We’re now just over a month into a new administration, and Washington political life has somewhat reverted to normal.
But “normal” in 2021 isn’t the “normal” of 2016—Joe Biden is now leading a changed country, and navigating a political landscape vastly different from the one he helped lead as vice president. President Biden’s work so far has been mostly centered on patching the holes in the walls left by his predecessor, putting competent people into place, and generally un-Trumping the executive branch. As in the case of many new administrations, the real work is yet to truly begin.
The stain of the previous administration will take a lot longer to fade. In many ways, a long-lived thread of paranoid nativism in the modern conservative movement can be traced from the John Birch Society of the 1950s and ’60s, through Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to White supremacists, Ronald Reagan’s stereotyping of Black “welfare queens” living high off the public purse, to Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party, Fox News, Sarah Palin, InfoWars and Donald Trump. The bigotry embedded in American conservatism preceded Trump, and it didn’t go away just because Trump was voted out of office.
Trump’s base is still the dominant force in conservative politics. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll found that 46% of Republicans would abandon the GOP if Trump founded a rival conservative party. Only 27% of respondents said they’d stay in the Republican Party in that circumstance.
But that schism would only happen if Trump lost control of the Republican Party, and right now, all the signs instead are pointing in the opposite direction: lawmakers who voted to impeach or to convict are being censured by their state parties. The questioning that Biden’s Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland faced from Republicans showed that many aren’t backing down from pursuing Trump-favorable issues, such as investigating Hunter Biden. The Sunday morning talk shows are full of Republican talking heads who refuse to admit that Joe Biden won a clean and fair election by large margins.
Trump may be out of office, but his Big Lie of voter fraud persists. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference—complete with a golden statue of Trump—featured more doubling and tripling down on the falsehoods of a stolen election, with the former president hinting at a 2024 run, saying, “I may even decide to beat them for a third time.”
The fact that the nation is now moving forward on economic relief, a COVID vaccination plan, and a restoration of the rule of law (of sorts), is only because the Democrats control the Senate. If they’d failed to win one of the two Georgia seats, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham would probably still be blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination.
Instead, the battle lines between democracy and autocracy have shifted. They’re now much closer to home.
In statehouses across the nation, the war on democracy is still under way. Not only did the Democrats fail to flip a single state legislative body in 2020 (a tall order, considering how severely Republicans have gerrymandered their districts to maintain power), but state-level Republicans are accelerating their agenda of voter suppression.
The lesson they took away from losing the White House in Congress, apparently, is that they didn’t suppress the vote hard enough.
Witness the state legislatures: The Brennan Center for Justice has, as of Feb. 19, identified more than 250 bills that would roll back voting rights in 43 states.
Even more bills introduced in legislatures would advance voting rights, the Brennan Center notes, but many of those are likely the work of minority Democrats, and have little chance of passage. Republicans still control 30 state legislatures (31 if you count Nebraska, which is officially nonpartisan, but mirrors much of the Midwest with mostly conservative government representation).
But state-level Republicans have not been chided by the 2020 general election loss, or even by the failure of Trump’s “election integrity” panel led by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to produce evidence of any voter fraud. Instead, they’re charging forward to restrict voting, especially for Black Americans.
The Republicans have realized that their biggest problem is that voters don’t like them or their policies. Rather than adapt, their solution appears to be to get rid of the voters. (A Republican National Committee-convened “autopsy” after their 2012 election loss came to the same conclusion, saying the party needed to revamp its outreach to women and non-White voters. Then, as now, the party ignored the advice, and instead returned to voter suppression as their key to victory.)
In Georgia, whose Senate races gave control of Congress to the Democrats this past year, Republicans in the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting, require IDs for absentee voting, ban most advance voting on Sundays, when Black churches have helped organize “Souls to the Polls” events, and even criminalize distributing food and water to voters waiting in line. That’s an issue in a state where Black people often have to wait hours in line for the chance to cast a vote—a problem caused by the state reducing the number of polling places statewide.
Alice O’Lenick, a Republican representative on the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections, essentially admitted to the Gwinnett Daily Post that Republicans can’t win without voter suppression: “I will not let them end this session without changing some of these laws. … They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
She also called for eliminating ballot drop boxes and pushing to “update” county voter rolls by removing people who may have moved out of state, or who are not “legal,” parroting Trump’s lie that he lost only because of people casting illegal votes.
Or as a GOP lawyer stated March 2, when Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked him why the Arizona Republican National Committee would favor a law that disqualifies ballots that are cast outside a voter’s precinct: “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”
Similar dynamics are unfolding in many states, not just battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but in otherwise “safe” Democratic states like New York (where Republicans want stricter voter ID requirements for absentee ballots) or Republican states like Montana, where Republicans are seeking to end same-day voter registration.
Against this onslaught of suppression bills, the most powerful tool we have is federal legislation. And bills have been filed to enact such protections, including H.R. 1—the “For the People Act,” which would work toward reducing corruption in elections, and H.R. 4—the Voting Rights Advancement Act (a Senate version is named after late Congressman John Lewis), which would restore many of the protections of its original namesake law that the Supreme Court stripped out in 2013. H.R. 1 was passed by the House of Representatives on March 3.
Both bills, however, have little chance of survival in the Senate because of the filibuster that requires a 60-vote supermajority to advance legislation. A simple Senate majority could rewrite the rules to eliminate the filibuster, but Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have refused to support that rule change.
There may be obscure workarounds in the Senate (if the Democrats start being as ruthless as the Republicans), or perhaps continued pressure on the holdouts will bear fruit. But the best hope for strong democratic reforms may rest on the outcome of the 2022 election. Given the Democrats’ razor-thin majority, the past trend of administrations losing seats in midterm elections, and the new rush to enact more voter suppression in many states, that’s not a good outcome for democracy.
Until then, it seems that only continued pressure on congressional Democrats, plus state-level grassroots organizing, as we saw in Georgia, is going to preserve our right to vote. Those who were hoping for a reprieve after voting Trump out of power are beginning to see that the fight isn’t over, nor is it going to allow us to relax into “normalcy.”