In case there was any doubt, the last month has made clear that the Right is ready to do away with what little democracy we have in the United States. The congressional hearings on the January 6 Capitol riots have provided new evidence about the extent of former president Donald Trump’s determination to overturn the 2020 election results. At the same time, the right-wing Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions — on abortion, Miranda rights, climate change, and more — that amount to a judicial power grab, one that’s stripping ordinary people of their basic rights and hobbling the political system’s ability to confront some of the major issues of our time.
In its next term, the court could further undermine democracy by allowing state legislatures to unilaterally decide the outcome of presidential elections. Meanwhile, a significant number of Republican legislators and candidates continue to maintain that the Democrats stole the 2020 election — and two-thirds of GOP voters seem to believe them.
One would hope Democrats would respond to all this by denouncing the right-wing extremists, holding those who participated in the attempted coup responsible, and directly challenging the Supreme Court’s antidemocratic power.
But rather than clearly condemning far-right election conspiracies and coup supporters, in some races Democrats are boosting extremist candidates in GOP primaries with the hope that they’ll be easier to defeat in the general elections. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same approach that Hillary Clinton’s campaign took to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential primary.) When it comes to the Supreme Court’s attack on reproductive freedom and other rights, Democratic leaders have also been frustratingly complacent — offering little more than hand-wringing, fundraising appeals, and calls to vote harder.
As to why people should vote for Democrats, it’s not clear what Biden and company mean to be offering. They are, of course, to be preferred to the increasingly reactionary death cult that is today’s Republican Party. But it seems unlikely that will be a sufficient pitch, with the party having failed to enact much of its promised agenda, a cost of living crisis at the top of most voters’ minds, and the president’s approval ratings at record lows.
If Democratic leaders stay on their current course, there’s a good chance the GOP will win big in the midterms, strengthen their hold on state legislatures, and potentially even win the White House in 2024. Yet that isn’t a fait accompli; Democrats have plenty of room to maneuver. Perhaps in part due to the January 6 hearings, 58 percent of Americans believe Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the Capitol riot, according to a June 17–18 ABC News/Ipsos poll. Cori Bush, one of the four Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members in the House of Representatives, has introduced a bill calling for the expulsion of congressmembers who were involved in the events of January 6. If the Biden administration and Democratic leadership were serious about holding lawbreakers accountable, they would support Bush’s legislation and call on Attorney General Merrick Garland to prosecute Trump and his allies.
The Supreme Court’s aggressive encroachments on civil liberties and democratic rule deserve an equally strong response. Democrats could impeach right-wing justices for lying under oath, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested, or propose term limits for judges. They could pack the court, or simply defund it. They could point out that other comparable countries don’t grant their high courts such extraordinary power and beat the drum, day after day, about the need to rein in the Court’s powers for the sake of ordinary people’s well-being. Biden could open federal lands to abortion services. He and other leaders could use the bully pulpit or other means of leverage to get conservative Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to agree to remove the filibuster so that Congress can codify abortion rights into law.
Removing the filibuster, of course, is also a precondition of passing other badly needed legislation, like the climate measures and welfare state expansions that died in the Build Back Better negotiations. Measures like that, which could offer significant material benefits to working people, would in turn give the Democrats some positive, popular material to run for office and potentially stop their bleeding of working-class votes to the Republicans.
Neither the president nor congressional Democratic Party leaders are doing any of these things. Perhaps out of a commitment to “moderation” for its own sake, a fear of empowering the party’s left flank, or a principled attachment to antimajoritarian institutions like the Supreme Court, Democratic leadership seems okay with letting the Right trample all over them. (Last week, Biden did belatedly issue an executive order to protect abortion rights. Though it fell well short of what activists were calling for, it appears unlikely that the administration would have done even this much without pressure from the Left.)
The only national leaders who seem to be taking these threats seriously, and offering solutions, are democratic socialists and progressives like AOC, Bush, and Bernie Sanders. It appears, as with so much else, that the Biden administration and Democratic congressional leaders will take action against the Right only if the Left forces them to — and our ability to do that, outside of using our own bully pulpits, will likely depend on mass mobilization and electoral challenges against centrist Democrats, as well as clear-eyed denunciations of right-wing extremism. Organizations like DSA can organize disruptive protests for abortion rights, for instance, and primary politicians who refuse to abolish the filibuster or take other actions to disempower the Supreme Court; as part of this broader push for democracy, they can rally to demand charges be pressed against those who committed crimes on January 6.
Because of their public platforms and resources, national progressive leaders like Sanders and the Squad have a key role to play here. They can call on their supporters and others disaffected with the political establishment to protest and to run against do-nothing Democrats, and help organize them to do so. With Democratic leadership asleep at the wheel, it’s up to socialist and progressive leaders to fight demoralization by articulating a political alternative to both right-wing reaction and centrist fecklessness — and rally their supporters behind that vision.
Leftists who insist on the urgency of the right-wing threat to democracy are correct. Democrats won’t take that threat seriously unless we make them, and that means fiercely challenging Biden and party leaders on their failures so far.