The Democrats’ victory in the Georgia Senate races cements their control over America’s most important governing institutions. In deciding what to do with their newfound power, they should learn from those who won this victory – the tireless organizers, many of them Black women, who made sure that Georgians were registered, motivated and able to vote. They know how to turn this country’s true Silent Majority – the one which rejects Republicans in election after election, including in 2016 – into a governing majority. What they did for Georgia, national Democratic leaders must now do for America.
The case for the Democratic Party to commit itself to a radical pro-democracy agenda is simple. The last four years have shown the horrors of minority rule. Political institutions like the Electoral College, the Senate and gerrymandered House districts reward Republicans for appealing to a narrow minority of the population. They take this easily-won power and use it not for the good of the country as a whole but to push through extremist policies and fight culture wars. When they abuse their power, as Donald Trump did, little can be done to stop them.
As inheritors of this situation, it is the duty of Democrats to do what they can to alter it. This is no time for incrementalism. Only a radical program aimed at strengthening American democracy and preventing the return of rightwing minority rule in the future will rise to the moment.
The specifics of such a program have already been spelled out. Many of them are contained in the For The People Act, a bill passed by the Democratic House in 2019. This bill would create apolitical committees to draw House district boundaries, create a national voter registration program, remove barriers to voting enacted by states, enforce transparency in campaign finance, and much more besides. It died in the Senate when Mitch McConnell declined to bring it up for a vote – but the Senate is now under new management.
Democrats should not stop there. Though important, these reforms would not alone save America from minority rule. There is a need to be bolder still – firstly, by admitting new states to the union, and secondly, by abolishing the Senate filibuster.
As a matter of basic political equity, the admission of Washington DC and Puerto Rico as states is inarguable. Although the federal response in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was woeful, Puerto Ricans remain unable to vote out the president responsible for it. Meanwhile, because their elected officials lack control over local security forces, citizens of Washington DC suffered through both an absurdly militarized response to Black Lives Matters protests this summer and then a purposefully ineffectual response to an insurrectionist mob just this past week. There is no case for maintaining such inequities just so Republicans can also keep their lopsided Senate majority.
There are good arguments for and against removing the filibuster. But most of the arguments against are based on fear – fear that it will become a powerful tool in the hands of the right, who will be even more able to shove their agenda down the majority’s throat. But the most powerful argument for removing the filibuster is precisely the fact that it would force Republicans to actually govern. The rising stars of today’s Republican party spend their legislative time lambasting magazine articles they dislike because they are never forced to pass meaningful laws. They then win re-election by pinning blame on an amorphous establishment for thwarting them. Give them the power, and we will see how popular their agenda really is.
When he struck down the For the People Act, Mitch McConnell derided it as “a bill designed to make it more likely that Democrats win more often.” In a sense, he is right. If America’s political institutions more accurately represented the American people, Democrats would win more often. But this is incidental, and the benefits of reform would not just accrue to one party. A reinvigoration of democracy would force the Republican party to become more moderate, move closer to the people, and cease its assault on the constitution. Republican leaders have been pathetically incapable of saving their party from the Trumpian onslaught. So it falls to Democrats to do it for them, not out of love for the Republicans, but out of love for the republic.
An agenda focused on democracy is also a way of transcending the split between different wings of the Democratic Party. For all the talk of moderates vs. progressives, the organizers in Georgia showed that what really matters today are the democrats in the large sense of the word – those who make sure that the people are represented, and stave off minority rule. Prioritizing democratic reform might well mean deprioritizing some other progressive goals in the short-term. But in the long-term, it will transform the political landscape in a way which makes it much more amenable to their achievement.
As for moderate and conservative Democrats in the Senate, and even the few Republicans who might be inclined to join them, the history books beckon. When they were rushed from the Senate chamber as an insurrectionist mob cheered on by the president pounded at their doors, they saw where America is headed on its present course: into oblivion, the death of the constitution. It was the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke who wrote that a state without the means of changing its ways is without the means of preservation. Will they go down in the history as the ones who heeded his wisdom, or the ones who tossed it aside?
Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University, and host of the podcast America Explained