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A Turning Point?
Sometimes, when seen through the rearview mirror of history, what once appeared to be defeats are recast as victories.
Before we let this week go, before we jump into the weekend and whatever the next week will bring, which in this unsettled world might likely be something beyond our expectations, or fears, I wanted to look back at an event quite unlike anything I have ever seen play out in the United States Senate.
Its reverberations might have been muted by its foregone conclusion, along with the general state of frustration, and even dread, among the champions of its cause. But make no mistake, the vote to change the filibuster around voting rights, in which all but two Democrats (whose names are known all too well - Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) voted to fundamentally alter the way our nation works, was a watershed moment. Whether it turns into a flood of reform or an impenetrable barrier toward progress remains to be seen.
This was a defeat for democracy…
It is tempting to view the vote as a close but bitter defeat. Some of the headlines in its wake went further, casting it as a defeat for the Democrats, which, as many others have noted before me, is a damaging and dishonest way to view it. This was a defeat for democracy, for a functioning nation, for a responsive legislative body, for fairness for marginalized groups in our society who have long borne a separate and unequal access to the vote.
But, and I say this with extreme caution, there is a way to understand that vote in a very different context. For sometimes, when seen through the rearview mirror of history, what once appeared to be defeats are recast as victories. All of this of course depends on actions not yet taken.
The cynic, or even the skeptic, has a much easier case to make for why the doomed Senate vote represents a setback for the cause of voting rights. We are looking at a midterm election in 2022 where all the headwinds suggest the Democrats will lose their slim majority in the House of Representatives, maybe by a lot. And with it, they will lose the power to protect our democratic system against a political party currently animated by authoritarian tendencies. Furthermore, what is now a 50-50 Senate could easily fall under the bidding of Mitch McConnell. President Biden, with low approval ratings, could stumble in his bid for re-election, perhaps against a resurgent Trump. Or should Biden choose not to run again, a fractured Democratic Party could struggle to find a new standard bearer. All this could mean that the very real backsliding that is occurring around our democratic norms might further cement the minority rule of the Republican Party, aided and abetted by a court system they have packed with true believers.
All of this is true, and yet I have seen many times in my life that just when one assumes the future is a foregone conclusion, earthquakes of change can reform our polity in ways no one could have anticipated.
The American democracy is broken, and that it needs fundamental fixes.
Another way of looking at this past week is that this was the time when 48 senators, for the first time ever, stood up and stated, with their voices and their votes, that the American democracy is broken, and that it needs fundamental fixes. These were moderates and liberals, young and old, outsiders and institutionalists, representing the majority of the American population and from states across the union.
A fair and truly functional American democracy has always been an ideal more than a reality. Over the course of our nation’s history, we have moved towards more openness, greater representation, and an expansion of the vote. We have taken steps forward as well as backward, but the former has outpaced the latter when seen from the broader arc of our history.
Will protecting American democracy become a rallying cry across the nation? Will it motivate voters? Will we see this movement in the Senate as a step to progress, where those who want to protect and improve the way our government works, or even allow it to work in the first place, have the momentum? Will a dam of poor faith, cynicism, and naked self-interest, built over decades, break under the pressure of a rising reservoir of activism? The answers to these questions are unknowable, in large part because they are dependent on what the American people do now.
Manchin and Sinema are alone.
One thing has become increasingly certain, made all the more so by the roll call of votes this past week. Manchin and Sinema are alone. They don’t represent some silent caucus within the party which ultimately would blink over changing the rules of the Senate. Even those running for re-election in 2022 in purple states voted to take a stand on this one. Getting rid of the filibuster is now Democratic Party orthodoxy, as Ronald Brownstein explained in The Atlantic.
But this is much bigger than the filibuster. It’s about the very definition of the American system of government. It’s about our history, and our future. It’s about all the tangled threads that tie our democratic traditions to our founding ideals and their imperfect implementation. It’s about our inconsistencies, our hopes, and our fears. And here is where those who have long toiled in the trenches of voting rights found some specific cause for hope. Look at how Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, put it:
Again, no victory on voting rights is assured, far from it. But neither should this be considered a death knell, unless we make it so. What was lacking before was a unified clarity of conviction. That is now evident. The next phase is stepping into the breach with concerted action, rallying voters to the cause.
There were many passionate speeches and statements made in the Senate during the debate over the voting rights initiative. But perhaps the most poignant and powerful was from Raphael Warnock, the first-term senator from Georgia. I have shared it below for those who wish to listen in its entirety.
Before he was a senator, Warnock was the Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it is fitting that Senator Warnock can now carry forward the cause to which Dr. King gave his life. King knew that ultimate victory lies not in any one showdown, but in the long slog. He knew it depends on a mobilization of conscience, and community. And he knew that moments when success is tantalizingly close, like we saw in the Senate, can be a reason for hope, instead of despair.