Democracy Defeated, 35–54

Eleven senators didn’t even bother to cast a vote on a commission to investigate a violent attack on their own workplace.

An illustration of a column ripped into two pieces
The Atlantic / Getty

Updated at 11:35 a.m. ET on June 1, 2021.

Three times in the past year, American democracy has been tested. Once, and most consequentially, it emerged victorious. The subsequent two tests have not turned out as well, and that is a bleak omen for whenever the next test arrives.

The first test came after last fall’s election, when more Americans voted for the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, than for any other presidential candidate in history. Biden won the Electoral College by a wide margin, too—306–232, the same tally that Trump had called a “landslide” when it carried him to victory in 2016.

Despite this clear result, Trump refused to accept the outcome. He and his allies insisted that he was the rightful winner and did their best to overturn the election, filing spurious lawsuits in courts across the country and pressuring local election officials to come up with ways to either find more votes for him or disqualify valid votes for Biden. If not for the stubborn refusal of a few Republican officials in Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona, the push might have worked. This was the first test of democracy, and it passed.

When it became clear that his postelection effort was going nowhere, Trump tried two new venues: First, he mounted a public campaign to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into forsaking his constitutional responsibility to certify the election on January 6, and second, he summoned a crowd of supporters to Washington for a boisterous rally. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he warned them, and told them to “peacefully and patriotically” march to the Capitol, claiming (falsely) that he would march with them. Some in the crowd then launched a violent coup attempt, storming the Capitol. Democracy prevailed, but not without great damage, physical and psychic.

In the aftermath, Congress moved to impeach Trump for fomenting an insurrection. This would be democracy’s second test. Clear majorities of both houses voted in favor. The House voted 232–197 to impeach Trump, and in the Senate, a sizable majority, 57 members, voted to convict him. But convictions require two-thirds of the Senate. This is arguably wise—convicting a president should not be easy—but it did not speak well for the courage and resolve of Republican senators that only seven of them voted to convict, nor that so many excused their vote by claiming, dubiously, that a former president could not be impeached.

In failing to impeach Trump, Congress demonstrated the toothlessness of its oversight powers. This was a defeat for American democracy.

Unable to materially punish Trump, his critics asked merely that an attack on the very seat of government, their own workplace, be investigated in a serious and bipartisan way. But today, that proposition failed. The Republican Party, minus a few (Senators Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, Mitt Romney, and Ben Sasse), voted to block even this meager step by refusing to vote for cloture.

A majority of senators, 54, voted for the commission, but the measure needed 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Only 35 senators voted against.* Eleven senators didn’t bother to cast a vote. (In their defense, the outcome was all but certain, and how do you weigh a violent attack on your workplace against wanting to get out of town for a holiday weekend?)

Republicans as a whole were not willing to examine what happened on January 6. They wouldn’t step aside and allow a majority of their colleagues to do it. They wouldn’t vote to let Collins introduce a measure that would have watered down the commission. The GOP was prepared to block any and every version of an investigation.

This, too, is a defeat for democracy. Protections of minority interests are essential, but nothing about a January 6 commission represented an infringement on the rights of any minority bloc (nor, for that matter, did certifying the election or impeaching the former president). Political observers have become so inured to the topsy-turvy expectation that a supermajority is required for any moderately controversial legislation that it feels normal when popular legislation with a majority of votes in favor fails.

The commission itself is perhaps inconsequential. Although a bipartisan investigation would have carried more weight with the public (this is why Republicans blocked it, by their own public and private acknowledgment), other probes will continue, and besides, we already know what happened: Trump refused to accept the result of the election and provoked an insurrection to overturn it.

But as a proxy for Republican commitment to peaceful transfer of power and respect for elections, today’s vote is troubling. The officials who voted against the commission insist that they just want to move on from the dark events of January 6, but there’s a growing belief that if the 2024 election is close and Republicans control Congress, they will hand the election to the GOP candidate. The views of Republicans in D.C. might be irrelevant, because GOP officials at the state level are introducing laws designed to help their party and enshrine minority rule.

Perhaps these concerns are overblown. But watching today’s vote on the January 6 commission, the latest in a string of defeats and near-defeats of clear majorities of the people and their representatives at the hands of Republican minorities, it was hard to feel sanguine about the future of American democracy.

*This article previously misstated that 39 senators voted against the January 6 commission. In fact, 35 voted against it.