It’s Not Complacency That’s Paralyzing Democrats

An overambitious faction of the activist left is standing in the way of voting-rights reform.

People hold up signs to protest voter suppression.
Megan Varner / Getty

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Updated at 5:14 p.m. ET on May 28, 2021.

Where Republicans control local power, they are building a new infrastructure of minority rule. They are gerrymandering districts, raising barriers to voting, biasing election administration, and politicizing election certification. There is nothing secret about this effort; everybody can see it happening.

Yet the members of the threatened, narrow Democratic majorities in Congress—the people who might seem to have the strongest motives to act—seem too paralyzed to respond. The 117th Congress has expended nearly a quarter of its term.* It has enacted one huge spending bill already and seems poised to enact another. The Democratic majorities have flexed muscle—and are attempting to jam through a commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol over the opposition of Republican leadership.

But the voting-reform bills that got the powerful symbolic No. 1 in both the House and Senate order of business? They have stalled. Some observers marvel at the Democrats’ self-abnegation in the face of aggressive and blatant Republican schemes. Earlier this week, Luke Savage wrote in The Atlantic:

If you’ve followed recent Democratic messaging, you’ll have heard that American democracy is under serious attack by the Republican Party, representing an existential threat to the country. If you’ve followed Democratic lawmaking, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the threat is actually a rather piddling one. The disconnect, in this case, isn’t attributable to Democratic embellishment, but to inexcusable complacency.

But it’s not complacency that is paralyzing the Democrats. They know what’s being plotted against them. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced the Senate version of the For the People Act on March 17, 2021, with these angry words: “Despicably, efforts to target … historically disenfranchised communities [have] become a central component of the electoral strategy of one of America’s major political parties.”

Two weeks earlier, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had spoken as fiercely when she introduced the House version. “Just last night, the Georgia House passed a draconian new voter-restriction bill, which would end weekend voting, slash the number of mail ballot drop boxes, [and] impose restrictive voter ID for mail ballots, among other actions,” she said.

So no, it’s not blithe inattention that has stalled the Democrats’ voting-rights bills. It’s self-harming overreach by party activists.

Here are two leading examples.

Republican gerrymandering works by stuffing as many as possible of a state’s Democratic-leaning voters, especially Black voters, into the fewest possible districts. Gerrymanders improve Republican election outcomes—but also deliver super-safe seats to minority officeholders. The reform bills would promote independent commissions in place of partisan gerrymandering. That project would boost Democratic prospects in general, but could threaten Black Democratic incumbents.

Here’s another example.

The House versions of the reform bills take aim at big money in politics by offering federal matching grants to campaign contributions of up to $200 in the amazing ratio of 6 to 1: Donate $200 to the congressional candidate of your choice, and you would also direct their way an additional $1,200 in federal money. That plan horrifies many mainstream Democrats, who interpret it as a massive windfall for unelectable left-wing insurgent candidates running primary campaigns against more electable centrists.

It’s squabbles among the passengers, not dilatoriness by the conductors, that have sidetracked the train.

National Democrats are more vulnerable to such internecine squabbles than Trumpified state Republican parties. Both national Democrats and state Republicans want power, obviously. But their respective routes to power—and their goals for using it—vary enormously.

The Democratic coalition is a broad one; the Republican coalition is a narrow one. The Democratic coalition has a long agenda; the Republican coalition has a short one. Above all, the Democratic Party is divided by the many different things its members want to do; the Republican Party is united by a shared determination to block the things that Democrats want to do. A disparate majority loosely committed to diverging goals will have difficulty imposing its will on a cohesive minority strongly committed to a singular goal.

Democrats have two exits from this dilemma: one higher effort, but with a higher reward, the other lower effort, but with a lower reward.

The first path is for congressional leaders to rewrite the reform bills fast to please pro-Biden moderates and Black incumbents—and then to cram the modified bills through the House and Senate. That would require cajoling and appeasing pro-filibuster Senate Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, which in turn implies disappointing activist Democrats outside Congress.

Failing that, the second approach requires Democrats to engage in a radical rethinking of their reaction to voter suppression in Republican states. Remember, they still have some federal laws on their side. The U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, but it did not kill it. The Obama administration’s Justice Department won voting-rights cases in North Carolina before the 2016 election. Taking decisive action to fill the 80-odd federal judicial vacancies with pro-voting judges followed by turbocharging enforcement efforts at the Department of Justice may seem only second-best compared with new legislation. But if new legislation cannot be enacted, then second-best will have to do.

And maybe executive and judicial action need not be so second-best as all that. Federal civil-rights action can deter states even before its final adjudication. Republican state politicians may be ruthless in their pursuit of partisan advantage, but they are not the only power centers in their states. As the battle over voting rights in Georgia demonstrated, business interests can be mobilized against overt racial discrimination.

The CEOs of Cisco Systems, Coca Cola, and Delta Airlines—among others—took public stands against the voting law enacted by Georgia in March 2021. Major League Baseball shifted its All-Star Game in protest. These corporate actions did not alter the outcome in Georgia. They may have, however, altered the incentives of business elites in other states contemplating a Georgia path.

Awareness of voter suppression can actually become its own source of political power. In 2018 and 2020, anti-Trump voters endured queues precisely because they understood that pro-Trump legislators had created the lines intentionally to deter them. The queues were interpreted by anti-Trump voters as a confession by pro-Trump politicians: They knew they could not win a fair fight, and so they had engineered an unfair one. That proved as motivating to the anti-Trump coalition as anything else that happened in 2018 or 2020.

Nobody should be romantic about any of this. Voter suppression works. Gerrymandering works. The drift of U.S. politics away from democratic ideals over the past 20 years is real. The first option—fix the laws—remains the better one. To achieve it, the people who need to mend their ways are not the supposedly complacent Democrats of the center—but the overambitious faction of the activist left.


*A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to the 117th Congress as the 118th Congress.