Can Making Politics Boring Save American Democracy? thumbnail

Can Making Politics Boring Save American Democracy?

The Democrats are betting that making politics seem normal will appeal to enough voters to overcome GOP voter suppression efforts.

The master Democratic strategy for the 2022 midterm elections is coming into focus. After four years of the Trump show, President Joe Biden and congressional leaders will make a case that echoes Warren G. Harding’s 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy.”

Biden is fresh off a victory with the infrastructure bill that represents peak normal politics and validation of everything Biden holds dear: compromise, negotiation, bipartisanship, and getting something done. Infrastructure is hardly a topic to get ordinary Americans’ heart rates up, but that is the point. Biden demonstrated the ability to take the mundane—money for nonpartisan essentials, for roads and bridges—and pass a bill with some Republican support. Of course, the cost of minimal GOP support was removing almost all the important progressive elements from the bill, but to most Americans who neither know nor care about the details, it reads as a win.

Normal Washington politics are, as George Will puts it, the politics of “splittable differences”—of one side wanting the corporate tax rate at 21 percent while the other insists on 28 percent. In contrast to the permanent crisis atmosphere created by the Trump presidency, Biden and congressional Democrats want to create an impression of managerial competence, of politics that Americans can safely look away from without worrying that a constitutional crisis will erupt. The infrastructure bill fit nicely into a recognizable narrative of Democrats wanting to spend a dollar amount, Republicans demanding to spend less, and a compromise in the broad middle. Americans know that story line; it’s pleasantly boring, which is refreshing after Trump.

With luck, the strategy goes, voters will compare this kind of Biden-led normal with the inevitable absurdity of divided government (picture a GOP-majority House impeaching Biden every 20 minutes for two years and no laws ever passing) and decide to keep the status quo. Democrats hope to be rewarded with a slightly larger Senate majority—of the 34 seats up in 2022, Republicans must defend 20 to the Democrats’ 14—and maintain or expand the current narrow House majority. Then, theoretically, Democrats can tackle the big structural problems. Crucially, the 2022 strategy addresses GOP voter suppression efforts not by preventing them from happening but by asking Democrats to work harder—to “out-organize” them.

The problem is that normal politics fit normal times, and the current political environment is definitely not normal. This rather hopeful strategy, requiring numerous breaks to fall Democrats’ way, is a sign that the party has given up hope of being able to meaningfully address any of the institutional advantages that Republicans are using to march the country toward pseudo-democracy with entrenched minority rule.

The Democrats, it seems, are hoping that a good dose of normalcy will win out over a lack of action on:

  • Addressing the structural GOP advantage in the Senate by pushing a vote on statehood for D.C. or, if its citizens choose to pursue it, Puerto Rico. For the second time in a year, the House has passed a D.C. statehood bill, a vote easier for House reps to make when they’re certain that the bill isn’t going anywhere in the Senate. It has 45 Senate cosponsors there, including majority leader Chuck Schumer, but getting the five more Senate supporters needed to make the bill law appears to be hopeless, and trying to change minds does not appear high on Schumer’s list of priorities. Symbolic action—the “Hey, we tried” strategy—accomplishes nothing.
  • Internal Senate reforms like eliminating or at least meaningfully modifying the filibuster. Venerating a rule with no constitutional standing that has largely functioned as a defense of the status quo and white supremacy makes absolutely no sense, but that’s Democratic “moderates” for you. Biden appears not to support total elimination but has voiced support for half-measures like a “carve-out” for voting rights legislation or a reversion to the “talking filibuster” that would at least increase the costs of obstructionism. Even that appears to be a long shot right now.
  • Reforming the federal courts, including expanding the Supreme Court. Both Biden and most Senate Democrats have rejected this as undesirable or impossible. This means key rulings on the panoply of Republican voter suppression laws (and challenges to election results) will happen before a court with a conservative majority embracing contemporary right-wing interpretations of how elections should work. That’s bad.
  • Even the business of confirming judges has been a failure. Since the president’s inauguration, the Senate has confirmed a grand total of nine Biden appointees to the federal courts. Twenty-six additional Biden appointments are awaiting Senate action. Remember, a single Democratic senator’s death, retirement, or resignation could end the bare majority Democrats currently hold. Mitch McConnell is no doubt thrilled to let Democrats focus on bipartisan spending bills at the cost of letting judicial confirmations languish. “We’re busy doing other things” isn’t good enough. This is a crisis. Act like it.
  • Voting rights. This cannot be said often or loudly enough. Recent laws—at least 30 major antidemocratic “reforms” have been passed in 18 states—in states like Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia restrict ballot access and, worse, codify the kind of post-hoc election theft Trump attempted in 2020. The Georgia laws are especially ominous, allowing state election officials to take over and replace local election boards in addition to a rash of measures designed to limit mail-in and early voting. The stage is set for Georgia Republicans to invalidate ballots on whatever ridiculous pretense they concoct on the spot. The 2020 election demonstrated how much difference a handful of ballots can make—and the extent of the delusions that conservatives are capable of internalizing about “voter fraud.” There is no way for voters to “out-organize” statutory power to decide which votes count.
  • Redistricting once again will be a partisan cudgel for Republicans. Of the 99 state legislative chambers in the United States, Republicans hold the majority in 61. That’s a whopping disadvantage for Democrats (though note that legislative involvement in redistricting varies by state). In one humiliating case, Oregon Democrats have a majority in both legislative chambers but cut a deal to make Republicans equal partners in redistricting in exchange for allowing the reading of bills in the legislature. The suicidal pattern of Democrats’ pursuing “neutral” redistricting as an antipode to Republicans’ seeking partisan advantage will worsen.

Certainly Biden and the House and Senate leaders have accomplished something by passing the infrastructure bill, but that accomplishment is skimpy when it stands next to a list of what isn’t being done. If Democrats lose the Senate because, say, Raphael Warnock’s successful defense of his Georgia Senate seat is invalidated by baseless fraud claims from state Republican election officials, the infrastructure bill won’t offer much comfort.

In the aftermath of 2020, many Democrats learned the wrong lessons, that moderation will win out and that, broadly speaking, The System Works. In reality, Biden won narrow victories in several key states; Democrats lost House seats; and only a superhuman effort in Georgia led by Stacey Abrams and relying on the sweat of hundreds of street-level organizers achieved control of the Senate. Democrats needed to come out of that experience ready to govern like this will be their last chance to rectify the antidemocratic lurch of the Republican Party. Rather than doing whatever it takes and by whatever means necessary, they’re banking on a return to normal politics to fire up enough voters to “out-organize” Republican erosion of electoral legitimacy.

It’s a helluva gamble, and if it doesn’t work, a neutered infrastructure bill will be a meager consolation prize.