Hey Democrats! You’re Going About Fighting Threats to Democracy in the Wrong Way

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Amid our divisions there seems to be a point of unity. Everyone agrees for example that America is at a point of existential crisis. Survival is at stake. Make or break. However odious the messenger, that was also the premise of MAGA, that America was in decline and at risk. Remember the Trump supporters’ argument that 2016 is the United Flight 93 on 9/11 election? It was time to rush the cockpit.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the events of January 6, 2021 have led liberals and Democrats to the conclusion that Trump will be back in 2024, but better equipped to subvert the election and end American democracy than his cabal was in 2020.

So we’re united, in a funny, not-funny, way. And 2024 is the real Flight 93 (named after the 9/11 flight that went down in Pennsylvania when terrorists were thwarted by civilian action) election.

This past week President Biden and Vice-President Harris were in Atlanta, calling on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement to gain support for federal legislation to end “voter suppression.”

But is that the right battle? Are the Dems barking up the right tree? Or are they making the classic military mistake of preparing for the last war and not the present one? “Voter suppression” has become a galvanizing cry and issue as we have scrutinized our history, and the many and various ways African-Americans in particular were kept from voting for decades. And is voter suppression the issue of today? Or is the real issue what Republicans have been doing since 2020 to get hold of state offices that control the certification of elections? In a recent column David Brooks argues that it is the latter that represents the real threat. Here’s Brooks:

Elections have three phases: registering and casting votes, counting votes and certifying results. When it comes to the first two phases, the American system has its flaws but is not in crisis. As Yuval Levin noted in The Times a few days ago, it’s become much easier in most places to register and vote than it was years ago. We just had a 2020 election with remarkably high turnout. The votes were counted with essentially zero fraud.

The emergency is in the third phase — Republican efforts to overturn votes that have been counted. But Democratic voting bills — the For the People Act and its update, the Freedom to Vote Act — were not overhauled to address the threats that have been blindingly obvious since Jan. 6 last year. They are sprawling measures covering everything from mail-in ballots to campaign finance. They basically include every idea that’s been on activist agendas for years.

So “voter suppression” is a war-cry that connects, for understandable reasons. But if Brooks is right, that is the wrong focus. The focus needs to be where the right-wing populists are putting their energy, on who controls election certification in places like Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The risk the Democrats are running is not only that they are putting the emphasis on the wrong leg of the three-legged stool of elections, but that they will be perceived as trying to control the electoral process from the top-down, through federal legislation. So you get top-down Democratic legislation versus bottom-up Republican grabs for control.

Tom Friedman also agrees that America as we know it is at stake. But he has a different, very Friedman-esque, solution. He proposes a national unity ticket for 2024, say, Biden and Liz Cheney. Wow. Give it to him for creative thinking. Here’s Friedman on the crisis we face:

America is facing an existential moment, Levitsky told me, noting that the Republican Party has shown that it isn’t committed any longer to playing by democratic rules, leaving the United States uniquely threatened among Western democracies.

That all means two things, he continued. First, this Trump-cult version of the G.O.P. must never be able to retake the White House. Since Trump has made embracing the Big Lie — that the 2020 election was a fraud — a prerequisite for being in the Trump G.O.P., his entire cabinet most likely would be people who denied, or worked to overturn, Biden’s election victory. There is no reason to believe they would cede power the next time.

I share Friedman’s concern about Trump and incipient authoritarianism. And I share Brooks’s concern about jimmying the election certification process, which would undermine American democracy.

An unconventional solution like the one Friedman proposes (or how about a Hillary/Liz ticket?) seems to me a “third-way” beyond the present zero-sum, where one side achieves total victory in the great Culture Wars. To be sure, the Friedman move, would cost both coalition partners big-time. Imagine, as Friedman says, AOC campaigning for Liz Cheney. Or Dick Cheney campaigning for Joe Biden.

But if our present point of unity — American democracy is at risk — is correct, then the solution required may ask a new and unconventional unity among those interested in saving it.

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The ABSOLUTE worst political outcomes are when 1 party controls all offices…….

    That Independents control presidential elections is a good thing. The problem arrises when the winning centrist candidates disregard the platform they ran on.

  2. As long as members of both parties continue to focus more on the process of getting elected than what they should do when they are in office, little real progress can be made. Our conversations need to shift from “how to win” to “how to lead”. Given our current President’s dismal poll numbers, where is the advice he needs to reconnect his office with the people he serves?

  3. The Republicans will always hold an advantage in American politics because they’re the party of Main Street. Other than a few dysfunctional big cities (starting with Seattle) almost every local government in America is run by the Republicans. Listen to our Seattle elected officials and you’ll hear a million excuses about why problems can’t be solved and how Seattle needs tax money from the County, the State and the Federal government. Never mind that Seattle is one of top 100 richest cities in the world, the Seattle mayor (whoever it is, names don’t matter) will break into a song and dance about how Ritzville needs to pay more taxes so Seattle can pay for whatever “emergency” is currently plaguing the City. The rest of State pretty much hates “Seattle Liberals” for good reason.

    So we have these ultra-liberal cities surrounded by more rural GOP States. Both sides demonize each other constantly. Both sides hate the other side more than they love democracy. It’s impossible to have a fair election at this point…..

  4. Hillary? Really?
    I agree with the 3 legged stool and the issue is not who counts the votes but who certifies the votes.
    A “unity ticket” yes but one that appeals to the”great middle” – the moderates.

  5. As long as I can remember there’s always been a noticeable disconnect between the worldview of politicians inside the Beltway bubble and swing-y sorts of less ideological voters who decide the outcomes of most elections. But the gulf right now between Biden and Democrats in D.C. and swing voters is shockingly, maddeningly — and to a great extent, inexplicably — wide. If Biden and his team were setting out deliberately to tank Dem chances in the midterms they couldn’t do any better than they already are. November is shaping up to be a bloodbath.

    It really is inexplicable to me how Biden and his advisors could have read the Democratic electorate so well in the 2020 primaries, even as an endless array of cablenet bloviators and social media know nothings declared that running to the center and pledging to be a unifier were the kiss of political death. And yet, almost from the day he took office, if not before, Team Biden has publicly allied his presidency with the worldview of the most polarized progressive partisans, with disastrous results. Even worse, they don’t seem to have any clue why his poll numbers have been tanking. There must be something in the water in D.C. that does this to otherwise sane people, rendering them hyperpartisan and out of touch.

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