Our faltering democracy got a much-needed boost — finally.
If the recent midterm elections make anything clear, it’s this: The Democrats are about reforming American democracy, while Donald Trump and the Republicans are about deforming it further.
And if the media paid less attention to Trump’s tweets and other assorted outrages, people could get properly excited at the former and properly concerned at the latter.
In recapturing the House of Representatives and doing it resoundingly — winning 40 seats when 23 were needed — Democrats can now do what spineless Republicans did not these last two years: Democrats can serve as a badly-needed brake on the proto-autocrat in the White House and his audacious onslaught on American democracy.
“Democracy reform” — strengthening our democratic institutions — is the stated top priority of House Democrats when they retake power January 3 and make good on their campaign theme of “For the People.” Nancy Pelosi, probable Speaker, in an op-ed in The Washington Post co-authored with Rep. John Sarbanes, speaks of the election as a “vote to rescue our broken democracy” — with a “bold reform package to restore the promise of our democracy — a government of, by and for the people.”
House Resolution 1, that is, H.R. 1 — symbolically numbered to highlight the priority that Democrats place on its anti-corruption, pro-reform measures — focuses on three main areas: campaign finance, voting rights, and ethics — key components of a sound democratic system.
The campaign finance reform part aims at undoing Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s misguided and deeply unpopular ruling which gives corporations a blank check to influence elections. (Repeat: It aims at undoing Citizens United — cue the excitement.) H.R. 1 would amplify the power of small-value donations: Every dollar donated would be matched, perhaps 6 to 1, by public funds if candidates submitted to the small-donor program. Says The Washington Post editorial board, this would be “the biggest push to fight money in politics since the early 2000s, finally adapting the nation’s rules to the reality ushered in by….Citizens United…. The origins of the dark money sloshing around the political system would have to be disclosed.”
The voting rights part would seek to undo the Supreme Court’s equally misguided ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ruling placed undue restrictions on minority communities. (Cue more excitement.) H.R. 1 would seek automatic voter registration (unless individuals opt out) and take away redistricting power — gerrymandering — from state legislatures and give it to independent commissions. The Post editorial urges bolstering election security “well before the 2020 election”: “Congress has wide authority over how states conduct federal elections. It can require much more than it now does.”
As to the ethics part of H.R. 1, this administration presents such a target-rich environment, where to start? Must items: Future presidents will be required to disclose their income tax returns, members of Congress cannot use taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment cases. Importantly, the Office of Government Ethics will be revived. And various Congressional committees can launch investigations — into Trump’s finances, foreign payments to Trump’s D.C. hotel, separating migrant children from parents, Russian election meddling, etc. Crucially, the Mueller investigation will be protected. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell calls all this new attention “presidential harassment,” but in truth House Democrats will be exercising their oversight of the executive as required by the Constitution.
Republicans of course will note that this House bill (and related bills) will go nowhere in a GOP-controlled Senate. But the point is: Democracy reform wins with just about every voting group and forcing Republicans to vote against it, again and again — well, being anti-democracy reform will not be a good look in the 2020 presidential campaign. As Vox says, democracy reform is both “good policy and smart politics.” (Wisely, there is little talk among Congressional Democrats of impeachment.)
In addition to rescuing democracy, Democrats vow to stop GOP assaults on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (specifically, protecting people with pre-existing conditions and bringing down prescription drug prices). Democrats also vow to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, meaning: good-paying jobs.
Also enhancing American democracy: the greater diversity that Democrats bring to this Congress — a record number of women, our first Muslim-American women, our first Native American women. The “people’s house” now looks more like the people.
Meanwhile, in other news that should be much bigger than it is: Republicans are engaging in astonishing anti-democratic maneuvers in the states since losing big on Election Day.
Namely: In Wisconsin the legislature, which will remain Republican-controlled in the coming session, has passed lame-duck legislation stripping powers from both the incoming Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and the Democratic attorney general. Scott Walker, the two-term Republican who lost to Evers, signed the legislation Dec. 14. The left-leaning American Constitution Society decries the move as a “state political coup.”
In Michigan, the Republican-controlled legislature is attempting to do the same — strip powers — from its incoming Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and Democratic attorney general, though at this writing it has not succeeded — yet. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, the public turned out in massive protests at the capitol. In Wisconsin, the Governor-elect vows to fight back in the courts.
Shakespeare had a word for this maneuver: usurpation of power. What would George Washington say, who as our first president exemplified the peaceful transfer of power? (Myself, I would say: Beware of weasels during lame-duck sessions.)
Media attention to these anti-democratic maneuvers has been minimal. As Media Matters rightly points out, even the venerated New York Times missed their significance with its original headline, “Wisconsin Republicans ‘Stand Like Bedrock’ in Face of Democratic Wins” (also here). The Guardian headline gets it better: “This Is Not Democracy.”
Credit Senate Republicans for growing some vertebrae in the spine for joining Democrats in unanimously opposing Trump on the Saudi war in Yemen. Let’s see Republicans now address their party’s drift toward autocracy.
American democracy is under siege from within. In response, Democrats are going high, with democracy reform, while Republicans, a party in extremis, continue to deform it. Courage, Democrats: America is not in breakdown, but in a reckoning. Carry on.
Photo: David Everett Strickler, Unsplash