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The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy

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The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy

For nearly thirty years, Angus King has ridden centrism to power. A former two-term governor of Maine and now a two-term U.S. senator, King has used a combination of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism to win votes. Since being elected governor as an independent, in 1994, he has simultaneously supported gay rights and vetoed minimum-wage increases. After being elected to the Senate, also as an Independent, in 2012, he has caucused and voted with Democrats, but built relationships with conservative Republicans. He calls the former Alabama senator and Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions a “good friend.” That unorthodox stance has helped King in Maine—a state that is deeply divided between poorer, conservative, pro-Trump rural areas in the interior and wealthier, liberal, Democratic cities and coastal towns. “King is about as popular as anyone can be in a purple state in 2021. Job-approval polls consistently have him the most popular statewide officeholder,” Colin Woodard, a reporter for the Portland Press Herald who has covered King for years, told me. “He’s achieved this by ‘getting’ something fundamental about Maine’s zeitgeist, a desire even in this polarized day and age for someone to look at things in a practical, reasoned, and, yes, ‘independent’ way and make the best decisions for the state and the country.”

When it comes to getting the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that safeguards American democracy, though, King’s centrism is so far leading nowhere. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats began debating two voting-rights bills that King and others say are crucial to insuring that all eligible Americans have access to the ballot—and to enacting new laws that prevent Donald Trump, and others, from overturning future elections. For months, King has tried to secure support from G.O.P. moderates, but Republicans are expected to use the filibuster to block both bills, the fourth time that the Party has stymied Democratic election-reform proposals in the past year. For weeks, King, along with Democratic leaders, has tried to persuade Senators Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, to support changing the filibuster rules to allow the passage of the voting-rights bills. King told me in an interview, however, “Unless they have some kind of an epiphany, I don’t see them changing.”

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King views the current crisis as existential for the country: both Republican and Democratic voters increasingly fear that the other side is stealing elections. “I have never been so worried about the future of the country,” King told me. “I lived through the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam and the recession of 2008. What worries me is that the structure of our system is at risk.” Informal talks between centrist Republicans and Democrats continue, but the Senate’s inability to agree on how to protect democracy is the latest sign that the Trumpian tactic of energizing, turning out, and, in some cases, misleading one’s political base is more effective than centrism at winning elections.

Like others, King sees Trump’s refusal to concede the election—the first time that a major-party Presidential candidate had done so since the tradition of publicly acknowledging defeat began, in 1896—as the most dangerous immediate threat to American democracy. He said that Trump’s stoking of long-running Republican suspicions of systemic Democratic voter fraud—allegations that have no basis in fact—has been used in nineteen states in the past year to implement voting restrictions that will impede Democratic turnout, particularly among people of color and young voters. “Trump has undermined confidence among Republicans in the fundamental democratic process of elections,” King said. “They are now setting about making changes on the state level which will undermine the confidence of Democrats and independents in the electoral process.”

King hails those Republicans—former Vice-President Mike Pence and the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, among others—who thwarted Trump’s efforts in 2020. “Without a few people—almost all Republicans—with integrity and adherence to the Constitution,” King said, “there’s no telling where we would’ve been.” But he calls the G.O.P.’s stance since then “stone-cold obstruction.” He told me, “If we continue in this downward spiral of loss of trust in our system, it’s going to be very hard to restore.” He added, “The problem is what does that leave you if A) you view elections as Armageddon and your opponent will destroy the country if elected; and B) you can’t trust the elections. Violence is not an unlikely outcome.”

King said that his Republican friends in the Senate don’t see—or claim they don’t see—the dangerous dynamics that he describes: “Privately, they say, ‘What are you worried about? You’re being alarmist.’ ” The farthest that Republicans will go, he said, is to concede behind closed doors that Trump’s claims the 2020 race was stolen are false. “I think they do know that all this election-fraud stuff is phony. I think they do know that,” King said. The situation has prompted him to ask fellow-lawmakers why Republican-controlled state legislatures are restricting voting. “I have some pretty good friends on the Republican side, and I haven’t heard any of them acknowledge that what’s going on is of concern.”

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, told me that both sides are increasingly playing to their political base. Joe Biden, after months of largely ignoring his predecessor, has begun calling out Trump and his Republican enablers. In a recent speech in Georgia, the President compared opponents of the voting-rights bills to Bull Connor, the notorious commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, in the nineteen-sixties, who unleashed attack dogs on peaceful civil-rights protesters. Biden’s rhetoric won praise from his party’s liberal base, but it sparked a rare rebuke from Senator Mitt Romney, who said that the comparison was offensive.

Nyhan said, “Here we are. Our political system is absolutely paralyzed. Our system is unable to respond a year after an insurrection, and with another effort to subvert an election ahead. That’s what I’m most alarmed about.” Nyhan called the situation unprecedented. “The fundamental problem is that the partisan divide over the threat to democracy is so profound,” he told me “The party system is splitting over how democracy should work, and that is terrifying.”

Nyhan noted that Democrats and centrists in Congress have three to six months to enact laws that would safeguard elections before the 2022 midterms, when the pro-Trump Republicans could potentially win control of the House. He thinks that crucial reforms would include clarifying the Electoral Count Act—a vaguely worded 1887 law that Trump falsely claimed allows Vice-Presidents to reject votes they deem fraudulent—and banning the removal of nonpartisan election officials without proof of wrongdoing. “At a minimum, we need a bill that reduces the election-subversion threat.” He told me that the informal talks between King and various other senators have “given me a tiny bit of hope, but I’m not optimistic.”

Gubernatorial politics in Maine in the years since King held that office suggest what may lie ahead on the national stage. King was succeeded by John Baldacci, a centrist Democrat who served two terms. Then, from 2011 to 2019, the office was held by Paul LePage, a Republican firebrand who has called himself “Trump before Trump,” and whose false claims and attacks on welfare recipients and immigrants showed that energizing the Republican base could win elections in a state once known for political independence. Twice, LePage won multiple-candidate races for governor, defeating a Democratic nominee and an independent who tried to follow in King’s footsteps. This year, after a semi-retirement in Florida, LePage is running for governor again, challenging the incumbent, Janet Mills, another centrist Democrat. He has assailed Mills for backing vaccination mandates, and he recently proposed that hospital employees not be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but that welfare recipients should. Woodard, of the Portland Press Herald, said that LePage has an uphill fight against Mills, but his odds would improve if there were one or more independent candidates in the race, as was the case in his previous wins. “There’s a very significant Trumpist segment of the electorate, but most of the time successful statewide candidates are still the ones who can win the center,” Woodard said, adding that LePage really is “Trump before Trump, and, like the former President, he’s regularly defied conventional analysis.”

In 1890, the House of Representatives passed a voting-rights act that would have banned violent attacks, poll taxes, and other forms of voter suppression that were ruthlessly used against freed slaves across the South after the Civil War. Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican of Massachusetts, was the sponsor. The act died in a filibuster in the Senate, where Democratic senators opposed it. King told me, “The result was seventy-five years of egregious voter suppression in the South. That was a mistake made by a few senators. I honestly feel that we may be at a similar moment.” He added, “I’m afraid we’re making a mistake that will harm the country for decades.”

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The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy