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Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia caught an elevator together on their way to the Senate chamber to vote last September.

Will the Democrats Fight to Save Democracy?

Legislative battles are fronts in a larger—and winnable—ideological war.

Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia caught an elevator together on their way to the Senate chamber to vote last September.

It’s been thoroughly overtaken by events since, but by the time the midterm elections roll around in November, the implications of Congress’s failure to pass democratic reforms this term will be clear to all. In fact, the right’s efforts to suppress the vote have already had an impact. In Texas, for instance, 30 percent of the absentee ballots received in the state’s most populous counties were rejected ahead of the March primaries, thanks to new restrictions. In the 2020 election, by contrast, election officials rejected less than 1 percent of absentee ballots. The confusion sown by the attack on early voting and other restrictions is precisely what the state’s Republicans intended. And the right’s drive for similar legislation across the country is only intensifying. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 96 new bills restricting voting rights had been prefiled or introduced in our state legislatures by mid-January of this year—a 39 percent increase over 2021.

On top of that, states are in the middle of a redistricting cycle many feared Republicans would dominate just as they did after 2010’s census. But while Democrats have been more competitive in district drawing than expected, reformers are still justifiably dismayed that the process remains a game won by ruthless, zero-sum strategizing—especially since it’s being refereed by a conservative-dominated judiciary. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court revived an Alabama congressional map that a lower court had struck down for its dilution of Black votes and signaled that in future rulings it would scrutinize Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act—which says regulations that abridge the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities are discriminatory regardless of intent.

Advocates for democratic reform came into the Biden administration hoping that legislation like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would set things straight—if not in time for this year’s midterms, then certainly by 2024, when Donald Trump and his supporters in state government are sure to try again to steal the election if his campaign comes up short. But by the end of January, reform bills had been defeated three times in the Senate—thanks entirely to Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s opposition to killing the filibuster and their ambivalence about the democratic reform push overall. And while the term’s not out, there’s little reason to believe the push will be revived before the midterms: Political science, electoral history, and Biden’s current poll numbers all suggest that the Democrats are likely to lose their governing majority. Is the democratic project doomed? Not necessarily. But we’ll have a hard time productively moving forward if we don’t understand why the Democratic Party and this particular reform effort have failed.

Democratic leaders should be given their due: With a pandemic and a wide array of competing issues on the table, the party found the nerve to put democratic reform near the top of the legislative agenda and began its push with a genuinely historic and ambitious piece of legislation. The For the People Act, which would have standardized federal elections with inclusive regulations on early voting, instituted automatic voter registration, preempted restrictive voter-ID laws, and banned partisan gerrymandering, among other provisions, was a fairly comprehensive response not only to the novel anti-democratic threat posed by the radicalizing right, but to long-standing problems that troubled reformers long before the rise of Donald Trump—from campaign finance to government ethics. Paired with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an update to the 1965 Voting Rights Act necessitated by the Supreme Court’s disastrous, suppression-enabling ruling in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, the For the People Act might have shored up our political institutions for a long time to come, while paving the way for long-term reform projects like the elimination of the Electoral College and the remaking or elimination of the U.S. Senate.

But both bills faced the same basic obstacle confronting most of the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda: the Senate filibuster. Unlike the economic proposals Senate Democrats have worked to fit into budget reconciliation bills that can pass by simple majorities, non-spending items like political reforms have to be passed as ordinary legislation. Republicans, therefore, could block reform bills unless Democrats garnered 60 votes to move them forward—in other words, with a 50–50 Senate, Democrats would have had to find 10 Republicans willing to speak out and stand against their own party’s attacks on the democratic process. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead, activists, and, eventually, most Democrats, hoped that the Senate Democrats would turn to the nuclear option—a rules change by simple majority vote that would have allowed the party to pass the reform bills, and perhaps the rest of Biden’s agenda, by simple majorities.

