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Are Democrats sleepwalking toward democratic collapse?

“I’m not sure people appreciate how much danger we’re in.”

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob later stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Five people died as a result.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Donald Trump may be out of Washington, but his spirit very much lives on in the party he left behind. This month, Republican congressional leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell effectively quashed any chance of a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

It’s part of a much broader trend in Republican politics to double down on the Trumpist legacy. Like the recent purging of Rep. Liz Cheney (WY) or the steadfast opposition to voting rights, the GOP has gone all-in on Trump and is in revolt against democracy.

The direction of the GOP poses an enormous challenge for Democrats: How do you deal with an opposition party that is strategically committed to undermining core democratic institutions? And, more urgently, what are the consequences of not reforming those institutions before they’ve been dismantled?

As it stands, Democrats and progressive activists for democratic reform have coalesced around HR 1, a bill passed by House Democrats that would, among other things, end partisan gerrymandering and create a national system for automatic voter registration. But the prospects of HR 1 becoming law are slim, mostly because key Democratic senators like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) won’t break the filibuster to pass it.

Back in 2018, I spoke with Roosevelt University political scientist David Faris about his book It’s Time to Fight Dirty. His argument then was that Democrats had to play constitutional hardball and basically do whatever was necessary to win.

The situation today is even more dire than it was in 2018. “I’m not sure people appreciate how much danger we are in,” Faris wrote in a recent Twitter thread. “If Republicans succeed [in rigging the rules to take the presidency in 2024], they will crack this country in half.”

I reached out to Faris again to talk about what the options are if Democrats fail to pass democracy reform in the Senate — hint: there aren’t many — and if he thinks the Democrats are sleepwalking into a serious political crisis if they don’t find a way to pass major democratic reforms in the next year or two.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You said we were “at a very dangerous moment in American history” back in 2018. I have to say, the situation seems worse now. Trump is gone, but over the last year or so the Republican Party has taken an explicit turn against democracy itself. So what’s your current level of concern?

David Faris

My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024. I’m deeply concerned about the direction that the Republican Party has taken, especially over the last year or so. Things were bad in 2018, but the basic problem in 2018 was that we had structural factors working against the Democrats and you had a Republican Party that was fundamentally trying to keep people from voting.

The most destructive thing that Trump did on his way out the door was he took the Republicans’ waning commitment to democracy and he weaponized it, and he made it much worse to the point where I think that a good deal of rank-and-file Republican voters simply don’t believe that Democrats can win a legitimate election. And if Democrats do win an election, it has to be fraudulent.

So 2020 felt like a test run. The plot to overturn the 2020 election never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that, which I never thought was particularly likely. But the institutional path that they pursued to steal the election failed because they didn’t control Congress and they didn’t control the right governorships in the right places.

So I worry complacency has set in on the Democratic side and people are lulled into thinking things are normal and fine just because Biden’s approval ratings are good.

Sean Illing

2020 was a “test run” for what, exactly?

David Faris

It was a test run for a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality. You have to give Trump and Republicans some kind of dark credit for figuring out that this is really conceivable. I think they now know that, even though it would cause a court battle and possibly a civil war, that if they can’t win by suppressing the vote and the election is close enough, they can do this if they control enough state legislatures and the Congress.

If Democrats don’t make some changes to our election laws and if they lose some races that they really need to win in 2022 and 2024, then we’re in real trouble.

Sean Illing

I’m not naive about what’s possible here, but I do want to mention a tricky dynamic. Some — not all, but some — of the Republican support for the election shenanigans was likely performative, right? The Republican base is essentially a personality cult, and Republican politicians know this. They had virtually no chance of actually overturning the 2020 election, but it was politically beneficial to play along. If they knew there was a real chance at succeeding, that would be a different calculation because surely some of them understand how cataclysmic that would be.

Again, to be super clear here: I’m not saying they wouldn’t do it. Some of these Republicans seem totally down the rabbit hole, and some of them are behaving like method actors who are just completely lost in their characters. But I really do wonder how the calculus would change for them if they absolutely knew their vote would overturn an election.

David Faris

That’s what I thought in the first few weeks after the election when the people in Congress would go on background to reporters and be like, “We just got to let them vent a little bit,” or that “Trump is like a toddler and we just have to let him work his emotions out in public.” But if it was really the case that most of them didn’t really believe it or wouldn’t go along with it, then I don’t think it ever could have gotten to the point where well over 100 members of Congress formally objected to the election results.

Sean Illing

You were urging Democrats in 2018 to pass the sorts of reforms that are still on the table today, like packing the courts or granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico. Are we beyond that now?

