Written by Harry Burke

Democracy Was On The Ballot. Joe Biden Won. Did Democracy Win Too?

Photo by Dalton Caraway on Unsplash

The people spoke: Joe Biden is President-Elect. We faced the most corrupt, unfit, demagogic and illiberal president of our lifetime—and won. People are dancing in the streets with catharsis and joy, and they should be. But one thing dismayed me after election week. We heard the refrain “democracy is on the ballot” all through the campaign. It was more than a hyperbolic applause line, it was an apt reading of our current state of affairs. The question still percolating is: Joe Biden won, but did democracy win too?

Dancin’ in the street

I don’t mean to be a damper on our collective sigh of relief. A Joe Biden Administration is a godsend. Competence and science will reign. Ron Klain—Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff in waiting—was Barack Obama’s Ebola Czar during the outbreak’s beginnings in West Africa. He will show us what a competent public health response looks like. Gone are the days when the trust fund brigade—with Jared Kushner at the helm—allocates PPE to state and local governments. A Joe Biden White House will oversee the rollout of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once one is available. Out of all the Democratic primary candidates, Joe Biden is well-suited to get something done with Mitch McConnell, especially with the real possibility of a GOP Senate. A Joe Biden Justice Department will protect civil rights. Education will no longer be overseen by Betsy DeVos, a GOP mega donor. Joe Biden will restore DACA and rejoin the Paris Climate Accords. He will expand access to healthcare and strengthen the ACA. America’s allies can expect us to get “back in the game.” At a bare minimum, we will have a president who is decent, kind, and won’t tweet with his changing moods or negative media coverage. 

Joe Biden will be president and he is well-suited for this moment. Dance from now until inauguration day. But we should keep one eye on what is ahead for our politics. Democracy was on the ballot, but it didn’t deliver a knockout blow to its most ardent detractors.

Republicans against democracy

Our government increasingly does not reflect the will of a majority of Americans and Republicans currently benefit from those systemic quirks. In all elected branches—the House, the Senate, and the White House—Democrats win more votes but not the power that should logically follow. Gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic voters in a handful of major metropolitan areas keeps Democrats from controlling the agenda in Congress. The Senate is dangerously skewed towards small rural states. Despite winning the popular vote in 7 of the last 8 presidential contests, they’ve only won the White House in 5 of those 7 contests. This all leads to one outcome: to gain power, Democrats need more than just a majority of the electorate, they need landslide victories in every cycle. 

The Republican Party sees this structural advantage and is leaning into it. U.S. Senator Mike Lee from Utah, during the VP debate, tweeted, “We are not a democracy.” Lee and others on the right have advocated for repealing the 17th amendment, which allows for the direct election of U.S. Senators by voters of each state—a move that would entrench a GOP Senate majority even further. The GOP, either through state governments or the Supreme Court, has made voting harder and disproportionately targets historically Democratic voters, i.e. African Americans and people of color. They have perfected extreme partisan gerrymandering, giving them a handful of House seats they don’t democratically deserve

Coup attempts. They can happen here too.

And the fight for democracy is happening today in broad daylight. As Ezra Klein has written, we are watching an attempted coup, albeit one executed by a bumbling liar who lacks the necessary attention span to even pull it off. Donald Trump has refused to concede an election he clearly lost. His team is actively pursuing court challenges to throw out legally cast ballots. Not only has the GOP establishment been silent throughout this entire ordeal, but several lawmakers have actively supported Trump’s efforts to question the legitimacy of our democratic process. Lindsay Graham and others have claimed widespread fraud and called for investigations. These accusations, like Hitler’s assurances to Chamberlain in Munich, are hollow and imaginary. This aggressive power grab should be another serious wakeup call; this might not work for Trump, but what about a smarter authoritarian one day down the line?

Fault lines

The contrasts are becoming clearer. Democrats will be for more democracy and Republicans will be for less. Democrats will want to expand access to the ballot. Republicans will accelerate their attempts to take it away. Democrats win more votes but lose representation while the GOP wins less popular support but continues to gain power. They then write rules and draw districts that further entrench their structural advantages. Its a dangerous loop that must be disrupted.

Several of these issues could have been remedied after this election, but Democrats needed a sweep. They needed the White House, the Senate, and to maintain their House majority. With control of government, they could have pushed for H.R. 1, a bill the House passed in 2019 that would have combated the growing hostility towards democracy that many in the GOP harbor. Sadly, it appears these structural reforms will have to wait. Democrats won the White House, will most likely lose the Senate, and actually lost seats in the House.

This ain’t over

For the last 4 years, we have all collectively held our breath, hoping our norms and institutions would survive the battering Trump and his GOP enablers racked. I believe we can exhale with some relief. It appears it wasn’t a death sentence, but I don’t believe this is over. Democracy was indeed on the ballot, and the result was a mixed bag. My hope is that we will realize the threats against democracy do not die with a Trump loss. We have to fight each cycle. 

2022 is coming up fast. We should be ready.