Democrats refuse to take advantage of the GOP civil war. Do they care about democracy?

Republicans are blatantly trying to destroy democracy — so why are Democrats letting them do it?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2021 1:07PM (EDT)

Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On the eve of her defenestration, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., gave a fiery speech on the House floor Tuesday night about the dangers of embracing Donald Trump's fascist coup-centric approach to politics. 

"I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president's crusade to undermine our democracy," Cheney vowed, making quite clear that she is not backing down from her position of insisting on the truth, that Trump incited an insurrection and that Republicans, realizing they can't win free and fair elections, are getting on board with the just-steal-elections plan

Despite — well, let's face, it because — of this defense of democracy, Cheney was stripped of her leadership role by congressional Republicans on Wednesday morning. One doesn't need to think Cheney is some kind of hero to know that the GOP purge of not just her, but of anti-insurrectionists in general, is part of a larger full-frontal attack on the ability of Americans to vote and have those votes counted. 

The Beltway press is carefully watching Republican reactions, and for good reason. The Cheney fight is a proxy for the larger GOP war on democracy, which involves passing laws to suppress votes and take over election boards in order to nullify election outcomes they don't like. Reports of things like 100 Republican leaders threatening to leave the party give us a good idea of how committed the GOP is to ending democracy. Unfortunately, the answer appears to be that most are highly committed, with a few dissenters who are mostly on their way out anyway. 

But it's not just Republican reactions that matter. Democratic reactions to the Cheney debacle matter as much, if not more. After all, Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House and, in theory anyway, have the power to stop this GOP war on democracy in its tracks.

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As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote, the For the People Act that was introduced in Congress this session would prevent most of these voting restrictions from going into law, preventing the GOP from enshrining minority party rule "for years to come." Watching Republicans toss Cheney aside should be a signal to Democrats in Capitol Hill that the fascistic turn in the GOP is no joke, as they are literally purging members who refuse to sign onto Trump's Big Lie. But so far, the Democratic reaction has been mostly wry amusement at watching Republicans tear each other apart.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., trolled Republicans with a fake "help wanted" ad asking for a "Non-Threatening Female." But the situation doesn't seem to be lighting any fire in Democrats to do more to pass the For the People Act and prevent Republicans from simply nullifying the concept of free and fair elections in certain battleground states. Instead, President Joe Biden is focused primarily on an infrastructure and jobs bill, holding a series of meetings to get more centrist Democrats on board with an admittedly ambitious package. And while Biden did mention democracy reform in his speech before a joint session of Congress last month, a far greater bulk of his time was spent on the importance of reinvesting in the American economy. 

Biden's priorities make sense, from a more traditional political point of view.

The For the People Act would require a drastic change to the Senate filibuster rules to pass, but Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona simply refuse to give Democrats the votes they need for the rule change, a move that, as Bloomberg News recently noted, is out of line with Democratic voters: 

A poll conducted in late February by the left-leaning firm Data for Progress found that 61% of likely Arizona voters say passing major bills is a high priority and just 26% say it's more important to preserve the Senate tradition.

The infrastructure bill, on the other hand, can pass with a simple majority vote in the Senate, which Biden reasonably believes he can wrangle. Plus, the infrastructure bill is popular, easy-to-sell legislation that can really help boost Democrats at the polls. Biden's robust 63% approval rating is exactly the kind of polling number that should, in a healthy democracy, make Democrats feel optimistic about their electoral chances. 

The problem, of course, is we don't have a healthy democracy. It doesn't really matter how many people tell phone pollsters they like Biden and the Democrats if those people are prevented from voting, gerrymandered out of relevance, or forced to watch their votes get thrown in the trash by Republicans making false accusations of fraud. Passing bills that Americans like only matters if those people get to vote and have those votes counted. 

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Sure, Democrats in the Senate are currently debating and marking up the For the People Act. But without ending the filibuster so there can actually be a vote on the damn bill, this is all meaningless theater — good at generating press releases but useless at actually stopping Republicans from passing state laws to destroy elections systems. 

"Not passing the bill is a conscious decision to hand political power over to a deeply dangerous and anti-Democratic Republican Party," former Obama official Dan Pfeiffer wrote in his recent Message Box newsletter. "But as I write this, America being fucked is much more likely than H.R. 1 becoming law," due to the unwillingness of Manchin and Sinema to accept the evidence of their own eyes that Republicans are not kidding around with this democracy-gutting business. 

No doubt, it's hard to know the best path forward. There's good reason to believe that the harder people press on them, the more that Manchin and Sinema dig their heels in like bratty children, ready to let Republicans destroy democracy than to admit progressives have a point. Still, zooming out to the bigger picture, it's hard to deny that the current situation is absolutely nuts.

Just a few months ago, Trump incited an insurrection in a last-ditch attempt to steal an election after all his other coup efforts failed. But rather than admit that was a bad thing, Republicans are rallying to his side, clearly convinced of his view that democracy itself is the problem and that voters who won't vote for them shouldn't be allowed to vote at all. That's a fascistic view, made all the more so because any dissent in the party is being swiftly silenced. But rather than treating this all-out GOP war on democracy as the authoritarian uprising that it is, Democrats are focused on .... an infrastructure bill.

This is the upsidedown world of American politics. Democrats want to appeal to the very voters Republicans are successfully disenfranchising in states like Florida, Georgia, and Arizona. "Whistling past a graveyard" doesn't even start to describe the situation. No wonder Republicans are being so bold in embracing Trump's anti-democracy agenda. They assume Democrats aren't going to do anything to stop them — and, so far, they are right in that assumption. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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