off such a feat back when Democrats seemed poised to give them a popular agenda to rally around. The remaining parts of that agenda finally started taking shape on Thursday morning: It’s anyone’s guess whether it will be passed, not to mention if it will adequately provide the Democratic base with the enthusiasm necessary to conquer the forces of voter suppression.
The Biden White House is acting as if it sees electoral reform as some sort of zany overreaction to Trump, rather than a goal that must be pursued with ardent resolve. Peter Nicholas recently reported in The Atlantic that some administration officials seem to have only just realized that voting rights is a matter of real concern. One, whom Nicholas quoted in a tweet, suggested that it was just a boutique issue among a limited rump of voters: “Every constituency has their issue.… If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.”
In a few weeks, the president will convene a virtual “Summit on Democracy,” which will bring together world leaders to “galvanize commitments and initiatives” from attendees on how to “defend against authoritarianism.” In a year, President Biden will gather the same group “to showcase progress made against their commitments.” It’s worth wondering whether, a year from now, the president will have any progress of his own to showcase—or anything, really, that might demonstrate to the rest of the world that he actually takes the preservation of democracy seriously.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.