In the fight for democracy, Democrats are being outmaneuvered — and time is against them

Democrats believed they had won and everything would be fine. They weren't remotely ready for the counterattack

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 11, 2021 5:40AM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once observed, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Matters are worse than that for the Democrats. They've been punched in the mouth repeatedly by the Republicans — and never really had a plan to begin with.

Democrats still appear discombobulated by the Republican attack on American democracy. After Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election and the collective exhalation of relief at the "defeat" of the Trump regime, the "resistance" (and the American people more generally) thought that they could relax.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump and his forces did not accept defeat. Instead, they continued to mobilize against America's multiracial democracy. The Democratic Party, for the most part, has been stunned into inaction by the raw power and effectiveness of Trump and his agents' use of the Big Lie, the public insanity of the QAnon conspiracy theory and other forms of misinformation, lies and propaganda about the outcome of the 2020 election.

Then came Jan. 6, with Trump's coup attempt and the attack on the U.S. Capitol by his followers. The Republican Party's response to that horrible day was not universal condemnation. Instead it was an embrace — sometimes stealthy, other times overt — of terrorism and political violence as a legitimate means to obtain and keep political power.

As many others have observed, Jan 6 was not a defeat for Trumpism and American neofascism. It was a trial run for how to successfully conduct a coup in the future. In essence, the Republican Party now reserves the right to nullify the results of any elections it does not approve of.

In the five months since the coup attempt and Biden's inauguration, Republican anti-democracy forces have continued to advance across the country. At least 389 voter-restriction bills have been introduced in 48 states, and 61 of those laws are moving through state legislatures. Most are clearly intended to limit the ability of Black and brown people and other members of the Democratic Party's coalition to vote.

This is a naked attempt by the Republicans and other elements of the white right to create a 21st-century Jim Crow nation. In that America, the Democrats will never win major national elections, because that an outcome will become functionally impossible. Ultimately, If the Republicans achieve their goals, the United States will cease to be a functioning democracy.

Barack Obama has a deep and intimate understanding of the role that race and white supremacy play in the Republican Party's anti-democracy campaign. As the country's first Black president, Obama represents a version of America's present and future that Republicans want to destroy. White rage fueled opposition to Barack Obama's presidency; white rage is the fuel for Trumpism and neofascism.

In a recent conversation with Anderson Cooper on CNN, Obama issued this deliberate warning about the way American democracy is being gutted:   

All of us, as citizens, have to recognize that the path towards an undemocratic America is not going to happen in just one bang. It happens in a series of steps. …

I think we have to worry when one of our major political parties is willing to embrace a way of thinking about our democracy that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago or a decade ago.

What can the Democrats do to save American democracy?

Most obviously, the filibuster needs to be eliminated. The For the People Act must be implemented to provide federal protections for voting rights, and to reform a broken electoral system by restricting partisan gerrymandering and forcing more transparency on campaigns finance. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is also needed to restore voting rights protections for Black and brown people across the former Jim Crow South, protections that were overturned by right-wing Supreme Court justices in the infamous Shelby County v. Holder decision.

Defeating the Jim Crow Republicans and Trump's fascist movement will also require a sustained mass protest movement, nonviolent resistance and other forms of mobilization by the American people and civil society. It's likely that a national strike and mass boycotts of corporations that collaborate with (and finance) attacks on multiracial democracy will also be necessary.

As part of this strategy, pro-democracy civil society organizations should also engage in a direct action protest campaign targeting Republican elected officials and other leaders, right-wing think tanks, right-wing media, right-wing churches and religious organizations, and other elements of the neofascist movement.

In his new essay at the Daily Beast, "Five Things Dems Must Do Now to Save Democracy From the GOP?" Wajahat Ali suggests the following course of action:

Flex Your Power. Did you know that Democrats currently control the White House, House of Representatives and hold the tiebreaker in the 50-50 Senate? I always lament that Democrats bring a policy paper to a knife fight and the GOP brings a bazooka. You don't have to guess who'll win in the end. Although Biden and his team are predicting his popular policies and civil tone might be enough to barely win in 2022 and 2024, why play it safe and mild against an aggressively extremist party threatening our democracy and the rights of millions? The Texas Democrats showed the party how it's done as they temporarily blocked an oppressive voter suppression bill that could endanger the sanctity of the 2022 election. They said they were sending a "very, very clear" message to President Biden: "We need a national response to federal voting rights."

Norm Eisen, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and an expert on law, ethics, and anti-corruption, praised the Texas Democrats and said their actions should be "an absolute role model" for Democrats moving forward. "Was it wrong to do one thing they had in their power? No. It was right. You have to fight with every tool you have," he told me, wearing his "activist hat."

Ali continues by noting that Democrats have largely failed to use the oversight powers that come with a congressional majority:

"The Republicans are the arsonists at the crime scene and congressional Democrats have the ability and the authority to use the levers of oversight however they see fit," Kurt Bardella, advisor to the DCCC and former staffer to Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, told me. He said Democrats need only look at what Republicans did during the Obama years with their majority to issue over 100 subpoenas, countless depositions, and wasteful and prolonged hearings on Benghazi and [Hillary] Clinton's emails solely to attack her presidential run. ...

With Trump and his acolytes, there's actual evidence of criminal behavior that demands legitimate oversight and investigation.

In the Washington Post, Perry Bacon Jr. outlines a six-point plan that includes the courts and the news media actively embracing a pro-democracy position. Bacon writes that for American democracy to survive, "we need leaders in every sector of America, from faith to business to sports, to emphasize democratic values. It won't be enough if the pro-democracy message is carried only by politicians and the media. And it can't be vague 'voting is important' rhetoric. Those taking democracy-eroding actions ... have to be named and shamed."

At the Guardian, political scientist Pippa Norris recently suggested some long-term fixes for American democracy, including nonpartisan "blanket primaries," as used in California and Washington state; a "mixed-member proportional electoral system" for the House of Representatives, as used in Germany and New Zealand; and a compulsory retirement age for Congress.

Those reforms would likely help in the future. But right now, the Republicans are fighting a war of maneuver. How have the Democrats responded? To this point they are remaining in place, hunkered down. This is precisely how to lose: They will soon find themselves surrounded and then overwhelmed. It doesn't help that the Democratic Party's attempts to save democracy are hobbled by "centrists" like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who in this context have become de facto traitors and saboteurs.

At this juncture in the crisis, every moment of delay brings the Republicans closer to victory and the Democrats — and, by extension, American democracy — closer to defeat.

The time to act is now. The 2022 midterm elections may be too late. If the Republicans continue their campaign of destruction, the 2024 presidential election may be nothing more than a ceremonial ritual, installing Donald Trump or his hand-picked successor.

Time is now the enemy of democracy. The Republicans understand this, and are doing everything they can to speed toward what they see as their final and inevitable triumph. Democrats look on, dumbfounded that a glorious victory could so quickly be turned upside down by a determined and fanatical opponent.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Big Lie Commentary Democracy Democrats Donald Trump Fascism Joe Biden Media Republicans Voter Suppression