Biden says voting rights laws are a ‘national imperative’. Reforming the filibuster must be too | David Litt
At the risk of giving away a speechwriting secret, one time-tested way to organize a presidential address – or any piece of persuasive writing – is with something called “Monroe’s Motivated Sequence”. It’s a five-part structure: explain the context; define the problem; lay out the solution; put forward a vision of the future; issue a call to action.
By this measure, on Tuesday President Biden delivered two-fifths of a major address on democracy reform. He connected the wave of Republican anti-voting laws to the 6 January attack on the Capitol and the insidious legacy of segregation and Jim Crow. He rightly referred to Republicans’ authoritarian efforts as “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of fair and free elections in our history”.
Largely absent from the president’s remarks, however, was a solution. This was probably a conscious choice on the part of Biden and his inner circle. It’s possible that the White House would rather negotiate with lawmakers behind the scenes than make demands of them in public. It’s possible that the president did not present a plan because he has not yet settled on one.
But it’s also possible, and perhaps even probable, that the president went out of his way to avoid detailed solutions because he didn’t yet want to answer what will possibly be the defining question of his first term. Will Joe Biden publicly call on Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster in order to pass new voting-rights bills into law? We still don’t know. Instead, after urging Congress to send the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act into law, Biden employed a carefully worded phrase:
“Legislation is one tool, but not the only tool.”
This statement is true. But it’s also a little like saying brakes are only one tool for protecting drivers. In yesterday’s remarks, the president tried to lay out the broad outlines of what safeguarding democracy sans legislation might look like. And in doing so, he made one of the strongest cases to date that while reforming the filibuster won’t be easy, it is essential if American democracy is to survive.
It’s not hard to see why many democracy advocates are eager to find ways to stand up for fair and free elections without trying to pass new laws. It will be difficult to persuade all 50 Senate Democrats to embrace filibuster reform. It will also be difficult to persuade all 50 Senate Democrats to support a voting-rights law that neutralizes the threat that voter suppression and election subversion pose. To do both these things is not impossible – but one could be forgiven for hoping there’s an easier path.
In Tuesday’s speech, Biden hinted at what such a path might look like. His Department of Justice will double the size of its voting rights division and sue to overturn discriminatory laws. He urged “advocates, students, faith leaders, labor leaders and business executives” to join together to raise awareness and apply public pressure. He asked Republicans in Congress to put country over party and asked pro-democracy Americans to run for local office.
All these are ideas worth pursuing. It’s even possible they’ll be sufficient. If Biden and his allies can overturn voter suppression laws in court and turn out a large enough coalition of voters, they’ll win elections with supermajorities – much like Joe Biden did in 2020, when his large popular-vote margin overcame a disadvantage in the electoral college. If authoritarianism is proven to be a political loser, politicians will abandon it. Over time, our republic will repair itself.
But such a scenario is highly improbable. Arguably, it’s far less likely than the Senate reforming the filibuster to pass a voting rights bill into law. Because in the wake of 6 January, and in thrall to the big lie, the Republican party has taken drastic new steps to make it more difficult than ever for our political process to self-correct.
Biden himself recognized precisely this danger in his remarks. He described in great detail recent voter-suppression laws, such as the one proposed in Texas which would force voters to drive further to cast their ballots and permit partisan poll workers to intimidate them as they do. These unprecedented voter suppression measures are expressly designed to insulate politicians from backlash. It doesn’t matter how many Americans turn out to support democracy if they’re rendered unable to vote.
Even if Democrats are able to overcome voter-suppression laws, and win clear majorities at the ballot box, that may not be enough to win elections. As the president put it, “It’s no longer just about who gets to vote or making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote, who gets to count whether or not your vote counted at all.” He rightly referred to this attempt to ignore valid vote counts as “election subversion”. But for now at least, Biden did not draw the logical conclusion: if politicians start overturning fair elections, voter education and coalition building cease to matter.
Nor are elected officials the only ones making it harder for democracy to defend itself. Just two weeks ago, the six conservative supreme court justices gutted Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, legalizing a raft of anti-voting laws that would previously have been be overturned for racial discrimination. Doubling the size of the justice department’s voting rights division is commendable. But having more lawyers filing federal lawsuits won’t do much good if the court decides those suits can’t prevail.
Which brings us back to the one tool guaranteed to have an enormous, immediate impact: legislation. If Senate Democrats choose to reform the filibuster tomorrow, they can restore the Voting Rights Act, reform the way votes are counted and elections are certified and vastly expand access to the ballot – in ways even the far-right supreme court would be unlikely to overturn, and gerrymandering Republican state legislatures would be powerless to reverse. There’s no guarantee that Biden can persuade Congress to reform the filibuster. But if he means what he says about protecting democracy, he has no choice but to try.
The good news is that the White House may already understand this. If passing voting rights legislation is, to use the president’s phrase, “a national imperative” and if the only way to pass that legislation is to reform the filibuster, then reforming the filibuster is a national imperative, too. Because as President Biden has now made clear, the bully pulpit, executive branch and ballot box alone are not sufficient to protect our democracy. And by the time we know for certain that new laws are necessary, it will be too late.
David Litt is an American political speechwriter and New York Times bestselling author of Thanks Obama, and Democracy In One Book Or Less. He edits How Democracy Lives, a newsletter on democracy reform.