Republican efforts to ram through Donald Trump’s third US supreme court pick in the wake of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg are firing up a fierce progressive backlash that some believe could actually trigger the most dramatic round of democracy reforms in America in a generation.
Democratic party leaders are coming under intense pressure to use the first 100 days of a Biden administration – were Trump defeated in November – to tackle some of the most glaring deficiencies in the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.
A vast array of reforms – from ending voter suppression and removing corporate money from elections, to rebalancing the US Senate and tackling the conservative stranglehold over the courts – are all up for grabs, though they are predicated on Biden winning the White House.
Deirdre Schifeling, campaign director of the progressive coalition Democracy For All 2021, said that the failures of the Trump administration to contain the pandemic and the resulting economic recession, together with the president’s unprecedented attacks on voting rights, had paved the way for a potentially historic push next year if Democrats win.
“Our political system has so clearly failed the people that the environment will be ripe for a big transformative package to make our government work for all of us,” she said.
A massive surge in small donations to progressive and Democratic support groups following Ginsburg’s death underlined how the supreme court crisis is boosting the push for reform. Act Blue, the online fundraising channel, raised $100m in the first 36 hours since the justice passed away.
Democratic organizers are hoping that such a war chest can be put to use unseating vulnerable Republican senators in states such as Maine, Colorado, Iowa and even South Carolina where Trump acolyte Lindsey Graham is facing a tough fight. A Biden presidential victory, combined with Democrats taking control of the senate and retaining power in the House would pave the way for potentially seismic democratic reforms.
“The fight for the soul of this nation is what’s at stake in the presidential election,” said Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who represents Alabama’s seventh district covering Selma in the crucible of the civil rights movement. “Joe Biden faces a monumental task in restoring faith in our democracy.”
Sewell is sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act that will be central to efforts to fix America’s broken democratic system. The legislation, which was renamed in July in honor of the late John Lewis, seeks to repair the gaping hole punched into the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by the conservative majority of the supreme court in Shelby County v Holder.
That ruling effectively ended the involvement of the US government in preventing voter suppression by mainly Southern states. As soon as the opinion was handed down, Republican-controlled states across the country rushed to reimpose hurdles to voting directed largely at African American and other minority communities.
“We will restore federal oversight in voting once again within the first 100 days of the Biden administration. We will make sure that modern forms of voter suppression are addressed and eradicated,” Sewell said.
As an example of the kind of tactics her bill would target, she pointed to North Dakota where in advance of the 2018 midterm elections the Republican-controlled legislature imposed new voter registration rules that required a physical address. North Dakota has a sizable Native American community living on reservations where PO Boxes – excluded under the new restrictions – are widely used.
The other top priority for the early days of a Biden presidency would be HR 1, the mammoth omnibus bill known as the “For the People Act” that confronts several of the most egregious failings of modern US democracy. It would:
• make it easier to vote by expanding automatic voter registration;
• encourage a more diverse pool of candidates to run for federal office by providing matching public funding of small donations;
• and deal with gerrymandering, the sleight of hand often used by Republicans to give more conservative white voters the upper hand.
Both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act have already cleared the House and have been backed by all Democrats in the US senate. Sewell is confident both pieces of legislation would be high priority under a new Democratic administration.
“I know and I expect that Joe will pass them both in the first 100 days,” she said.
Enactment of the dual bills would see many of the shady techniques that Republicans have deployed to hold onto power instantly challenged. The pushback to Trump’s relentless shattering of democratic norms would not end there.
Progressives also have their sights focused on reforming the US senate, where representation is skewed heavily towards white men – there have only been 10 African American and 57 female senators out of almost 2,000 in the chamber’s history. The two senators per state composition of the chamber also benefits smaller rural states that lean Republican.
One prominent idea for a fix would be to add four seats to the Senate by securing statehood for Washington DC, whose 700,000 residents are effectively disenfranchised, and for Puerto Rico whose 3m people are US citizens yet cannot vote in presidential elections.
Schifeling said that it was beyond time to amend the status of DC whose population is almost 60% black and Latino. “Not only is the lack of statehood for DC undemocratic, it is rooted in racism and white supremacy. Political power in DC has always been about undermining people of color and we need to fix that once and for all.”
Another major area of concern is the federal courts, which Trump has already packed with rightwing judges at the lower levels. Now his choice for Ginsburg’s replacement is almost certain to lock in a 6 to 3 conservative majority in the supreme court.
Sabeel Rahman, director of the advocacy group Demos Action, said that “court reform is now back as a topic of conversation”. Options being discussed in progressive legal circles, he said, included Congress voting to enlarge the size of the nation’s top court to dilute the power of the conservative justices.
Term limits of 18 years could also be imposed, though it is a matter of legal debate whether that could be achieved through legislation or whether it would require a constitutional amendment that might be virtually impossible to achieve in the current political climate.
In all this, there is a danger of things spiraling into ever more dystopian partisanship. “You could get a tit for tat, with Democrats adding three more justices and Republicans responding with three more,” Rahman said. “The fear of retaliation is real, but not engaging in structural reform is also no longer tenable at this point.”
The raft of democratic reforms that progressives are now contemplating as a riposte to Trump is not just about repairing a broken system. They are also about ensuring that the will of the American people is reflected in government.
Take the climate crisis. Polls show that almost two-thirds of Americans want robust action to combat greenhouse gas emissions but with the Republican party in the sway of deniers and lobbyists for polluting industries, effective action is stymied through the senate and the courts.
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said that the fight against voter suppression and the movement to act on climate change were one and the same thing. “Communities of color are most excluded from the democratic system and they are the same folks who care most deeply about climate change, because they are most profoundly impacted by it.”