When Bipartisanship Risks Undermining Democracy

Some Democrats fear that the president’s intent to reach across the aisle will have dire consequences for the republic.

An illustration of Steve Bannon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Joe Biden
Getty; The Atlantic

Looking like a human grease fire, and burning nearly as hot, the right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon spat vitriol as he emerged from federal court on Monday afternoon. “This is the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland and Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden,” Bannon, a former adviser to former President Donald Trump, insisted after appearing for the first time on contempt-of-Congress charges for his refusal to testify before the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.

About an hour later, during the signing ceremony for the long-delayed bipartisan infrastructure bill, President Joe Biden stood behind a podium to extol the virtues of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. “The bill I’m about to sign into law,” Biden declared, “is proof that, despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results.”

The contrast between Bannon’s bluster and Biden’s soothing assurances encapsulated the paradox of the president’s approach to Republicans’ ongoing campaign to destabilize American elections. The Wyoming GOP voted last weekend to expel staunchly conservative Representative Liz Cheney from the party, largely because of her criticism of Trump over the insurrection and his unsubstantiated election-fraud claims. Meanwhile, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich publicly called for unseating Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, in a primary because of his conflicts with Trump, which are rooted in Kemp’s refusal to endorse the former president’s conspiracy theories about Biden’s victory in the state last fall.

To Biden and like-minded Democrats, working with the GOP whenever possible is good policy and good politics, a way for the president to fulfill what pollsters agree was one of his most popular campaign promises. But Biden’s repeated emphasis on his ability to cooperate with Republicans has stirred concerns among some Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, and nonpartisan democracy advocates, that he is obscuring the threat mounting against democratic institutions as Trump strengthens his hold over the GOP, and extremists such as Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar solidify their beachhead in it. The overriding fear is that more Republicans appear to be radicalizing by the week and Biden is making the GOP seem normal.

Charlie Sykes, the former conservative talk-radio host and a co-founder of The Bulwark, an online publication for anti-Trump Republicans, wrote recently that although Biden “was elected to restore a sense of ‘normalcy’ … these are not normal times, and perhaps the reality is that a normal approach to politics in profoundly abnormal times is a formula for political disaster.” Similarly, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, a co-founder and the chief strategy officer of the liberal group Way to Win, told me she worries that Biden’s “focusing on bipartisanship undermines our argument … when we are trying to point out the GOP’s extremism.”

Hardly any Democratic strategist begrudged Biden’s taking a victory lap this week over attracting Republican support for the long-stalled infrastructure bill. “It’s the right tone for him because it is so essential to his brand,” the longtime Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advised Biden during the 2020 campaign, told me. “He’s perceived … in the data as someone who wants to bring other people together.” Even Fernandez Ancona, though concerned about the White House’s overall stress on bipartisanship, said that given how much Biden emphasized his ability to cut deals across party lines, “it is a big victory [for him] to get that infrastructure bill passed in a bipartisan way” that “makes good on the promise he made in the campaign.”

The issue, she said, isn’t just Biden: Way to Win’s research found that Democratic House candidates in 2020 spent substantially on advertising that touted their willingness to work with Republicans, while Republicans ran ads that painted Democrats as dangerous radicals. Democrats, she said, must abolish that imbalance. “If Biden wants to focus on bipartisanship, then we need other parts of the Democratic family to make sure we are telling that story about GOP extremism,” Fernandez Ancona said. Leaning into bipartisanship inhibits Democrats’ ability to convince voters that Republicans are obstructing popular proposals and programs, she added.

In fact, all evidence suggests that the infrastructure agreement—which drew support from 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 in the House—is very much the exception to a pattern of intractable partisan resistance. Every House and Senate Republican is expected to vote against Biden’s broader Build Back Better bill. Filibusters supported by all or nearly all Republican senators are blocking a long list of bills that passed the House, including measures to block discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or identity, tighten controls on sales at gun shows, codify the legal right to abortion, and reform policing. Every Republican senator this week backed a congressional resolution to overturn Biden’s mandate that large employers require their workers to receive a COVID vaccine or be subject to regular testing.

Most important have been the Republican unification around Trump’s Big Lie conspiracy theory about widespread voter fraud in 2020; the ongoing tilt in the party toward whitewashing the January 6 attack on the Capitol; and the further erosion of barriers between the party mainstream and anti-government and white-nationalist extremists.

How is Biden supposed to respond to such behavior?

Already, a steady procession of Republican-controlled states this year have responded to Trump’s discredited claims by passing laws making voting tougher, increasing partisan influence over vote-counting, or both. Every House and Senate Republican has opposed Democratic legislation that would undo many of those changes and create a nationwide floor of voting rights—and every Republican in both chambers except Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has opposed a parallel bill to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Every House Republican except Liz Cheney and Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois voted against creating the House’s special committee to investigate the January 6 commission, and when the two accepted appointments to it, caucus members pushed to strip them of all other committee assignments. Just this month, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, refused for days to publicly criticize Gosar after he posted an anime video showing him killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and yesterday Cheney and Kinzinger were the only House Republicans who voted for a resolution to censure Gosar for it.

More Trump acolytes who echo his fraud charges are seeking positions that provide control over election administration. At the same time, threats of violence, many from hard-core Trump supporters, have grown more routine against public-health, school-board, and local-government officials.