David Faris

What needs to be done has gotten more complex. The structural problems are even worse than I anticipated. I also didn’t fully anticipate the unapologetically authoritarian turn in Republican politics. But the fixes are still there. You have to abolish the filibuster in the Senate, you have to mandate national nonpartisan redistricting, you have to make voting easier, and you have to outlaw some of these Republican voter suppression tactics.

Sean Illing

I’ve had conversations with some Democrats and when these ideas about nuking the filibuster or court-packing or granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico come up, the argument is often that it’s a nonstarter because Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema simply won’t do it. What’s wrong with that thinking?

David Faris

Certainly the laws that you can pass are contingent on getting the most moderate member of your caucus on board. If Joe Manchin (D-WV) says, “I won’t do $15 minimum wage, I’ll do $12.” Then you’re stuck with $12 or you get nothing. And so that’s a reality.

But I think the problem with this analysis is the assumption that Manchin is an ideological roadblock for progressivism, where he seems to me more of a procedural roadblock to the constitutional hardball that needs to get played here. I mean, he voted for the Covid-19 relief bill, and that was one of the most left-wing things I’ve ever seen come out of Congress. So I don’t actually think that Manchin is that far from the center of the caucus in terms of policy.

Where Manchin seems to be very far away from what House Democrats want to do is on the democracy reform stuff. It’s maddening because nothing that Manchin wants to do policy-wise can get done without abolishing the filibuster. Democrats are not going to have a majority after next year if they don’t do some of these things now. So it’s a mistake to assume Manchin can’t be moved. That’s the job of leadership. That’s Joe Biden’s job. That’s Chuck Schumer’s job.

Sean Illing

Let’s just say that Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, for whatever reason, refuse to respond to the realities of the moment — then what?

David Faris

It’s bleak. I don’t know what else to say.

Democrats have to get extremely lucky next year. They either need to luck into the most favorable environment for the president’s party that we haven’t ever had for a midterm election or ... I don’t know. There’s not much else they can do. None of these democracy reforms can get through on a reconciliation bill. If Democrats don’t pass nonpartisan redistricting, they’re going to be fighting at a huge disadvantage in the House. That’s the ballgame.

Progressive activists are going to pour a billion dollars into the Florida Senate race, and then [Marco] Rubio is going to win by 10 points. So if they don’t act, it’s very simple. The Democrats will have to fight on this extremely unfair playing field against a newly radicalized Republican Party that is going to pull out all the stops in terms of voter suppression to win these elections, on top of the situation where they’re making other changes to state laws that could allow them to mess around with results in other ways, like what we’re seeing in Georgia now.

There’s a very circular structure to this kind of proto-authoritarianism. You have anti-democratic practices at the state level that produce minority Republican governments that pass anti-democratic laws that end up in front of courts that are appointed by a minoritarian president and approved by a minoritarian Senate that will then rule to uphold these anti-democratic practices at the state level.

And so there is no path to beating some of these laws through the courts. The Supreme Court has already said it’s not going to touch gerrymandering. And so there’s nothing left except Congress using its constitutional authority under the elections clause to do some regulation to the elections. I just don’t see another way.

Sean Illing

It feels like we’re sleepwalking into a real crisis here, but it’s hard to convey the urgency because it’s not dramatic and it’s happening in slow motion and so much of life feels so normal. And yet our democratic system is losing any semblance of legitimacy and down that road is a range of possibilities no one wants to seriously consider. ...

David Faris

When people think of democracy dying, they think of some very dramatic event like Trump riding down Pennsylvania Avenue in a tank or something. That’s not the reality here.

Take the scenario where Republicans don’t have to steal the 2024 election. They just use their built-in advantages in which Biden wins the popular vote by three points but still loses the Electoral College. Democrats win the House vote but lose the House. Democrats win the Senate vote, but they lose the Senate.

That’s a situation where the citizens of the country fundamentally don’t have control of the agenda and they don’t have the ability to change the leadership. Those are two core features of democracy, and without them, you’re living in competitive authoritarianism. People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone. There really won’t be very much that we can do about it. Or there’s the worst-case scenario where the election is stolen and then we’re sleepwalking into a potentially catastrophic breakup of the country.

One thing I would ask Republicans: If it goes that way, what is it that you think you will have won? What are we even fighting about at this point? You got your corporate tax cuts. You got the Supreme Court. What is the purpose of this? Why do you want the power if it means alienating half the country and potentially breaking it up? I guess I just hope that there will be some introspection among party leaders when we’re approaching that precipice.