Radical Reform is the Only Way to Save Democracy
Democratic leaders are right to worry about our institutions, they are wrong to resist changing them
Oftentimes the topic of this newsletter is what Democrats should say — the message, the agenda, and how to get people to hear that message. Today’s post is about how some Democrats need to change their thinking to win the longer and more important war for political power.
In the wake of the recent Supreme Court shitshows, a sense of anger and frustration emerged towards our Democratic leaders. Many are frustrated they let this happen and are dissatisfied with the response. The always thoughtful Perry Bacon laid out the argument in a recent column:
Now, the fall of Roe v. Wade is the culmination of these Democrats’ failures. I think it’s still possible Democrats keep control of Congress this November, because the party base could aggressively mobilize against the Republicans, particularly in light of the abortion decision. But that’s really another indictment of party leaders, who spent 2021 downplaying GOP radicalism while emphasizing building roads years from now. No matter what happens this election cycle, their previous defeats, lack of new strategies and open disdain for the party’s activists is too much to allow this group to remain in charge. The Americans who will most suffer from entrenched GOP rule — Black people and other traditionally marginalized groups in particular — deserve leaders who will fight as hard and creatively as possible for them, not a leadership class so invested in defending its own power, legacy and political approach.
I am very sympathetic to Perry’s point. I agree that the response, in terms of tone, velocity, and substance, is lacking. It’s important to acknowledge that the President and Congressional leaders have limited tools to respond to the recent Court decisions. The tools they have are largely unavailable due to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s peccadilloes. In the wake of millions of Americans having their rights ripped away by a rigged Court, no response would have felt satisfactory or proportionate. As someone who worked in Congressional leadership and the White House, I am perhaps overly sensitive to how difficult those jobs can be and how many conflicting equities must be balanced. In this case, Biden et al must weigh every decision against whether it will cause Manchin or Sinema to abandon negotiations or vote against a nominee. Therefore, I tend to give our party leaders a wide berth and try not to immediately assume incompetence or ambivalence.
With that mouthful of caveats aside, there is one area where Democratic leaders — including President Biden — are wrong. Time and again, they brush off more aggressive responses to Republican radicalization because they want to repair the damage done by Donald Trump and restore trust in U.S. institutions.
A Return to Normal is Impossible
A recent article for CNN by Edward Isaac Dovere included the following passage:
Fundamentally, Biden and his aides are operating from a very different sense of the presidency. He’s being realistic, they believe, and responsible – not just because his options are truly limited, but specifically because he’s trying to restore the structural integrity of the government and of democracy after four years of Trump.
We have heard similar arguments from other Democratic elected officials to explain their opposition to Court expansion, making Washington, D.C. a state, abolishing the Electoral College, and aggressive uses of executive authority. Democrats are correct to worry about rapidly declining trust in institutions. They are also correct to resist adopting the nationalist nihilism practiced by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.
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