This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
The insurrection at the capitol building on Wednesday has become the defining image of Donald Trump’s waning presidency. So too will it serve as the visceral embodiment of the degradation and undermining of American democracy — of what happens when our institutions cease to be representative and instead empower an increasingly extreme minority.
Trump’s political success began with the anti-majoritarian Electoral College, a system that privileges a handful of unrepresentative swing states and renders the rest of the nation functionally irrelevant.
His ego unable to accept the “back door” victory this rickety system made possible despite losing the national popular vote by nearly three million people, Trump spent years trying to rewrite his mandate through baseless claims of massive voter fraud. Millions must have voted illegally, he would allege, groundlessly and repeatedly; what else could explain someone else being more popular than him? Trump even assembled a commission to find this elusive “voter fraud” — though this panel, like his claims, quickly crumbled under the weight of its farce and disbanded without identifying any fraud at all. Nevertheless, the Trump acolytes, those that would stand by him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, absorbed the conspiracy and parroted it.
Wednesday’s events, however, were not just Trump’s doing. Indeed, Trump could whine all he wanted, but the wrecking ball he intended to drive through democracy could only gain force when emboldened and legitimized by the Republican Party — on both the federal and state level.
For decades, Republicans have peddled lies about voter fraud, knowing full well that there has never been any evidence for it. But in the past decade, their lies turned increasingly blatant and outlandish, normalizing the idea that there was a serious reason to believe the entire system of elections could not be trusted, that non-citizens and deceased individuals were flipping election results. Instead of being punished for betraying our democracy, like Trump, these GOP lawmakers were fully protected by their own anti-democratic advantage, one that was entirely self-made: gerrymandering.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that the vast preponderance of those who incited the insurrection by objecting to the counting of electoral votes were politicians who owed their perpetual re-election to gerrymandering.
On the state level, GOP officials in key swing states — who more than anyone sustained Trump’s election delegitimization crusade — were also completely protected from democratic backlash by their impenetrable gerrymanders (and constant efforts to suppress the vote). These legislators could freely make outlandish statements to please the president, giving unlimited oxygen to the debunked claims that there were election irregularities. The President then picked up and rebroadcast these false claims to his millions of supporters who were looking for any reason to keep hoping that the election could be overturned.
The source of all the election night drama — the slow counting of mail ballots in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin which allowed Trump to sow doubt in the first place — was likewise an intentional decision by the gerrymandered and radicalized state GOP lawmakers in order to undermine the validity of those ballots. Nonpartisan election administrators pleaded with these politicians to allow for pre-processing of ballots yet they refused to do so.
American democracy isn’t just broken. It’s shattered. And we are witnessing the consequences of letting our nation’s wounds fester.
Yet, as bleak as the past five days have been, it is within our power to redirect our nation toward fairness and equality instead of minoritarian government and reactionary white nationalism.
For at the same time that the nation’s eyes were glued to the horrific images of insurrectionists, the major cable news networks projected that Georgia Senate candidate Jon Ossoff had won, making official that the Democrats will control the U.S. Senate for the first time in six years. Mitch McConnell, the biggest roadblock to Congressional action to improve our democracy, will no longer have the ability to unilaterally allow our system of government to further decay.
Will Democrats rise to the challenge? Initial signs suggest they will. For the second legislative session in a row, the Democratic-controlled House is prioritizing the For The People Act, perhaps the most consequential package of pro-democracy reforms introduced since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If passed, this bill could revitalize our crumbling democracy, disempower the politicians who incited a riot, and usher in a new era of citizen equality.
The provisions of the For The People Act are numerous, but it’s main provisions would end Congressional gerrymandering — a timely provision given that Republicans are poised to rig the maps in 2021 to produce another House majority — limit voter suppression, lower the barriers for voter registration, and reduce the role of big money in politics by establishing a system of public campaign financing to empower small donors.
In the wake of an insurrection, the first order of business should be to hold those responsible accountable. But the second and equally critical step must be to ensure the root cause of the crisis, our broken democracy, is fixed.
Our democracy faces a crossroads. One side leads to a shattered Capitol building. The other to a healthy and representative government that we can pass onto future generations.
The choice should be obvious.
Adam Eichen is Executive Director of Equal Citizens and the co-author of “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want”