House Democrats announced Tuesday that Donald Trump has become such a menace to American democracy, Congress has a constitutional obligation to remove him from office.
One hour later, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus returned to the podium to announce that they would help the tyrannical president pass his top legislative priority.
To Nancy Pelosi’s champions, this one-two punch was a savvy demonstration of her party’s capacity to “walk and chew gum.” Republican ad-makers had been savaging vulnerable House Democrats for putting their “partisan witch hunt” above bipartisan legislation. Now, that line of attack is null and void. Pelosi has proven that her caucus isn’t out to destroy the president by any means necessary. When Trump backs policy changes that represent an improvement on the status quo, Democrats are willing to support it — even if doing so means handing the president a “win” on a key campaign issue. Far from undermining the party’s message on impeachment then, rallying behind the USMCA strengthens that message by affirming its sincerity: Democrats aren’t impeaching the president because they’ll do anything in their power to weaken him, but because his high crimes and misdemeanors left them with no other choice.
Pelosi’s liberal skeptics take a different view. If Democrats truly consider Trump a threat to America’s constitutional order, affording him a bipartisan victory on one of his defining causes — and thus, increasing his prospects for reelection — is unconscionable. Even if Trump’s new agreement is an improvement on NAFTA, its changes are quite modest in the grand scheme of things. And there is no reason why a Democratic president couldn’t broker an even more progressive rewriting of North America’s trade rules in 2021. If House Democrats believe what they’ve written into their articles of impeachment, then they have a civic duty to prioritize Trump’s removal from office — and the disempowerment of the increasingly illiberal party he leads — above all else. The fact that they refuse to honor that duty indicates that the Democratic Party is unfit to serve as a bulwark against authoritarian reaction.
Both sides have a point.
There is something to be said for both views. As of this writing, the USMCA has yet to be finalized. But the available details suggest it will deliver significant benefits to several Democratic constituencies, while progressively revising the rules of the economic road in North America. The final version of the agreement would reportedly put labor attachés on the ground in Mexico to oversee enforcement of a new $16 minimum wage for auto workers, along with other labor rights. Such provisions don’t just ease American workers’ fears of competing on an uneven playing field, but also heartens the Mexican left and trade-union movement. Meanwhile, the USMCA also curbs the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) process, which allows foreign investors to sue sovereign governments for enacting regulations they do not like.
And yet, that last point can also be marshaled in favor of the counterargument (or at least, the argument that Democrats should have nipped USMCA in the bud months ago): In a world where one of America’s two major political parties is a ruthlessly bad-faith actor — which is willing to prioritize the disempowerment of its opposition over the interests of its own constituents and dictates of the Constitution — securing marginal improvements to trade rules may be less important than disempowering that rogue party.
In my view, the substantive benefits of the USMCA appear to outweigh its political costs. Although it is plausible that fulfilling his promise to renegotiate NAFTA will endear Trump to Rust Belt swing voters, it is also possible that a bipartisan policy enacted 11 months before an election will have little influence on its outcome. The real problem with the Democrats’ support for the USMCA, however, can’t be seen when the trade deal is viewed in isolation. If the party had otherwise given every indication that it recognized the severity of America’s democratic crisis — and was willing to buck bipartisan comity and institutional tradition to resolve that crisis — then its position on Trump’s trade deal would be unconcerning. But it has indicated the very opposite.
Democracy dies in the Senate.
Before saying more about the Democratic Party’s failure to meet the demands of our democratic crisis, it is worth outlining its contours. The crisis that I reference extends beyond Donald Trump’s lawlessness and the GOP’s apologetics for his abuses. Rather, it consists of (at least) three overlapping and mutually exacerbating trends: the conservative movement’s increasing hostility to liberal democracy, the Senate’s growing overrepresentation of white rural voters, and runaway inequality in the distribution of wealth and income. Taken together, these developments pose an imminent threat of awarding an illiberal GOP a hammerlock on the Senate and judiciary for a generation — and a tail-risk of enabling conservatives to entrench minoritarian rule over the entire federal government.
I’ve discussed all these trends, and my grim interpretation of their import, in other pieces, so I won’t elaborate on them too much here. But here’s the upshot: The conservative movement (as currently constituted) exists primarily to advance a plutocratic economic agenda for which there is no mass constituency. For half a century, it has compensated for the unpopularity of upward redistribution by appealing to white resentment of racial liberalism, and social conservatives’ alarm at the sexual revolution. But the American population’s growing diversity and secularism threaten the long-term viability of the right’s project in a democratic United States. Our country has never been less white and religious or more socially liberal. The rising generations are the most left-wing on record. And the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. These conditions have rendered the GOP increasingly hostile to popular democracy as a normative ideal, and increasingly willing to flout liberal democratic norms for the sake of insulating its power against majoritarian rebuke. Thus, in states across the country, Republicans have pursued various forms of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, extreme gerrymandering — and, when all else fails, the stripping of authority from offices that Democrats still manage to win.