As is well known by now, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema prevented this from happening, and Republicans blocked the bill. It shouldn’t be forgotten, though, that President Biden opposed eliminating the filibuster during the 2020 campaign and didn’t back the move until late 2021. In the early stretch of the reform push, Biden echoed Manchin in suggesting that the Senate could move back to a talking filibuster instead—a proposal that would have forced Republicans to hold the floor while blocking bills, but wouldn’t have actually changed the 60-vote threshold needed to move bills forward. In December, Biden, having taken a tentative step in the right direction at a CNN town hall in October, told the press for the first time that he’d back eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights bills. “If the only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed and not getting passed is the filibuster,” he said in an ABC interview, “I support making the exception of voting rights for the filibuster.”

But the filibuster wasn’t quite the only obstacle the reform push faced. By then, Manchin had also expressed substantive opposition to the For the People Act’s provisions. “This more than 800-page bill has garnered zero Republican support,” he said in June 2021. “Why? 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? Are these same senators, whom many in my party applauded for their courage, now threats to the very democracy we seek to protect? The truth, I would argue, is that voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen.”

Eventually, he put forward an alternative framework that would become the Freedom to Vote Act—a bill that kept For the People Act provisions, like automatic voter registration and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. But it also slimmed down many of the For the People Act’s regulations on state voting laws and ditched many of its campaign finance reforms, while introducing a federal standard for states that had imposed voter-ID restrictions. The For the People Act, by contrast, would have allowed voters without ID to submit sworn statements testifying to their identity in such states. And in a remarkable act of collective compromise, most Democratic activists, advocacy groups, and progressives inside and outside of Congress backed Manchin’s bill. “The provisions of this legislation are overwhelmingly supported by the American people across party lines,” former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and reform advocate Stacey Abrams said in her endorsement, “and Senators must respond to the demands of their constituents by supporting it.”

But the party’s acquiescence to Manchin’s demands didn’t yield a breakthrough on the filibuster, which Manchin continued to support. As such, Republicans were able to block the Freedom to Vote Act in October 2021. And in January, after much ado about reviving the legislation and a more serious push from the Biden administration, a bill that combined the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act was also killed—but not before Manchin and Sinema took to the Senate floor to reiterate their support for the filibuster. “We must address the disease itself —the disease of division—to protect our democracy,” Sinema said in her speech. The democratic reform bills have since fallen off the political map entirely.

Could things have gone differently? Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, one of the many democratic groups that had pushed the For the People Act aggressively, saw the movement of most Democrats on the filibuster as an encouraging sign—a development that hadn’t seemed like a given during the presidential primary. “This is something that we asked everybody—from Booker to Buttigieg to Biden and everybody else,” he told me. “And it was really slim pickings…. Even Bernie Sanders wasn’t for filibuster reform—he wanted to go through reconciliation.” The temptation, Levin said, was to say that when we got to a vote, we failed. “But what happened was we brought 98 percent of the Democratic Party—sometimes kicking and screaming—along with us to the side that the filibuster reform was what we needed to pass structural democracy reform.”

“I don’t think anything went wrong—I think this was historic, transformational legislation that we came very, very close to enacting, ” agreed Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of the advocacy group Democracy 21. “The bottom-line problem was Manchin and Sinema. They didn’t have any basis for doing what they did, but they did it anyway.”

There’s been a tremendous amount of debate over how pliable they might have been and what it may have taken to move the two. And critics of the reform effort have argued Democrats shouldn’t have gone into the term believing that the senators could be convinced to eliminate the filibuster in the first place.

The faith that they could stemmed partly from a disbelief that the two would be willing to dismantle most of the Biden agenda with their stance on the filibuster. Once it became clear that they would, reformers turned to the hope that they could move things forward with a carve-out specifically for voting rights and by paring down their ambitions. Incredibly, in the last months of the reform push, a number of commentators blamed the failure of the bills on the supposed intransigence of progressives and Democratic advocacy groups—a lie and an elision of the fact that the bill being pushed by progressives from June through January was a compromise, functionally written by Joe Manchin himself, that had replaced the For the People Act. It was Manchin and Sinema’s implacable opposition to eliminating or meaningfully amending the filibuster that sealed the reform effort’s fate in January.

The weekend after Sinema’s speech, Levin was in Phoenix with Martin Luther King’s Jr’s family, marching across a bridge in support of voting rights. “They were calling her out by name, asking her to stand up for voting rights,” Levin remembered. “And gosh, what else could have been done to push her along? I don’t know. I can’t look into her soul.”

