By Robert Reich
With the Senate now adjourned for the holidays and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” social and climate package stalled if not dead (Senator Joe Manchin went on Fox News to announce he won’t support it)*, Biden’s remaining agenda is now at the mercy of the 2022 midterm election year — a perilous time to get anything enacted.
So what should be Biden’s and the Democrat’s first priority when the Senate returns in January? I’m sure Biden still wants his Build Back Better package passed. But it’s more important that the Senate now make voting rights its priority.
Republican state legislatures will soon begin drawing partisan congressional maps that federal legislation could 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 that the fifty Democratic senators (plus the Vice President) can pass it. (Senate Republicans have made it clear they won’t support any voting rights legislation.) Hence the necessity of senate Democrats agreeing to carve out voting rights from the filibuster (back to Manchin again).
I want to emphasize the urgency of this. Since the 2020 election, the foundations of our democracy have been gravely weakened. Just last Saturday, three top retired generals warned of a potential civil war in 2024 unless action is taken soon.
Saving American democracy requires stopping three powerful forces on the way to destroying it.
The first is Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. It’s now believed by some 60 percent of Republican voters. The lie conveniently fits with the Republican Party’s insight that demographic trends work against it unless it shrinks the electorate.
The second is big anger spread by the media, especially Fox News and Facebook. It’s boosting their ratings and revenues by inciting divisiveness, racism, panic, and paranoia. As a result, it’s undermining the 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 to counter 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 Advancement Act as soon as possible in January, when they have a chance to prevent even more Republican state efforts to suppress votes and take over electoral machinery. 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 to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Hopefully, the House committee now investigating it (with the crucial and courageous participation of Republican Representatives 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 surely will shut the committee down.
Armed with the committee’s findings, the Justice Department must take legal action against Trump and all lawmakers implicated in the attempted coup. Even before the committee reports, the Justice Department should impanel grand juries to weigh the evidence in its possession.
The second step is to constrain big anger instigated by 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 the 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 current Supreme Court won’t reverse the Court’s shameful decision in Citizens United vs. FEC and related cases. 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. All three steps are urgently needed. There is no time to waste.
Biden, Democrats, and any remaining principled Republicans – along with the leaders of nonprofits, universities, labor unions, major foundations, grassroots organizations, racial-justice and environmental advocates, and business – must wage a war to save American democracy. This war must start immediately.
Nothing else we do for America is as important. Nothing else that needs doing in America is possible unless we do this.
What do you think?
* Before I leave you today, I can’t resist opining on West Virginia senator Joe Manchin’s motive for announcing he won’t support the “Build Back Better” social and environmental package. He delivered the deathblow on Fox News Sunday (after refusing to take Joe Biden’s phone call presumably asking him not to make the announcement).