Trump Supporters Storm the Capitol to Attack Democracy. Here's How Congress Can Save It.
What happened Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol should be a moment of rupture for our political system. Something needs to change. America needs a serious democracy reform agenda, one that gives a new and elevated role to the pro-democracy Republicans who have been fighting with their increasingly extreme anti-system party for the last few weeks. Democracy reform has to be the top priority, with at least some Republicans hopping on board and Democrats finding ways to help them get there.
The fissure in the Republican Party that has emerged over the course of President Donald Trump’s tenure, and rapidly intensified in the last several weeks as he has alleged election fraud, means the foundation of democracy — free and fair elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power — has itself become a political issue.
A significant percentage of Republican members of Congress decided to undermine the legitimacy of our elections for narrow political gain when they sided with Trump in refusing to recognize Joe Biden as the winner of the Nov. 3 contest. That culminated in the anti-democratic disruption of the counting of Electoral College votes certifying Biden’s victory Wednesday, as a mob of Trump supporters stoked by these political leaders invaded the Capitol.
In the weeks and months ahead, the fights within the Republican Party will only intensify, with plenty of blame to go around. First, on electoral grounds as to why the White House was lost, followed up by Democrats’ flipping control of the U.S. Senate by winning both the seats in Georgia’s runoff elections Tuesday. And second and more significantly, how much Trump and the Republicans generally are responsible for the violent mob that stormed Washington.
Perhaps the events will cause the Republican Party as a whole to turn definitively on Trump and Trumpism, and decide to work with the Democrats. But this seems highly unlikely. While elected Republicans moved quickly to condemn and distance themselves from the rioters, most will almost certainly maintain the easier-to-manage fiction that their support of Trump contributed nothing to the violence. Many are simply in too deep not to double down and keep blaming the left.
More likely is that a small but growing share of elected Republicans — those such as Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who have already been outspoken critics of Trump — will find themselves at odds with many in their party who have supported Trump until the end. The idea that the list of usual suspects might expand beyond moderate Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher and Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine was boosted by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ last-minute reversal Wednesday to support the Electoral College results after previously objecting.
But encouraging developments like that are unlikely to result in a majority anti-Trump force in the GOP because too many will still fear retribution from their base if they make any compromises with the Democrats. That will leave these members uncertain of their fate in a party system that has little room for a middle ground.
In that case, the next question is: Can the Democrats throw them a lifeline? This will be hard, but necessary. Democrats need to support these pro-democracy Republicans, whatever that might mean — perhaps giving them leadership roles on committees, or opportunities to introduce legislation, or roles in the crafting of spending bills that could help them with their re-elections.
Finding ways for these Republicans to work with the Democrats is particularly crucial because it is the only way to put in place the thing that will give pro-democracy forces more power going forward: sweeping democracy reform. The most important priority right now has to be to restore faith in the fairness of the American system of democracy. The good news for the Democrats is that making the system fairer is not only good policy — but it’s also good politics, since democracy reforms like independent redistricting and limiting money in politics are widely supported.
Luckily, the initial step to doing so is already something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made the first order of business for her chamber, and in which she will now have a majority of Democratic senators joining her. But because of the current need for 60 senators to break a filibuster, the Democrats will need to bring some Republicans along.
The task is passing HR 1, a large-scale democracy reform bill that would, among other things, mandate nonpartisan delineations of congressional districts (to prevent gerrymandering that gives one party disproportionate power), make it easier for citizens to vote and implement major campaign finance reform — and then empower a new federal agency to implement and enforce the new rules to ensure the voting process is fair, consistent, secure and legitimate. These all have the benefit of being popular reforms.
Then, Congress needs to grant Washington, D.C., statehood, which is not only a matter of fairness for currently unrepresented residents but also would be expected to give Congress more Democratic lawmakers, given the city’s leanings. But for this, too, the party needs the help of some pro-democracy Republicans.
Now, why would some of these Republicans ever support these reforms, particularly D.C. statehood? The answer is simple. Ultimately, the only way these pro-democracy Republicans can elevate their place in our system of government is to reduce the disproportionate power of the anti-system Trump Republicans, whose vision of the Republican Party maintaining power involves increasingly extreme versions of minority rule. Without democracy reform, pro-democracy Republicans will find themselves even more marginalized.
The fight is for democracy itself, and it cannot work if one party is controlled by a faction that doesn’t believe in legitimate elections. The pro-democracy forces in Congress still outnumber the anti-democracy forces. But they need to start working together to prevail.