Voting Rights Alone Will Not Save the Democrats

Expanding voting rights without expanding economic rights, as the Democrats are now attempting to do, won't save American democracy and won't save the party from collapse.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference following a Senate Democratic caucus meeting on voting rights and the filibuster on January 18, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In the new year, Democratic leaders have chosen to steer their ship away from their promised economic agenda and toward voting rights, ultimately crashing into the filibuster iceberg last night. Their decision to shelve economic legislation in favor of a democracy agenda reflects a deeper misunderstanding of what fortifies democratic ideals — and illustrates the Gordian Knot grinding up the gears of their political engine.

The Democratic Party is defined by a contradiction: it simultaneously promises to enrich its corporate donors and solve problems created by those same donors. That impossibility gives us drug pricing policies that would not significantly reduce medicine prices, tax proposals that never actually address inequality, corporate handouts that don’t much help the working class, and health care policy that enriches the insurance companies already fleecing sick people. It also gives us rotating villains who help the party’s rank-and-file lawmakers pull their bait and switch — they get to promise populist legislation they know is already doomed by Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, or some other designated malefactor of the day.

As more and more Americans are disgusted by this hypocrisy, here comes “voting rights” — a politically safe initiative because it does not threaten capital in an age when elections can be bought and voting rarely changes economic policy. For Democrats trying to avoid the core tension between their donors and everyone else, a “democracy agenda” is a convenient salve — a high-profile crusade that does not offend their paymasters in the way that, say, breaking up monopolies or closing the carried interest tax loophole might.

Shifting into his end-of-life push for economic rights, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr explained this dichotomy — and its shortcomings — in Senate testimony in 1966:

It was easier to gain the right to vote, because it didn’t cost the Nation anything, and the fact is that we are dealing with issues now that will call for something of a restructuring of the architecture of American society. It is going to cost the Nation something.

We can’t talk about the economic problems the Negro confronts without talking about billions of dollars. We can’t end slums in the final analysis without the necessity to take profit out of slums. We can’t deal with the school situation in the final analysis without seeing that we are not only talking about integrating education, but we are talking about quality education, which means that millions of additional dollars will have to be spent to improve the whole education system of America.

Dr King’s life illustrated this dynamic (as you can see in the terrific HBO documentary King in the Wilderness). When he moved into the battle against the Vietnam War and for economic justice, he was vilified by the same political and media class that lauded him for his fight against Jim Crow and for voting rights. The contrasting responses underscored an axiom of American politics: the establishment will happily concede anything that does not endanger its supremacy and wealth — but will try to destroy anyone who threatens its power.

That axiom persists today, as evidenced by Democrats betraying their most popular economic promises and retreating into voting rights as a cause of last resort.

Of course, protecting voting rights is important at a time when Republicans deny election results and use their state legislative majorities to try to restrict voting. But the cause still has little salience as a motivating election issue, according to the latest polls showing that many Americans do not see democracy as a top priority. Why is that?

Likely it’s because a much bigger democracy crisis has been telling Americans that their votes don’t matter much.

This is the emergency that the democracy discourse rarely mentions: the problem of elections being purchased, politicians being owned, and legislation being written by the buyers. Oh, and a Senate that gives 11 percent of the population enough representation to help the US Chamber of Commerce stop anything the rest of the country wants and votes for.

All of that comes together to create a “democracy” in name but not necessarily in practice — a country where the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy,” as Princeton researchers concluded.

In this context, the narrow, albeit crucial, demand for voting rights is divorced from any broader concept of something like “social citizenship” — a citizenship encompassing not just suffrage but also economic rights and other conditions necessary for a functioning republican democracy. Instead, America has something closer to the democracy of a student government, where the electeds tweak the vending machine offerings and prom themes, but don’t do much else.

That may work for a local high school, but not for a country.

When voting rights do not result in economic rights, democracy becomes kayfabe offering an entertaining simulacrum of self governance, but a lived experience of oligarchy.

Most Americans may not follow the ins and outs of legislative battles, but they are aware of this reality — they sense that politics has become one big business transaction with donors and politicians at the table, and the public on the menu. Just because the restaurant is called “Democracy” doesn’t mean it is a democracy that lots of voters are eager to defend as they are being eaten alive.

The problem for Democrats, then, is that their voting rights push doesn’t slice their Gordian Knot — it doesn’t navigate around the contradiction of them trying to serve both donors and voters. In fact, it may spotlight their refusal to side with the public and further expose them as uninterested in anyone other than themselves.

Come election time, demands for voting rights without fulfilled economic promises means many Americans may hear the Democratic message as “vote for your right to vote our politicians into fancy jobs” rather than “vote for your right to get good policy that actually helps improve your life.”

The latter message could be compelling — but only if it is believable. And the only way to make it believable is for Democrats to use their power to actually deliver significant and permanent economic gains to millions of voters. They can pass bills through Congress and the president can use existing executive authority to do that. It’s not hard and it’s not rocket science. It just requires a break from the donor class and a commitment to “restructuring the architecture of American society,” in the words of Dr King.

And yet, in all the corporate media’s political chatter about electoral theories and tactics, this strategy of simply delivering material gains for voters is never discussed.

It is somehow never considered an option — even though it is the only viable one.