Could bipartisan democracy-protection have worked? Could it still?

There has been skepticism voiced by some about my suggestion that, after January 6, Democrats in Congress should have pursued a strategy of finding at least ten GOP Senators to support the kind of structural electoral reform, like a majority-winner rule, that would help protect the traditional wing of the Republican Party–and thus the nation’s system of democratic competition–from Trump and Trumpism.

While it’s always prudent to avoid excessive optimism about the possibility of electoral reform, especially given the predisposition of incumbents to stick with the system in which they won their own elections, why is it unreasonable to think that a deal might have been possible if focused on the specific idea of helping the traditional GOP avoid a hostile takeover from the MAGA movement? It would have been in the rational self-interest of traditional Republicans, like Senator Roy Blunt (ranking member of the Rules Committee) and even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to be open to that kind of conversation if pursued by Democrats in good faith.

Moreover, it would have been easy to point to Alaska as an example of how structural electoral reform can help traditional Republicans from attack by Trump. Lisa Murkowski is in a much better position to survive Trump’s attack on her than Liz Cheney, for example, for the simple reason that Alaska has a adopted a different electoral system (“top 4 with RCV”) than the conventional system that Wyoming has (a partisan primary followed by a plurality-winner general election). If Democrats had attempted to work with Murkowski to educate other traditional Republicans on how this kind of electoral reform could benefit their brand of Republicanism–indeed, protect it from threatened extinction at the hands of Trump and his acolytes–a total of ten GOP Senators might have become open to the idea.

To be sure, there never would have been a chance that Congress would impose Alaska’s new system on all fifty states. That would have been just the kind of electoral micromanagement by the federal government that Republicans generally, and Mitch McConnell especially, so vehemently oppose.

But a basic majority-winner requirement is much more federalism-friendly. It doesn’t impose any particular electoral system on the states, neither Alaska’s nor any other. It only demands that candidates win a majority, rather than a plurality, of votes in November. That’s hardly a national straightjacket constraining state autonomy: most assume it takes a majority to win anyway. But that modest change, for reasons I’ve explaining in my forthcoming law review article on the topic, would put traditional Republicans in a much better position to defend themselves against Trump and Trumpism than the current electoral system. Ten traditional Republican Senators, and even Mitch McConnell, might have found that idea attractive if their Democratic colleagues had advocated for it effectively.

Instead, even after January 6, the Democratic Party pursued an electoral reform strategy that was maximally designed to alienate Republicans, unifying them in opposition. Democrats insisted on pressing forward with their HR1 wishlist, crafted in advance of the January 6 attack on democracy. Rather than setting that partisan bill aside, and asking pro-democracy Republicans to work jointly and bilaterally on a bill to safeguard the Republic from another attack perpetrated by Trump and Trumpism, Democrats pushed ahead with HR1. From the perspective of pro-democracy Republicans, what the Democrats were doing was not a good-faith bipartisan effort to protect democracy, but just a one-sided attempt to protect the Democratic Party itself. Rather than building a coalition with those Republicans who genuinely believe that the choice of the voters should determine which candidate holds office, thereby isolating the rest of Republicans who shamefully are willing to grab power regardless of what voters actually want, Democrats managed to unite all Republicans–from Murkowski to Hawley–in opposition to their go-it-alone strategy of ramming through HR1.

The only way this was going to work was if Democrats could change the filibuster rules to overcome, with only 51 votes, unified GOP opposition. But Democrats were, and have continued to be, unable to do this. Unless something changes on this front, and prospects continue to look bleak, it’s been a failed strategy. Where does the urgent work of democracy protection stand at the end of 2021 as a result of what Democrats in Congress have done this year?

Even if Democrats magically managed to fix their filibuster problems, how secure would democracy be as a result of the enactment of the Freedom to Vote Act (along with the John Lewis bill to revitalize the Voting Rights Act)? Still undone would be the essential amendments to the Electoral Count Act in order to protect against another January 6 debacle.

Still unaddressed would be the “primary problem” that enables Trump to purge the Republican Party of its traditionalists and block from the November general-election ballot the kind of Republican that general-election voters would prefer. Nothing in the Freedom to Vote Act is designed to fix this most pressing structural flaw.

So, given the failure of the Democratic Party’s democracy-protection efforts in 2021, perhaps Democrats in Congress can rethink their democracy-protection strategy for 2022. Maybe in a 50-50 Senate, they should sit down with willing Republicans in good faith and ask, “How can we work together to save government-by-the-people from the threat of subversion?” Neither side imposes its ideas on the other, but from the ground up they build a shared conception of what’s essential to save democracy from authoritarianism.

This approach won’t work by demonizing the entirety of the Republican Party, characterizing Mitt Romney as just as anti-democratic as Josh Hawley. Instead, it requires recognition that there is a traditional Republican conception of government-by-the-people that is part of the nation’s heritage of two-party electoral competition, just as there is a Democratic Party vision of how to run a democracy.

What this moment in history needs is a shared pact between Democrats and traditional Republicans that is strong enough to withstand the ongoing threat of Trump and his anti-democratic brand of populism. Before it’s too late, can Democrats see their way to working with enough Republicans to achieve the democracy-safeguarding measures that are most essential to minimizing the danger of Trump’s return to power and an ensuing dismantling of democracy itself?

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