Forget the presidency. It’s Mitch McConnell’s dysfunctional Senate we urgently need to change

Christabel Nsiah-Buadi
·4-min read
El rival de Mitch McConnell en la carrera por el Senado de Estados Unidos lo ha acusado de negarse a participar en debates moderados por mujeres. (AFP via Getty Images)
El rival de Mitch McConnell en la carrera por el Senado de Estados Unidos lo ha acusado de negarse a participar en debates moderados por mujeres. (AFP via Getty Images)

Polls say Vice President Joe Biden has a strong chance of winning next week’s vote — but if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be wary of what they say. And lest we forget, the president and his opponent aren’t the only ones voters are casting their ballots for this November. Democrats, who will likely keep control of the House, are also hoping to win the Senate, whether or not Biden wins out. And that will have its own implications, removed from the issue of who takes up residence in the White House.

The last time Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress was over a decade ago, during President Obama’s first term. And if Trump gets a second term, the thinking goes, maybe a Democrat-controlled legislature can at least prevent him from doing more damage.

For the public, there are other considerations too — like wanting to see Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his collaborators held to account at the ballot box. They torpedoed liberal bills during the Obama years, and, despite their original reservations, co-signed Trump’s policies. They prevented Trump’s impeachment from having any tangible consequences. And it’s important to consider how much damage McConnell himself has done to civilized political discourse, even if Trump’s boorish xenophobia is more obvious and easier to criticize. I’ll never forget how shocked I was when he declared in 2010, “The single most important thing we [Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. His disrespect and vitriol still stun me. Back then, I chalked it down to a dislike of the new Black president; there was a lot of it going around then. Time revealed that McConnell’s motivations also included a ruthless desire for his party to regain control of Congress.Â

His words came at a time when America was struggling with political fissures created by a contentious election in 2000, and the Supreme Court ruling that put George W Bush in the Oval Office. The nation was also mired in a verbal war over the invasion of Iraq that pitted mainstream politicians against progressive anti-war advocates. Strong feelings meant that American’s passion for honest discussion devolved into personal attacks and ‘gotcha’ politics. The public, conflicted about wanting to be the world’s top dog and wondering if US soldiers went to war over a lie, overlooked the trash talk. People hoped somebody in DC would lead the country to calmer, morally upstanding waters. It’s through this lens that a self-proclaimed ‘uniter’ like President Obama seemed appealing to so many, and why the Republicans’ refusal to work with him was so jarring. 

In all of this, few people realized how the ‘Party of No’ (as the Republicans were once dubbed by Democrats) were planting seeds to change America's political landscape. Today we’re seeing the fruits of their labour. Over 200 federal judge positions have been filled since Trump took office. These were seats left vacant during the Obama years, after — wait for it — the Senate's then-minority party, led by Mitch McConnell, blocked most nominations. Of the judges hired in the last four years, 85 percent are white, and 75 percent are men. Listen, I believe that a person’s identity isn’t necessarily an indicator of where they stand on an issue — but I do know a leader will hire people they can work with. Some people think diversity of thought is a strength, but this president doesn’t, and when you’re leading a country as diverse as the United States, that’s a problem.

Senate Democrats still haven’t found a way to effectively stymie Republican tactics, as the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court shows. They see winning the Senate as their best chance of turning the tide and will need up to four seats to take control. Unless they get a supermajority of 67, the liberals will still have to compromise with conservative opponents they don’t seem to trust. But they’ll have to press on, for the sake of the nation. Covid-19 showed Americans how vulnerable they are, while the fractured quarantine underscored how important bold leadership is.

In a strange way, I think there is a silver lining in all of this. Democrats who once wouldn’t touch progressive issues, like universal healthcare and police reform, with a barge-pole are now prioritizing them. And while Americans are anxious and tired, I think they’ve also been reminded to fight for what they believe in. If the early voter turnout is anything to go by, it looks like they’ve taken that idea to heart.