50.50: Opinion

A crisis of democracy in the US – what to watch for in 2022

The future is gloomy, with abortion rights threatened, rampant voter suppression and radical Republicans undermining democracy at every turn

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
30 December 2021, 10.43am
The March to Save America rally on 6 January 2021 that preceded the US Capitol ‘insurrection’
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Shay Horse/NurPhoto/PA Images

Sad to say, when it comes to political life and civil society in the United States, 2021 has not given proponents of democracy and human rights much to celebrate.

The year was dominated by three negative trends: the authoritarian Right’s ‘Big Lie’ that the 2020 presidential election was ‘stolen’ from former president Donald Trump; the impact of Republican stacking of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, with far-Right extremists; and the relative impotence of President Joe Biden’s administration to pursue necessary reforms in the face of Republican obstruction, even with a nominal legislative majority.

As 2021 comes to a close and we look ahead to 2022, we need to keep an eye on each of these trajectories.

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6 January insurrection

In a very real sense, 2021 has unfolded in the shadow of the 6 January insurrection, in which an angry right-wing and largely Christian nationalist mob invaded the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election results and prevent Biden from taking office on 20 January.

Biden won the election fairly, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from spreading baseless conspiracy theories or wasting taxpayer dollars on state and local investigations into supposed electoral irregularities. They also passed state-level voter suppression laws that are likely to have a devastating impact on the midterm elections in 2022.

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The scenes of the insurrection in the United States Capitol last Wednesday, January 6, will go down in history as the moment when the oldest and most ‘exceptional’ democracy in the world trembled.

Republicans have also sought to obstruct the work of the bipartisan select committee investigating the events of 6 January from the outset. Throughout 2021, they have tried to downplay and reframe the coup attempt, painting those who participated as “peaceful protesters” and “patriots”, rather than violent rioters and insurrectionists bent on subverting a legal election.

To be sure, some who participated in the events of 6 January have been held accountable. Earlier this month, one man who attacked Capitol police officers was sentenced to more than five years in prison, the longest sentence handed down to any insurrectionist to date.

It remains to be seen, however, if any former Trump administration officials will be charged with anything related to the insurrection beyond contempt of Congress over their refusal to comply with requests from the January 6 committee.

Abortion under attack

Next year is likely to deliver severe human rights setbacks via Supreme Court decisions, which are generally handed down in June and July. The most critical case to watch will be Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. Observers consider it highly likely that the Supreme Court will overturn the federal right to abortion.

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This is just one reason that state-level legal battles and interstate support networks will become all the more crucial for pro-democracy forces.

But in responding to this rollback of rights, we must not lose sight of how the radicalisation of the Supreme Court was pushed through by the authoritarian Republican Party in a hypocritical and fundamentally undemocratic fashion – as I detailed previously.

This court-packing has resulted in a legitimacy crisis. President Biden took office with Democrats in control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and progressives hoped he would work with Congress to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Biden administration and even many Congressional Democrats are unduly reluctant to take this necessary step to restore fairness.

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Voter suppression

A casualty of the Democrats’ failure to change the Senate rules will most likely be the Freedom to Vote Act. This legislative initiative would provide new federal protections and oversight to undo state-level voter suppression and other partisan abuses of the US electoral system.

But it’s been Democrats who have been obstructing any possible changes to Senate procedure.

Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have stymied reform efforts, including the possibility of ending the filibuster. So long as the filibuster remains in place, passing legislation in the Senate effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority, and Republicans have increasingly abused it in recent years to obstruct progressive legislation and federal court appointments by Democratic presidents.

While Manchin and Sinema both claim to support federal voting protections, neither is willing to remove the filibuster in order to pass the legislation.

The Biden administration’s inability to push through its legislative agenda or to enact protections for basic democratic rights and protections – which are increasingly inaccessible to many Americans – does not bode well for the coming year, or the future beyond that.

The 2022 midterm elections will determine whether Democrats hold on to or lose control of Congress. Even if they remain (narrowly) in power, the reforms that the US needs to address our crisis of democracy seem unlikely to materialise any time soon.

Republicans have proven time and again that they are willing to destroy democracy in order to retain power over a majority of Americans who do not support their plutocratic, authoritarian agenda. How to reverse their march towards minority authoritarian rule is the critical question of our time for the United States – and the world affected by what happens in the US.

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