Saving American democracy will require stopping these three powerful forces already on the way to destroying it
With the Senate adjourned for the holidays and Joe Biden’s Build Back Better social and climate package stalled, the president’s remaining agenda is at the mercy of the 2022 midterm election year. So the practical question is: what should be his, and the Democrats’, first priority when Congress returns in January?
Biden obviously wants to get his spending package passed. But swift action on voting rights is essential. Republican state legislatures will soon begin drawing partisan congressional maps that federal legislation would outlaw. Several states have already changed election laws in ways making it harder for people in minority communities to vote and giving Republican legislatures greater power over election outcomes.
To be sure, any new national voting rights legislation depends on altering the Senate filibuster so the 50 Democratic senators (plus the vice-president) can pass it. (Senate Republicans won’t go along.) Hence the urgency of Senate Democrats agreeing to carve out voting rights from the filibuster.
It’s important to put this into a larger context. Saving American democracy requires stopping three powerful forces already on the way to destroying it.
The first is Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen. That baseless claim is now believed by some 60% of registered Republicans. The lie fits with the Republican party’s understanding that demographic trends will work against it in future elections unless it shrinks the electorate.
The second is big anger spread by the media, especially Fox News and Facebook. Big anger is boosting their ratings and revenues by inciting divisiveness, racism, panic and paranoia. Yet it’s undermining trust that democracy depends on.
The third is big money, from large corporations and wealthy individuals. It’s inundating political campaigns, supporting one-sided issue ads and bribing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to support measures that will further enrich corporations and the wealthy and block measures that will cost them.
The big lie, big anger and big money reinforce each other because they all depend on Americans believing that democracy is rigged against them. And, to a shameful extent, it is. Urgent steps must be taken against all three.
The first step is to set national voting-rights standards in light of Trump’s big lie. Senate Democrats must enact the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act in January, when they still have a chance to prevent much Republican state voter suppression and electoral manipulation. If they fail to do this they will be complicit with the Republican party in using Trump’s big lie to shrink the electorate.
Trump and his Republican co-conspirators must also be held accountable for their attempted coup in the months after the 2020 election, leading up to the 6 January attack on the Capitol. Hopefully, the House committee now investigating it (with the crucial and courageous participation of Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger) will report its findings early in the new year. Timing is essential. Republicans must not be allowed to delay the committee’s work. If they take control of the House next year they are certain to shut the panel down.
Once the committee reports its findings, the justice department must take legal action against Trump and all lawmakers implicated in the attempted coup.
The second step is to constrain big anger emanating from social media, Fox News, and other outlets. There are two ways to do this without undermining freedom of speech.
Revoke Section 230 of the Communications Act, which now protects digital media providers from liability for content posted by their users even if that content is harmful, hateful or misleading. There is no continuing justification for this legal protection, particularly at a time when the largest of these providers have become vast monopolies.
Create a new “fairness doctrine” requiring that all broadcasters, including cable, cover issues of public importance in ways that present opposing perspectives. This will be difficult to enforce, to be sure, but it would at least affirm the nation’s commitment to holding broadcasters to a higher standard than merely making money.
The third step is to get big money out of politics. The supreme court is unlikely to reverse its shameful decision in Citizens United v FEC and related cases, given the current makeup of the court. A constitutional amendment allowing the government to limit money spent on campaigns is extremely unlikely. But campaign finance reform is possible by matching small donations with public dollars. This was in the original For the People Act and should be added to the Freedom to Vote Act.
These are the minimal essentials for containing the big lie, big anger and big money.
Biden, Democrats and any remaining principled Republicans – along with the leaders of nonprofits, universities, labor unions, grassroots organizations, racial justice and environmental advocates and business – must wage war to save American democracy. And this war must start as soon as possible.
Nothing else we do for America is as important. Nothing else that needs doing in America is possible unless we do this.
- Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist. His newsletter is at robertreich.substack.com