As thousands of extremists poured past police and barricades into the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 in a desperate attempt to stop the counting of electoral votes and certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the November presidential election, Americans were understandably shocked. No one should be surprised. The attack didn’t come out of nowhere and neither did the Republican politicians supporting, organizing and encouraging it.
Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are not radicals within their party and their actions are nothing other than completely in keeping with what has been the mission of their party since reconstruction. It was never acceptable for the media, or anyone for that matter, to let things go as far as they have without recognizing the fundamental truth underlying everything that has happened in the past weeks, months or century even.
The party that we call Republicans now — but was first incarnated as the Democratic party following the American Civil War — is an organized antidemocratic institution with the expressed (and far too often explicitly stated) goal of maintaining the tyranny of the minority over the rights of the majority. They have gone about doing this by restricting voting rights, gerrymandering and protecting the power of large financial players to invest unchecked in politics. They have also benefited from a number of archaic structural realities that reflect the hesitance the founders had when it came to a truly inclusive democracy like the Electoral College and the Senate, which — and it cannot be stressed enough — is not a democratic or representative institution.
The Republican party likes to remind everyone whenever they get the chance that they are the party of Lincoln. While this is technically true, it could not be a more misleading statement. The party that the Capitol extremists identify with is the party of poll taxes and literacy tests, of the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, of Jim Crow and George Wallace, of racial gerrymandering and voter suppression. None of this information is new, but despite these increasingly obvious truths, the media in the United States and the Democratic party has routinely given Republicans the benefit of the doubt.
Antidemocratic rhetoric is ignored or excused, racist and oppressive policies are criticized and then forgotten and brief moments of bipartisan cooperation are considered sufficient evidence for many politicians to argue that our two-party system is a feasible model for democratic government. That final notion — that there is a future for shared governance in which the Republican party is a relevant institution — is absurd. If the U.S. wants to remain a democracy, the Republican party has to go and sweeping reforms need to start right now.
Something important to note is that the Republican party and the American conservative movement are not the same thing. There is and will always be a place for ideological differences in our politics. What has no home in the U.S., or at least not in a democratic U.S., is ideological opposition to expanded voting rights and more representative government.
If the 2020 Democratic primary was anything to go by, the party’s only consensus on what issues to prioritize is that there are a lot of issues to prioritize. An expanded healthcare system, more widely available post-secondary education, policies to address climate change and updated tax laws targeting wealth all held a central place in the debate. All of these issues are important and, to varying degrees, urgent, but none of them should be the Biden administration’s primary legislative focus. It goes without saying that addressing the COVID-19 pandemic will be priority number one. In his first days in office, Biden will take a number of executive actions targeted at all of the aforementioned issues, but the real focus has to be democracy.
While they may be the minority in Congress and no longer in the White House, Republicans still pose an existential threat to our democracy and to the most urgent initiatives of the Biden administration. Instead of going to war within their own party over whose pet issue deserves the most immediate attention from the White House or on the Senate floor, the Democrats should stick with what they already have.
On March 8, 2019, the House passed H.R.1., or the For the People Act of 2019, in an attempt to mitigate the influence of money on politics and decrease the role of partisan gerrymandering in determining election outcomes. They followed that up with the passage of H.R.4. on Dec. 6, 2019. The bill, now named for late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, would reestablish voting rights protections under the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by a conservative Supreme Court in 2013.
These pieces of legislation have stalled in the senate, but with 50 votes and the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President now all but guaranteed, it's time to put everything into getting the votes to turn John Lewis’ legacy into law. The protections and policies put forth in H.R.1. and H.R.4. are only a small step towards a more democratic government, but it’s the step we have to take. At stake in democratic reform is every issue facing every American. Whether it’s pandemic relief, expanded healthcare, affordable college, climate action, social justice, immigration reform, social security protection or defense against terrorism, it will be the Republican Party standing in the way. The first step in addressing these issues and saving our democracy is making sure that it is actually a democracy.
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Aidan Rhodes (he/him) is a journalism major from Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a passionate chef, athlete and writer.