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Opinion | Joe Biden and Democrats Must Help People Fast

To give Manchin his due, a more high-minded fear — shared by others in his caucus — is that we have just come through a long, ugly period of partisan norm-breaking. Surely the answer to Trump’s relentless assaults on decorum, to Mitch McConnell’s rewriting of Senate rules, is a return to the comity they cast off, to the traditions they’ve violated, to the bipartisanship they abandoned. A version of this may appeal to Biden, too: Trump stretched the boundaries of executive authority, so perhaps he should retreat, offering more deference to Congress and resisting opportunities to go it alone, even when stymied by Republicans. But if this is what he means by “unity,” it will just empower the merchants of division.

In their book, Howell and Moe write that this is a common, but dangerously counterproductive, response to populist challengers. Defenders of the political system, eager to show that normalcy has returned, often embrace the very defects and dysfunctions that gave rise to the populist leader in the first place. The nightmare scenario is that Trump is defeated, driven from office, and that augurs in an era when even less appears to get done, as President Biden submits to congressional paralysis while embracing a calmer communications strategy. If Democrats permit that to happen, they will pave the road for the next Trump-like politician, one who will be yet more disciplined and dangerous than Trump.

“Democracy is precious,” Biden said at his inauguration. “Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

It’s a stirring sentiment, but wrong. Democracy barely survived. If America actually abided by normal democratic principles, Trump would have lost in 2016, after receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The American people did not want this presidency, but they got it anyway, and the result was carnage. In 2020, Trump lost by about seven million votes, but if about 40,000 votes had switched in key states, he would have won anyway. The Senate is split 50-50, but the 50 Democrats represent more than 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republicans. This is not a good system.

Democracy is designed as a feedback loop. Voters choose leaders. Leaders govern. Voters judge the results, and either return the leaders to power, or give their opponents a chance. That feedback loop is broken in American politics. It is broken because of gerrymandering, because of the Senate, because of the filibuster, because of the Electoral College, because we have declared money to be speech and allowed those with wealth to speak much more loudly than those without.

It is also broken because we directly disenfranchise millions of Americans. In the nation’s capital, 700,000 residents have no vote in the House or Senate at all. The same is true in Puerto Rico, which, with 3.2 million residents, is larger than 20 existing states. For decades, Democrats promised to offer statehood to residents of both territories, but have never followed through. It is no accident that these are parts of the country largely populated by Black and Hispanic voters. If Democrats believe anything they have said over the past year about combating structural racism and building a multiethnic democracy, then it is obvious where they must start.

“It would be a devastating civil rights failure if we didn’t achieve statehood now,” Stasha Rhodes, the campaign director of 51 for 51, which advocates D.C. statehood, told me. “It would also be a sign that Democrats are not interested in restoring and strengthening American democracy. We can no longer say Republicans are anti-democracy when we now have a chance to restore and create the democracy we say is important, and then we don’t do it.”

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