voting rights, elections, democracy
"The Death of Democracy." Photo credit: Flickr / Old White Truck

If Democrats really want to protect US democracy, they have to do a whole lot more than defeat Donald Trump.

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Democrats like to say that “democracy is on the ballot” this year. And they aren’t wrong. It seems quite apparent that Donald Trump, if allowed, would transform the United States into something akin to an authoritarian regime. 

However, when President Joe Biden and other Democrats make such a claim, it is fair to ask: “What democracy are you talking about?”

Is it the democracy in which only the votes of people in a handful of states matter? Is it the democracy in which rich people can line the pockets of politicians with donations? Is it the democracy in which the Supreme Court rolled back key voting rights protections for minorities? Is it the democracy in which dark money rules? Is it the democracy in which both parties are gerrymandering congressional districts so that only a fraction of seats in the House of Representatives are competitive? Is it the democracy with a completely dysfunctional Federal Election Commission? Is it the democracy in which the person with the most votes doesn’t win?

All of the above are true, so it would be more apt to say, “Whatever is left of US democracy is on the ballot… and it ain’t much.”

In the Democrats’ defense, they aren’t the ones who are to blame for most of these problems. That would be the GOP, which is trying to keep the pool of voters as white as possible and to allow corporations and rich people to pour as much money into politics as they possibly can. 

And that is why you can’t “save democracy” simply by defeating Trump (again). There are lots of other Republicans hoping to dismantle it… they are just smarter and more subtle in their approach.

Therefore, the next question to ask Biden and his party is this: “What are you going to do about it?”

Apart from a lot of rhetoric, apparently not too much.

While Republicans are going all out on their two main campaign themes of “the open border” and “Bidenflation,” if democracy really is a focus of the Democrats, then they are doing an extremely poor job of making the case to voters that this matters. 

If they were serious (and they certainly should be), then “saving democracy” would be much more than a slogan. 

First, they should lay out the main problems. Above all, this means explaining that US democracy has devolved into a system in which the ballots that the vast majority of Americans cast have zero impact on the outcome of elections. The president is chosen by a few swing states, and most House races are decided in the primary because one party or another has a lock on winning the seat. 

Just as importantly, Democrats have to demonstrate what it is that Republicans are doing to keep the current, undemocratic system in place — and to take away even more voting rights. 

Especially at a time when Democrats are worried that Biden is losing the support of some of their traditional constituencies (like minorities and young people), they should show these disaffected voters how GOP lawmakers are trying to keep them away from the polls. 

But it’s not enough to simply expose Republican attempts to make things worse. Democrats must also offer bold solutions… because those are what are needed to repair and strengthen the beleaguered democratic process. 

To be specific: It’s no longer enough even to outlaw gerrymandering or pass strict campaign finance laws that reduce the obscene amount of money in politics or demand full transparency with regard to who gives how much to whom (by the way, both of these are things plenty of Democrats also benefit from). 

To “save” the faltering edifice of US democracy, you need to dismantle the faulty structure and rebuild it from the ground up. 

For example, Democrats like to point out that when the Second Amendment was written, the term “arms” referred to muskets that took half a day to load (Yes, you gun nuts, we know that’s an exaggeration. We’re just making a point.) and not semiautomatic weapons that angry young men could (and do) use to shoot up _______ fill in the blank with high schools, churches, Walmarts, movie theaters, elementary schools, concerts, night clubs, university campuses, middle schools, etc.

And just like the Second Amendment is fatally antiquated, so is the Electoral College and other “protections” against “mob rule” that the Founding Fathers put in the Constitution. 

Meant to shield a minority from a tyrannical majority rule, these safeguards are now being used by a minority (aka Republicans) to oppress the rest of America. 

If rewriting the Constitution to protect democracy sounds radical, keep in mind that huge changes to voting laws, namely allowing Black men to vote (15th Amendment) and then granting all women suffrage (19th Amendment), have drastically changed the face of the US. 

Arguably, voting rights have been the area in which the Constitution has been changed in the most meaningful way from where the country started out.

And, speaking of “radical,” trying to preserve democracy, for example by ensuring that the candidate with the most votes actually wins the presidency, doesn’t sound as extreme as deporting millions of immigrants, which is what Trump is promising to do.

In any case, what Democrats are proposing now, while well-intentioned, isn’t going to fix all of the underlying problems identified above. They need to be bolder. 

Obviously, it is a huge concern that Republicans are now pretty openly anti-democracy.

But that problem is exacerbated by the fact that Democrats are not nearly as radically pro-democracy as they should be.

And that’s a shame, because US democracy, as flawed as it is (and has become), is something worth fighting for.


  • Klaus Marre

    Klaus Marre is a writer, editor, former congressional reporter, and director of the WhoWhatWhy Mentor Apprentice Program. Follow him on Twitter @KlausMarre.

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