The strength of the democracy and of voting as a right also has policy effects: “It’s how we can overcome the gridlock and cynicism that’s so prevalent right now. It’s how we can stop climate change, and reform our broken immigration system, and help ensure that our children enjoy an economy that works for everyone and not just the few.”
So what’s to be done? Obama makes it clear that, yes, it’s Democrats who have to do this, because Republicans will not. Sponsors of voting rights bills “have diligently reached out to their Republican colleagues to obtain their support. Sadly, almost every Senate Republican who expressed concern about threats to our democracy in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection has since been cowed into silence or reversed their positions,” he writes. That’s why modifying the filibuster rules for at least this one issue is a necessity.
Obama takes on the people who claim they are protecting the institution of the Senate by protecting the filibuster, and does so on two grounds. Directly, he points out that “The filibuster has no basis in the Constitution,” and that its use became routine only in recent years. Changing it does not shake the foundations on which the nation rests. But that’s where Obama makes an indirect case that anyone who says they’re protecting the institution, or the norms, is wrong to allow the filibuster to get in the way of passing voting rights legislation: because democracy itself is America’s most important institution. Allowing the filibuster to unravel basic democratic institutions is far more harmful, he argues, than creating another exception to its dominance of the Senate.
Obama also takes on Democratic reticence in another, much subtler way. In his speech on voting rights this week, Biden took an unusually assertive stance—a long overdue, very welcome move—saying, “At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Obama’s op-ed is framed around an invocation of the memory of John Lewis and his fight for voting rights, while he correctly notes that the filibuster was used to bolster Jim Crow. If he’s not as blunt as offering the direct choice between John Lewis and Bull Connor, he nonetheless shows that that is the choice here—an important corrective as some Democrats, like Sen. Dick Durbin, are going squishy, trying to back away from the accurate challenge that Biden may have put into words, but that comes directly from our history.
That is the challenge conservative Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema face. Are they going to be on the side of John Lewis, or are they going to be on the side of the people who cracked Lewis’ skull? No one is accusing Joe Manchin of cracking anyone’s skull, but it’s doing what’s needed to pass voting rights legislation or actively allowing voting rights to be limited in the states. It’s restricting gerrymandering or being complicit in the dismantling of democracy. There is a choice here, and there is a history that shows us what that choice means.
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