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OPINION

So long, democracy — we hardly knew ye

With voting rights and the For the People Act on life support, America’s ‘grand experiment’ is quickly failing.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has probably dealt a fatal blow to the For the People Act after he said he won’t back the bill because it has no Republican support.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has probably dealt a fatal blow to the For the People Act after he said he won’t back the bill because it has no Republican support.Samuel Corum/Getty

In a nationally televised address before Congress, President Lyndon Johnson extolled “the destiny of democracy.”

“Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Don’t believe the curated myths of those dusty old history books. Democracy was not conceived until 1965 when Johnson delivered his speech and, two days later, sent to Congress what he called “a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.”

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Five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in American history, became law. A century after the Civil War, it was birthed from the blood and grit of Black hope and determination. In a nation centuries old, America has been a democracy for only 56 years.

I wonder how many years democracy has left.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has probably dealt a fatal blow to the For the People Act, a wide-ranging Democratic-sponsored effort to shore up and expand voting rights hobbled by the Supreme Court, especially Chief Justice John Roberts, in 2013. In an opinion piece in his home state’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin talked out of both sides of his mouth. He said “the right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics.”

Then he said he won’t back the bill because it has no Republican support and “voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen.” (And, of course, he’s unwilling to abandon the filibuster.)

Manchin, a conservative Democrat, never bothers to mention the partisan efforts in Republican-led state legislatures to restrict and suppress voting. Nor does he note that a majority of Americans support the For the People Act — which is exactly what top Republicans and their shadowy backers feared. Even West Virginians, whose interests Manchin claims to represent, favor the bill across party lines.

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Republicans don’t support the bill because Republicans don’t support voting rights or democracy. And because of this, democracy is rapidly deteriorating.

It’s not as if the warning signs weren’t there. Even before the deadly Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, Donald Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election. When Joe Biden won both the Electoral College and popular vote, Trump claimed that the election was “far from over.”

Trump has spent years injecting doubt into the sanctity of the electoral process. It’s working — a majority of Republicans reject Biden as the legitimate president. Lies about voter fraud are slowly poisoning democracy.

“This experiment in democracy is not self-executing,” former President Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a recent interview. “It doesn’t happen just automatically; it happens because each successive generation says, ‘These values, these truths we hold self-evident. This is important. We’re going to invest in it and sacrifice for it and stand up for it even when it’s not politically convenient.’”

What’s endemic in this nation’s long political life is its inability to stomach full citizenship for every American. Jim Crow’s descendants thrive in every new voter identification law, every hurdle to mail-in voting, and every polling place shuttered in Black and brown communities. With the 2022 midterms looming, Republicans aren’t just putting their thumb on the scale. They’re standing on it and smothering a nascent democracy younger than the average age of the Senate.

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In his 1965 speech, Johnson said, “The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.”

With an assist from Manchin, Republican senators act only in obedience to their own ambitions, power, and racist hegemony. America has spent most of its existence backing policies designed to subjugate the rights of millions. White supremacy dictates that government of the people, by the people, for the people should apply to only some people, and the fewer people of color, the better.

It’s not difficult to topple a house only half-built, and America’s “grand experiment” will remain incomplete because of those who laud democracy while doing everything they can to kill it. In a nation that has spent more of its existence codifying injustice than fighting for justice, “the destiny of democracy,” as Johnson called it, is now tilting toward catastrophic failure.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.