Is this the beginning of the end of American democracy?
BERKELEY — On Sunday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced in an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he opposes the For the People Act. He also opposes ending the filibuster.
An op-ed in the most prominent state newspaper is as non-negotiable a position as a politician can assert.
It was a direct thumb-in-your-eye response to President Biden’s thinly veiled criticism of Manchin last week in Tulsa, where Biden explained why he was having difficulty getting passage of what was supposed to be his highest priority — new voting rights legislation that would supersede a raft of new laws in Republican-dominated states designed to suppress the votes of likely Democratic voters, using Donald Trump’s baseless claim of voter fraud as pretext.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?'” Biden said in Tulsa. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends. But we’re not giving up.”
Everyone who paid any attention to Senate politics knew he was referring to Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another Democratic holdout.
Manchin’s very public repudiation of Biden on Sunday could mean the end of the For the People Act. That opens the way for Republican states to continue their shameless campaign of voter suppression — very possibly giving Republicans a victory in the 2022 midterm elections and entrenching Republican rule for a generation.
As it is, registered Republicans make up only about 25 percent of the American electorate, and the percentage appears to be shrinking in the wake of Trump’s horrendous exit.
But because rural Republican states like Wyoming (with 574,000 inhabitants) get two senators just as do urban ones like California (with nearly 40 million), and because Republican states have gerrymandered districts that elect House members to give them an estimated 19 extra seats over what they’d have without gerrymandering, the scales were already tipped.
Then came the post-Trump deluge of state laws making it harder for likely Democrats to vote, and easier for Republican state legislatures to manipulate voting tallies.
Manchin says he supports extending the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to all 50 states. But that’s small comfort.
The original 1965 Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, on the dubious logic that it was no longer needed because states with a history of suppressing Black votes no longer did so. (Note that within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced it would implement a strict photo ID law, and Mississippi and Alabama soon followed.)
The efficacy of a new national Voting Rights Act would depend on an activist Justice Department willing to block state changes in voting laws that suppress votes and on an activist Supreme Court willing to uphold such Justice Department decisions. Don’t bet on either. We know what happened to the Justice Department under Trump, and we know what’s happened to the Supreme Court.
Besides, a new voting rights act wouldn’t be able to roll back the most recent round of voter suppression laws from Republican states.
Without Manchin, then, the For the People Act is probably dead, unless Biden can convince one Republican senator to join senate Democrats in supporting it — like, say, Utah’s Mitt Romney, who has publicly rebuked Trump for lying about the 2020 election and has something of a reputation for being an institutionalist who cares about American democracy.
Yet, given Trump’s continuing hold over the shrinking Republican Party, any Republican senator who joined with the Democrats in supporting the For the People Act would probably be ending his or her political career. Profiles in courage make good copy for political obituaries and memorials.
I’m afraid history will show that, in this shameful era, Republican senators were more united in their opposition to voting rights than Democratic senators were in their support for them.
The future of American democracy needs better odds.
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(Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.”)