Really, the failure of the For the People Act and the other reform bills can be understood in part as a consequence of the very problems they might have gone some way toward fixing. “I don’t know what the phrase is,” Levin said. “A profile in cowardice? It’s a profile in the failure of our campaign finance system, which leads senators to side with their donors over their constituents and believe that they’re able to do that because the system is already rigged enough that they can hope to survive.”

This analysis really gets to the heart of things. Because for all the claptrap Manchin and Sinema have spouted about the filibuster facilitating bipartisan compromise and building unity, their opposition to eliminating it is most intelligible as a matter of material politics. As right-leaning Democrats, they, their donors, and their moderate-to-conservative constituents in West Virginia and Arizona have real reason to fear the policy consequences of its elimination and the corresponding increase in Democratic power it would have brought about. As long as the filibuster remains in place, there’s little hope of Democrats ever passing, say, a Green New Deal. Even if Manchin and Sinema had agreed to a carve-out specifically for democratic reform legislation, that crack in the firmament undoubtedly would have led to the filibuster’s eventual death. And, importantly, the success of the reform push probably would have made it at least a little easier for Democrats to win and keep Congress, another change that might have nudged policy leftward.

Manchin and Sinema managed to obfuscate these factors in their defenses of the filibuster with appeals to the need for consensus. Here, they took advantage of rhetoric—on bipartisanship and the need to bring the parties together—that Democrats of all stripes have long deployed. And it’s fairly clear this rhetoric has undermined support for eliminating the filibuster among the broader public. While polls suggested that the provisions of the For the People Act were generally popular, voters were demonstrably more apprehensive about the prospect of the Democrats going nuclear. In April 2021, a survey from the group Data for Progress asked respondents whether they would support measures to end partisan gerrymandering “such that if one party won about half the votes in a state, they should be able to win about half the congressional seats in that state.” The idea in itself was supported by a 17-point margin, with 51 percent of respondents in favor and 34 percent of respondents opposed. But when the question was phrased to ask whether Democrats should eliminate the filibuster to pass redistricting reform without Republicans, the margin fell to 5 points—with a narrow 47 percent plurality in support and 42 percent opposed.

In short, Americans were readier to embrace specific reform proposals than they were to embrace the shift in political perspective that was needed to pass them. Democrats’ mixed messages about the GOP—the insistence, from the president on down, that Republicans ought to be considered partners in governance even though they’ve gone off the rails—certainly haven’t helped. But the alternative message—that the Republican Party poses enough of a threat that it ought to be overridden in Congress without a second thought—wouldn’t have easily found purchase in West Virginia even if Biden and the Democrats had advanced it.

The narrow question of what, if anything, might have moved Sinema and Manchin is then less important than the broader question facing the Democratic Party as a whole: whether a constituency for progressive politics can be built in red America. The central challenge of the democratic reform effort is that the system’s anti-democratic and inegalitarian biases must be worked through—with both political persuasion and political organization in regions more white and more conservative than the places bearing the brunt of voter suppression—before they are overcome.

That task—a transformation of the American political landscape—wasn’t going to be accomplished over the course of a congressional term. As such, the drubbing Democrats are likely to see in November should be viewed as the beginning of a new stage in the reform push rather than its end. There’s much to do in the near term to shore up the democratic process, beginning with efforts to protect voters and the vote ahead of 2024. “You have to go to the states,” Wertheimer told me, to fight the coming laws aimed at voter suppression and election sabotage. “Trump’s followers are out there attacking and harassing election officials; they’re trying to get into those positions themselves. That’s a battle that has to be fought in the states and in local communities.”

At the federal level, reform legislation is functionally dead until 2024 at a minimum and, given the biases of the Senate and the Electoral College, potentially for many, many years to come. But democratic reformers should continue building public support for the provisions of the For the People Act and more ambitious proposals anyway. If there’s a future for the project of the American democracy, it’ll be built not by politicians in Washington hoping to save their own seats from election cycle to election cycle, but by activists capable of seeing that legislative battles are only fronts in a larger, winnable ideological war.