They also dealt a devastating blow to anti-democratic forces within our government by sending Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell back to the minority. The legacy of McConnell will be as a powerful opponent to voting rights — a man who had to step down after years of doing little to stop voter suppression efforts. He will leave his position, for example, with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore the voting protections first secured in 1965, still languishing on his desk.
Lewis, the late Georgia representative, made the expansion of voting rights his legacy, calling the vote “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.” America has been using that tool to improve our democracy for as long as we have been a country.
Whenever we have expanded the American electorate to include more than just the property-owning White men first allowed to vote here, we have strengthened our system of governance against anti-democratic forces, such as racism and misogyny, that threaten to install a tyranny of the minority while calling it “democracy.”
America has historically prided itself on being a democracy — but the fact that adult American citizens have had to fight over and over again to be allowed to participate in its democratic process shows the country has not yet lived up to that ideal.
Of course, Trump was never the only threat to this vision of a true democracy in America. That ideal has come under attack whenever political leaders, particularly those wanting to hold onto power, create barriers to voting for Black and brown Americans.
Take Georgia, in 2018, when Republican Brian Kemp served as Secretary of State in his own race for governor against Stacey Abrams. In the years leading up to his race for governor, voting rights activists say Kemp used his position as the state’s highest election official to purge over 1 million “inactive” Georgian voters from the rolls. Kemp claimed they fell short of the state’s “exact match” policy for such “offenses” as a missing hyphen or middle name. In addition, between 2013 and 2016, Kemp rejected 35,000 applications for voter registration, with minorities disproportionately impacted by this policy.
Abrams lost by about 55,000 votes two years ago. But Abrams didn’t concede, and she didn’t give up. Abrams and her organization Fair Fight registered 800,000 new voters by 2020, helping turn blue a traditionally red state and deliver a victory to Biden. And she persisted in her efforts in the lead up to the Georgia Senate runoffs as well, undoubtedly playing a critical role in the Democrats’ January victories.
But threats to democracy extend far beyond Trump or even Georgia. During Barack Obama’s presidency, McConnell prevented the democratically elected President from nominating scores of judges, most famously holding a Supreme Court seat vacant for eight months following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, saying it was too close to the election to seat a new justice. When Trump became President, McConnell worked with his administration to pack the federal courts with ideologues, some far more extreme than the country they’re meant to serve, and ultimately helped seat Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court after voting in the 2020 election had already begun. This wasn’t just rank hypocrisy — it was a subversion of the democratic principle he set just four years prior.
McConnell has also stood in opposition to considering statehood for Washington D.C. or Puerto Rico, where American citizens live and pay taxes without representation in the legislative body he leads. If McConnell were committed to a fair democracy, he would be working to expand voting rights to these Americans, too — even if many of them might be Democratic voters.
McConnell hasn’t stopped there. In 2019, the Democratic-led House passed a bill to end the anti-democratic process of gerrymandering, which allows elected officials to draw their own districts and regularly disenfrachises Black and brown voters. McConnell blocked the bill from advancing in the Senate.
Collectively, his actions — or, in some cases, inaction — have contributed to the erosion of both our system of governance and our faith in democracy itself.
Now that Georgia has removed most of McConnell’s power to accomplish his agenda, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act will likely be passed. The next election will see more Americans with access to the ballot — and we will finally have the chance to create a country that is truly governed by the people via free and fair elections.
America is fighting to become the democracy we’ve always been told we already were. Georgia gave us hope that that dream could become a reality.
We have a long road ahead of us to rebuild faith in our country, ourselves and our institutions — and part of that is recognizing the democratic shortcomings that brought us to this moment. We might be a republic if we can keep it, but we’re only going to remain a democracy if we can keep building it.