All this would be less concerning if America’s political geography hadn’t become a co-conspirator in the conservative movement’s anti-democratic project. For all the GOP’s conscious efforts to immunize its power against the threat of majority rule, urban-rural polarization and the structure of our legislative institutions have done the bulk of the party’s work for it. Due to the abundance of small, white rural states — and white rural voters’ growing tendency to vote Republican — the Senate has become profoundly biased in favor of the GOP. And that bias is poised to increase in the coming years, as young college-educated Americans continue concentrating in a small number of coastal cities. As the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie has written:
By 2040, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, half the population will live in eight states, with eight other states representing the next 20 percent of the population. The remaining 34 states will hold 30 percent of the population. In the Senate, this would give them 68 seats. Over all, half the country’s population would control 84 of the 100 seats in the chamber.
As it stands now, the Senate is highly undemocratic and strikingly unrepresentative, with an affluent membership composed mostly of white men, who are about 30 percent of the population but hold 71 of the seats. Under current demographic trends this will get worse, as whites become a plurality of all Americans but remain a majority in most states.
Thus, an increasingly anti-democratic conservative movement has a very good chance of securing semi-permanent control of the Senate, even if its cause becomes irrevocably minoritarian. What’s more, with control of the upper chamber, the GOP can refuse to seat any judges nominated by Democratic presidents. This would give conservatives semi-permanent control of the judiciary, as well, thereby allowing far-right jurists to continue vetoing progressive legislation and voting rights protections, while rubber-stamping the GOP’s state-level efforts to disempower and disenfranchise its Democratic constituents. Finally, ever-deepening wealth inequality ensures that the conservative movement’s plutocratic funding base will have evermore resources at its disposal for building propaganda networks, and funding campaigns.
In a two-party system, even a nationally unpopular Republican Party would never be more than one well-timed recession away from winning full control of the federal government. Should it do so in a future context of climate chaos, war, and/or popular unrest, it is not hard to imagine a rightwing nationalist president establishing de facto authoritarian rule with the tacit approval of a reactionary judiciary.
Democrats would rather be moderate than good.
All of which is to say: In the immediate term, the combination of the GOP’s extremity and the biases of America’s governing institutions threaten to make it impossible for Democrats to govern at the federal level. In the longer term, they threaten something much worse.
Thus, to mount any serious response to climate change, and forestall the worst-case scenarios for our republic, Democrats must do everything they can to make our government more democratic, and to minimize the GOP’s power (as nothing short of electoral devastation can plausibly shake the conservative movement’s grip over that party). In practice, this means that in the unlikely scenario that Democrats win control of the Senate, House, and Oval Office next year, they will need to (at a minimum) abolish the legislative filibuster and add several new states to the union.
Given the trends cited above, there is good reason to think 2021 will be the Democrats’ last shot at reforming the Senate. If urban-rural polarization continues to deepen, while ticket-splitting continues to decline, the party won’t have senators from West Virginia and Montana much longer. If the party is fortunate enough to win 50 seats in the upper chamber next year, they need to use that opportunity to rebalance the Senate before it is too late. A Democratic trifecta wouldn’t have the power to amend the Constitution. But it could add new states. Although this wouldn’t solve the Senate malapportionment problem at its root, it would mitigate its racial component. According to the progressive think tank Data for Progress, the voting-eligible population (VEP) of the U.S. is 29 percent nonwhite, while the VEP of the median state is just 23 percent. Fully enfranchising Washington, D.C.’s 633,000 Americans by awarding that city statehood is a worthwhile expansion of democracy in and of itself. But doing so would also have the effect of rendering the Senate a bit less biased toward white people, and thus, the Republican Party as currently constituted. And the same can be said for offering statehood as an option to the people of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories that are currently subject to our nation’s quasi-colonial rule. Such moves would not guarantee Democratic or liberal control over the federal government. They would merely make it a bit harder for a white conservative minority to entrench control of the upper chamber.
But there is zero sign that Democrats would be willing to put fortifying democracy above performing bipartisan moderation in this manner. Forget adding new states to democratize the Senate; Democrats aren’t even willing to allow the existing Senate to operate on democratic principles. Only a tiny minority of Chuck Schumer’s caucus has evinced support for abolishing the legislative filibuster, which has established an automatic, anti-constitutional 60-vote threshold for all major bills. In fact, more Democratic senators have vowed to reimpose the judicial filibuster on their own caucus — thereby ensuring that Republican senators have a veto over the next Democratic president’s judicial appointments, even as Mitch McConnell has denied Democrats any such input on Trump’s. As for D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood, Sheldon Whitehouse — one of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats — has rejected the former outright, while saying of the latter, “The problem of Puerto Rico is it does throw off the [partisan] balance so you get concerns like, who do [Republicans] find, where they can get an offsetting addition to the states.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner has been actively encouraging soft Republicans who feel alienated by Trump to continue voting for the GOP in down-ballot races. “If you hear people on the rope line saying, ‘I’m a Republican,’ I say, ‘Stay a Republican,’” Biden recently told BuzzFeed News. “Vote for me but stay a Republican, because we need a Republican Party.”
In this context, it is reasonable for liberals to read House Democrats’ decision to award Trump a legislative triumph, on the same day that they hit him with articles of impeachment, as yet another confirmation that the party’s leadership is too comfortable and complacent to lead a genuine resistance movement. Whatever else the USMCA deal is, it is also a testament to the Democrats’ preference for projecting moderation over waging partisan warfare. In a healthy republic, that priority may have its virtues. But we aren’t living in one; and if Democrats continue guarding their bipartisan bonafides more zealously than our democracy, we may never.