While all of this is happening, polls show that a clear majority of Republican voters have internalized Trump’s claims. In a late-October NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, three-fourths of Republicans said Trump continues to contest the 2020 outcome “because he is right, there were real cases of fraud that changed the results.” Nearly three-fifths of Republicans said they will not trust the results if their presidential candidate loses in 2024. A comparable number of Republicans in a recent Pew Research Center poll agreed that too much attention had been paid to the January 6 riot. In polling earlier this year by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a majority of Republicans agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

Trump’s hold on the GOP is growing “more complete,” says the longtime conservative strategist Bill Kristol, a leader among the embattled band of anti-Trump Republicans. In many respects, Kristol notes, that’s a surprise after Trump’s defeat and the shattering events of January 6. “Having gone through what we went through, the reasonable, hopeful thing was he loses, he goes away or he is discredited, the party breathes a massive sigh of relief and moves on,” Kristol told me. Instead, he said, what’s clear now is that any attempt to free the party from Trump’s gravitational pull, particularly around his continuing threat to the basic rules of democracy, will be “a long slog.”

The debate over Biden’s approach to handling Republicans centers on whether he’s responding sufficiently to these threats. At times, he’s sharply criticized the red-state assaults on voting rights and voting administration, but he’s generally placed much greater emphasis, as he did this week, on his determination to work with the GOP. On the policy front, the Justice Department has filed lawsuits against the Georgia and Texas voter-suppression laws, and it did undertake the contempt charge against Bannon. But the DOJ has also faced criticism for failing to seek harsher penalties against the January 6 rioters and rumbles of discontent from people such as Representative Adam Schiff of California that it has taken no apparent steps to investigate potential criminal liability for Trump or other former officials around the insurrection or his broader effort to overturn the election result. Legislatively, Biden has sublimated the passage of Democrats’ voting-rights legislation to the completion of his economic agenda—a process in which the finish line remains stubbornly out of sight.

Despite everything Trump and his supporters in the GOP have done since last November, the recent Marist poll found Americans split almost exactly in half over which party represents “the bigger threat to democracy.” Partisans in each party overwhelmingly blamed the other, and independents were slightly more likely to pick Democrats (41 percent) than Republicans (37 percent) as the greater threat.

Lake believes that this result likely reflects the fact that, when asked about threats to democracy, poll respondents tend to think less about the restrictions on voting rights (which “they are largely unaware of”) or even the January 6 attack than about the influence of special interests, “and they think both political parties are bought.” Even if more Americans recognized the threats to voting rights, she said, they still likely wouldn’t prioritize them over concerns about inflation, jobs, and COVID-19. “Most regular people will tell you, ‘Right now I don’t feel any urgency about the democracy piece, because Trump has receded, the craziness receded, the next election isn’t until a year away. Right now we have to figure out how to afford $5-a-gallon gas to get to the polls,’” she said.

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth University professor of government and co-founder of Bright Line Watch, an academic group that studies threats to democracy, believes Biden is right to keep his focus primarily on those kitchen-table issues. If Biden works harder to define Trump and his enablers as a threat to democracy, Nyhan said, “he just makes the idea more partisan.” The lesson from other countries, Nyhan added, is that “normal politics” focusing on building coalitions and responding to voters’ daily concerns “is often the best way to beat authoritarian populist figures.” That compass argues for the course Biden is following.

The problem, Nyhan acknowledged, is that when mainstream leaders spend all their time “talking about these other issues, you are potentially normalizing a threat to democracy.” He sees that as the inevitable cost of Biden’s approach. “We all would like to return to a more normal politics,” Nyhan said. “But in the process, we’re neglecting the gathering storm. That’s my fear.”

Kristol wonders if Biden would serve himself better by subtly shifting how he discusses bipartisanship. Rather than touting his ability to cut deals with Republicans—which makes him look as though he has failed when they don’t come together—Kristol thinks Biden might get more benefit from emphasizing that he has long worked across party lines and still hopes to do so, but can’t because so many in the GOP are taking hard-core positions, particularly about the protection of democracy. Biden has “tried to reassure people that he can,” work with Republicans, Kristol said. “That’s not wise. We don’t need reassurance. We need a little more alarm.”

The counterview in the White House and among Democrats sympathetic to Biden follows a kind of catechism. In this perspective, the best way to defang the Trump-led threat to democracy is for Democrats to hold control of one or both congressional chambers in 2022 and for Biden to win reelection in 2024, allowing time for Trump’s influence to wane. And that requires the president to deliver the agenda he ran on, including not only progress on COVID and the economy but also cooperation with Republicans. “I think that what’s good for Biden is good for democracy—period,” Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, told me. “I’m very concerned—my entire organization is very concerned—about the fate of democracy. And it rests right now on Biden’s approval ratings. Voters want accomplishments, and they also want bipartisan accomplishments.” If anything, Kessler said, rather than castigating Republicans, Biden should be looking for smaller policy issues where he can reach more bipartisan legislative deals.

Nyhan, though, is among those who think that betting the defense of democracy on one politician, or even one party “winning in perpetuity,” is unrealistic. Voters will always prioritize their immediate economic concerns over more abstract questions of democratic standards, and current conditions will inevitably deteriorate in a way that eventually provides an electoral advantage to a party with anti-democratic tendencies, he said. The best way to safeguard democracy against such inevitable swings, he argues, is to build a broad coalition across party lines in its defense, and to fortify the rules protecting it, as the Democrats’ twin voting-rights bills would do.

Today, there’s no sign of a popular front for democracy coalescing; almost all elected Republicans are defending the red-state voting bills and looking to minimize both January 6 and the continuing revelations about Trump’s broad plan to subvert the 2020 results. The prospects for either voting-rights bill remain caught in the prolonged uncertainty over whether Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will accept changes in Senate rules that would allow them to overcome Republican filibusters. Biden may hope his calming words at Monday’s signing ceremony point toward a less contentious political future, but without more urgency from all quarters about fortifying democracy, Bannon’s feral mix of conspiracy theories and snarling belligerence could offer a more telling forecast of American politics’ next stage.