Can Democrats Run on Saving Democracy?
Republicans are trying to subvert democracy and steal elections, can Democrats make them pay a price for it in '22
These are not great days for democracy. Just a few disturbing data points to ruin your morning:
The Guardian reported on the existence of a PowerPoint presentation making the rounds in Trump World in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The PowerPoint called for President Trump to declare a national security emergency so that Vice President Pence could delay certification of the election results.
David Perdue, the embodiment of a generic Republican, who lost his Senate seat last year, announced a primary challenge to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. There is no specific policy dispute between the two. The only difference between them is that Perdue is willing to steal the 2024 election and Kemp may not be because he certified the election results in 2020.
On his podcast, Bannon’s War Room, Steve Bannon, and Matt Gaetz talked about raising an army of 4,000 shock troops to take on the government.
There is nothing subtle about what the Republicans are doing. Americans cannot say they weren’t warned. As Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic:
For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.
The recent uptick in insurrection-planning from the Republicans dovetails with an ongoing debate about Democratic messaging in the 2022 election. This convergence raises the question – can Democrats run on saving democracy? Or can they at least frame the Republicans as dangers to democracy?
The Need for One Consistent Story
The modern Republican Party has no policy, agenda, or ideological mooring other than loyalty to Donald Trump’s quackery. They oppose popular, important economic policies, block efforts to get the pandemic under control, and spread dangerous conspiracy theories about vaccines and the election. It is patently obvious to anyone not blinded by partisanship or performative neutrality that the GOP should not be within smelling distance of the higher levels of government for the foreseeable future. The only question is: what’s the best way to make that case to the voters? There is a Cheesecake Factory menu’s worth of Republican failings. Choosing one is hard, but it is essential.
Whenever I appeared on a panel or spoke with a group of Democrats after the 2016 election, I would ask the attendees a couple of questions to make a larger point about why we lost. I would start by asking people to describe Donald Trump’s negative message about Hillary Clinton. The audience would respond – sometimes in unison – with some version of “Crooked Hillary.” This was Trump’s oft-repeated moniker for his opponent. The phrase encapsulated concerns about her email protocol, her paid speeches, and decades of residue from unfair Republican attacks on her and her husband. When I asked a similar question about Clinton’s argument against Trump, the audience would erupt with a multitude of answers – “racist,” “misogynist,” “liar,” “dumb,” “crook,” “Russian patsy,” and so forth.
Each of these was factual, but the audience’s response revealed that the Clinton campaign and the Democrats at large failed to settle on a single coherent narrative about why Trump shouldn’t be president. In politics and life, the worst choice is no choice. I worry the Democratic Party is headed down a similar path in 2022.
Can Running on Democracy Work?
There is a three-part test I like to use when thinking about messaging decisions:
First, Barack Obama would begin any conversation about the message or political strategy by declaring, “Let’s start with what’s true.” The former president didn’t just mean what could pass the factchecker’s muster – although he did care passionately about that; Obama was referring to the essential truth of the argument because he believed the only messages that resonated with voters are the ones that spoke to the world they clearly saw. Now you may be saying, ‘Republicans, run on fabricated bullshit all the time.’ And if you said that, you would be correct. However, Republicans and Democrats are trying to reach different voters through different means, and therefore, what works for them won’t necessarily work for us.
The idea that Republicans are a danger to democracy and election integrity is unquestionably true. It is also true that their anti-democratic authoritarianism is the greatest danger they pose in the short term. If Republicans were to take the House or the Senate, they could stop everything Biden wants to do, but they would fail to implement any of their retrograde policy agenda. Republican control of the House and/or Senate would put them in a position to potentially deny the presidency to the legitimate winner of the Electoral College.
Second, once you land on what’s true, the next question is determining whether that message is believable. Are voters open to the argument?
A lot is going to change between now and next year, but the public polling suggests that a majority of Americans are concerned about the fate of our democracy.
According to a CNN poll from October of this year, 56 percent of Americans believe democracy is under attack and a majority believe that in the next few years it will be overturned by elected officials because their party lost.
Young voters helped deliver the White House and the Senate for Democrats. They also tend to vote in midterms at a lower rate than other portions of the electorate. Turning out younger voters at presidential election year levels is critical to Democratic success next year. A recent poll of 18 to 29-year-olds conducted by the Harvard University Institute of Politics suggests that a democracy-focused message might be effective. According to the poll, only seven percent of 18 to 29-year-olds describe the U.S. as a healthy democracy, while a majority describe it as either in trouble or failed. 35 percent of respondents believe there will be a civil war in their lifetime and 25 percent believe they will see a state secede from the union.
Concerns about our democracy will only grow in intensity during the coming months as Republicans become more brazen and Donald Trump comes out of hiding to begin campaigning for his hand-picked, pro-insurrection slate of candidates.
The final test of a message’s effectiveness is about the credibility of the messenger. This is where Democrats run into trouble. If democracy is really in grave danger why aren’t Democrats doing anything about it? Why aren’t more Democrats – including President Biden– more vocal about raising the alarm? Now, there may be nothing that can be done about Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s willingness to sacrifice your right to vote in order to protect Mitch McConnell’s power. No amount of arm-twisting or speech-making may be enough to change their recalcitrant minds. Efforts are still underway to pass Voting Rights and I expect President Biden to become more vocal about these issues once the endless effort to pass his economic plan is behind him. The failure to take action would be a huge problem on every dimension, but I think there are two things Democrats could do to make the message about democracy more credible even absent Senate action on voting rights legislation.
First, they could get caught trying. That doesn’t mean one vote or a bunch of procedural BS. Democrats must engage in a party-wide effort, from the president on down, to make the case for democracy reform and raise alarms about Republican intentions to subvert democracy. It means real pressure on Manchin and Sinema and a very public push to eliminate the filibuster. Democrats cannot make the case that they will protect democracy if they haven’t clearly fought like hell to do so.
We must also clearly and specifically call out the Republicans. Because if Democrats don’t, we can be damn sure the media won’t do it for us. You lose 100 percent of the arguments you don’t make and not enough Democrats are making the argument that Republicans are a danger to democracy.
Second, we should spend more time talking about preventing election subversion and pushing efforts to reform the process at all levels to prevent politicians from stealing elections. This must include votes on specific pieces of legislation that make it more difficult for Congress to reject certified state election results. Let’s put the Republicans on record as being willing to overturn the will of the voters
It’s too early to know whether this is the right message. More research needs to be done, but the stakes could not be higher in 2022. In my experience, when the stakes are high, you want to make the election about big things. And what is bigger than the fate of democracy?