The Politics of 'Legitimate Political Discourse'
Can Democrats turn GOP support for insurrection into a winning issue this fall?
It’s time we all stopped being surprised by the crazy shit the Republican Party does. Continuing to push the Big Lie? Sure. Sticking with the Big Liar himself? Unsurprising. Smearing the investigation into what happened on January 6th? Predictable.
On Friday, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution censuring Republican Representatives Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney for participating in the Congressional committee investigating the violent assault on the Capitol. I want to quote the resolution because it is a truly stunning document:
Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger are participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.
It’s easy to gloss over what the Republicans do in a Trumpian fog of outrage. But we need to be crystal clear about the meaning of this resolution. One of America’s two political parties passed an official resolution declaring a violent insurrection that led to deaths, assaults on police officers, and calls for the murder of politicians to be “legitimate discourse.” The RNC is legitimizing political violence. Pure and simple.
The typical response to the latest Republican outrage is to shout “How are they getting away with this?” For most Democrats, that question is rhetorical. We naturally assume that they will get away with it because they get away with nearly everything else.
I understand the sentiment. The Republicans lied about the election, defended the insurrectionists, stuck by Trump, and pushed conspiracy theories on vaccines and masks, killing thousands of their voters. Yet, the oddsmakers consider them overwhelming favorites to regain power in November. Presuming Republicans will face no accountability for their actions guarantees they will remain unscathed. Authoritarians depend on convincing the public and the opposition that they are immune to consequences. Ultimately, the question of whether there is a political price to pay for officially declaring the violence of January 6th “legitimate political discourse” will be answered by the voters in November. The polling suggests Republicans have given Democrats an opening.
The Public Does Not See Violence as “Legitimate”
In the coming days, I imagine a number of polling outfits will specifically test the question of whether January 6th is “legitimate political discourse.” But the raft of polling conducted last month on the one-year anniversary of the insurrection is clear about the politics.
Big majorities of Democrats (88 percent) and independents (74 percent) say there is no evidence of such irregularities, but 62 percent of Republicans say there is such evidence. That is almost identical to the percentage of Republicans who agreed with Trump’s claims of voter fraud a week after the Capitol attack, based on a Washington Post/ABC News poll at the time.
The Republican number in this poll is, of course, disturbing, but it is of little electoral consequence. To win in 2022, Democrats do not need to persuade a single Republican who believes the Big Lie. Four in 10 Republicans disagreeing with the idea that the 2020 election was illegitimate may even present a bit of an opportunity.
Second, voters overwhelmingly disapprove of the insurrection on January 6th. Data for Progress polled four swing districts and found that voters overwhelmingly disapproved of what happened at the Capitol. In no district did more than 15 percent of likely voters approve of the insurrection and in all of the districts at least 79 percent disapproved.
Data for Progress conducted the same poll in the critical battleground state of Georgia and found nearly identical results. While these polls don’t specifically ask about “legitimate political discourse,” the wordings of these questions are similar enough to give us a good idea about the possible damage the RNC resolution poses.
Finally, recent polling indicates that messages about Republican support for the Big Lie and culpability in the events of January 6th could be very effective. In the Data for Progress poll, strong majorities in these swing districts believe that voting against the certification of the 2020 election was a convincing reason to vote against the conspiracy theorists. Navigator Research tested a series of messages about Republicans, the Big Lie, and January 6th. Notably, these messages were quite effective with the Independent voters who Democrats desperately need to win back before November.
70 percent of Independents are concerned about Republicans spreading Donald Trump’s lies about the election; 73 percent are concerned about Republicans voting against investigating what happened; 74 percent are concerned about Republicans defending the people involved in the assault. This poll was conducted before Donald Trump offered pardons to insurrectionists, but I can guess how these Independents would react to that information.
Our Next Moves
One of the core principles of Message Box is the adage “You lose 100 percent of the arguments you don’t make.” There are already plenty of pundits and strategists urging Democrats to focus on “kitchen table” issues like inflation, instead of spending time selling their substantial legislative progress, or making the case for the strength of the Biden economy. Of course, we must do those things. But this is not a binary choice. Campaign messaging is neither a bumper sticker nor a hashtag. The best message is a story about who we are, the stakes of the election, and why the opposition is the wrong choice. Given the dangerous rhetoric and extremist positions of the Republicans and their publicly stated goal to overturn the next presidential election, it’s impossible to not make this part of our message. Obviously, the Democratic election narrative needs to address inflation, the pandemic, and what President Biden and the Democrats have done but there are several strategic imperatives for hammering the Republicans over their response to the insurrection.
The races last year in Virginia and New Jersey showed that Democrats are facing a turnout deficit. Republicans are fired up and turning out at a historic level. If there is a similar turnout differential this year, Democrats will be slaughtered everywhere. The six key Senate races and the vast majority of the swing House races are all happening in places where Biden won by margins much narrower than the 10 points by which he won Virginia. The best way to increase turnout is to raise the stakes of the elections.
In addition to turning out our voters, Democrats must hold onto the voters who came over to our side in 2018 and 2020 out of concern about Trump. The electoral results of 2021 and recent polls are warning signs that some elements of the Trump-era Democratic coalition may be fragmenting. Trump’s complete absence from social media and his relative absence from mainstream news coverage allowed the Republican brand to improve in the eyes of some key voter groups. This is part of their strategy — lay back, stay out of the news, and let Democrats take all of the blame for what’s happening in the country. This recent chart from Gallup shows the effectiveness of the GOP strategy.
During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden’s ability to unite the country was a major selling point. His inability to do so has become a political weakness. A recent Pew poll asked voters how confident they were in Biden’s ability to handle a range of issues. His worst issue was “uniting the country” — 69 percent had little or no confidence in his ability to bring citizens together. Now, of course, it’s not Biden’s fault the country is divided. The overwhelming majority of elected Republicans refuse to acknowledge that he won the election legitimately. But I think the President and Democrats more broadly would benefit from shifting focus from who isn’t uniting the country to the people actively dividing it for political gain. The RNC resolution is an opportunity to do that.
Sadly, the Republicans will likely continue to give us plenty of reminders of how dangerous and anti-American they have become. But if we keep letting pitches go by without taking a swing, we will run out of time to make our case.