Wanted: A Better Strategy to Defend Democracy

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Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

President Joe Biden finally seems intent on moving from occasional to concerted efforts to call out and combat nationwide GOP efforts to rig the 2022 and 2024 elections  and undermine American democracy. 

But he and his party have a long way to go in making saving democracy the No. 1 issue in the minds of  voters. And Biden & Co. may be going about it in the wrong way, relying on national legislation instead of state and local organizing.

There is a role for national leadership in making the threat vivid to voters, pointing out repeatedly what Republican state legislatures are doing to make it practically impossible for Democrats to retain control of Congress or elect a president, and describing what a second Donald Trump presidency would be like.

As New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ezra Klein have argued convincingly, Republicans are systematically taking over the nation’s election machinery—from precinct vote supervisors to state officials—and shifting decisive power over elections to political partisans or state legislatures.

Democrats, as yet, haven’t come close to matching these GOP efforts. Last September, Pro Publica published a detailed, illuminating article on extensive state and local organizing inspired by pro-Trump revolutionary Steve Bannon. That effort mobilizes devout believers in Trump’s “big lie” about being cheated out of the presidency in 2020 to take over the GOP (and influence elections) “one precinct at a time.”

According to the Washington Post, at least 163 “big lie” believers are running for offices in 2022 with power to influence how elections are run. Meantime, GOP election officials who resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election are being challenged and, in some states, ousted or demoted.

The bottom line is that the GOP is preparing for reruns of 2020 in 2022 and 2024—but this time, with machinery in place to ensure GOP victory.

The Atlantic magazine has been in the forefront of raising alarms about what might occur in 2024. A lengthy piece by Barton Gellman last December describes in scary detail how Trump forces will operate—and use extremist violence, if necessary, to get their way.

Democrats are never very good at organizing to win at the state and local level. They’ve twice let the GOP take over swing-state legislatures in census years and gerrymander House seats to stay in power for a decade. Now, Democrats’ national leaders and their supporting groups (including Stacey Abrams Fair Fight campaign) are depending on Congress passing two pieces of legislation—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act—to save democracy. President Biden, having put election reform at the back of his agenda after COVID and infrastructure legislation, is now concentrating on passing both bills, which may get a Senate vote as early as next Monday.

Biden delivered a stirring speech on Tuesday in Atlanta challenging Senators to decide whether they wanted to go down in history on the side of Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Abraham Lincoln — or George Wallace, “Bull” Connor, or Jefferson Davis. And he endorsed changing Senate filibuster rules to permit passage of the bills with only Democratic votes.

Unfortunately, chances of passing these voting-rights bills are now slim owing to opposition of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. All 50 Democratic Senators have to support any change, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the 51st vote. A chance does exist for rewriting the complicated 1887 Electoral Count Act to insure that Congress accepts states’ certified allocation of its electoral votes.

Regardless of the outcomes, Democrats need to get busy organizing at the state and local level to counter GOP efforts. The Michelle Obama-led group, When We All Vote, aiming to recruit 100,00 volunteers to register a million new 2022 voters, is one such effort.

To help make saving democracy Issue One, Biden has to deliver more stirring speeches on the menace such as he did in Atlanta and on the anniversary of the Trump-instigated Jan. 6, 2021 violent invasion of the US Capitol. Democrats also need to graphically describe what’s likely to happen if Republicans take over Congress next year and if Trump or a Trumpkin takes power in 2025.

For instance, if Biden manages to pass a $1.7 trillion “social infrastructure” bill this year with 50 votes—still evidently opposed by Manchin—its funds would be cut or cancelled by a GOP Congress. Republicans would also use investigations to harass Biden and might even impeach him. Further, if Biden can’t get Build Back Better passed, Republicans will insure nothing will be done to control climate change or enact such popular programs as child tax credits, paid family leave, and Obamacare improvements. 

If Trump is president again, he’ll not make the mistake of appointing “adults” to Cabinet posts as he did in 2017. Rather, loyal lackeys will get the jobs and use every government power—possibly including tax audits and criminal prosecutions—to reward friends and family and punish adversaries.

He’ll act, as he did in his first term, as though he’s above the law, at a minimum enriching himself and his family at government expense. He demonstrated total contempt for the US Constitution by waging a concerted campaign to overturn the 2020 election result, pressuring state officials to alter their vote counts—and ultimately sent a mob to the US Capitol last Jan 6 to prevent the counting of electoral votes. 

Trump & Co. failed thanks to the courage of a thin line of state GOP officials, but he still refuses to accept defeat and—against all evidence– has convinced up to 70 percent of Republicans that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. He’ll attack the media and any other group willing to stand up to him. He’ll identify with foreign fellow authoritarians. He’ll lie with abandon and intensify the inability of people to know what the truth is.

And he’ll stand by, at a minimum, as Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, QAnon devotees, Three Percenters, and other extremist groups threaten or actually assail perceived Trump opponents. Or, as on Jan. 6, he may actually encourage such action.

The extremist militias regard themselves—as does Trump—as “patriots” determined to preserve the “American way of life,” which is to say, historic white supremacy. According to one late-2021 poll, 30 percent of all Republicans—and 39 percent of those believing the 2020 election was stolen—say that violence may be necessary to save the country. That would be 31 million people. Some of them openly welcome civil war. According to another poll, fully 56 percent of Republicans support the use of violence to arrest the decline of traditional values.

To help Democrats’ chances of winning in 2022 and 2024, it would be good if Biden could more effectively remind voters of his successes: the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to stimulate the economy and combat COVID, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan physical infrastructure bill  (achieving something Trump repeatedly promised but never delivered and which only 19 GOP Senators and 13 House members voted for), creation of 6 million new jobs and wage increases. It would help raise his approval rating from its dismal 42 percent if inflation could be brought down and Covid tamed.                                          

And it would help if Democrats could align themselves decisively with majority opinion—rather than with views of woke leftists—on crime, education, immigration, and other hot-button issues currently being exploited by Republicans. 

Americans do value their democracy. An Associated Press-University of Chicago poll last year showed that 80-plus percent of Americans identified the essentials of democracy—including the rule of law and democratically elected government—as important to the nation’s identity.

Yet polls on the most important issues facing the country are topped, as usual, by immediate concerns: the economy (including inflation and jobs), public health (COVID), and crime. 

Alas, no important-issue poll that I can find even includes ranking the menace to democracy. One poll last July showed that 67 percent of US adults think that democracy is under threat. But that included 83 percent of Republicans—whose idea of democracy is that they always win.

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Morton Kondracke is a retired Washington, DC, journalist (Chicago Sun-Times, The New Republic, McLaughlin Group, FoxNews Special Report, Roll Call, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal) now living on Bainbridge Island. He continues to write regularly for (besides PostAlley) RealClearpolitics.com, mainly to advance the cause of political reform.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Your strategy is not to defend Democracy, it is to keep democrats in power.
    A good government is one that listens, considers arguments and tries to do what’s best for the country. With regard to BBB the inflation argument has some merit. Your opinion of Biden’s speech in Atlanta (not an example of the importance of bipartisanship) is what is so wrong with this country’s political class starting with Hillary’s “Basket full of deplorables” i.e. we know what’s best.

  2. Mort Kondracke: “Biden delivered a stirring speech on Tuesday in Atlanta . . .” This is possibly true only in Mr. Kondracke’s alternate universe. Nationalizing election processes in order to centralize power is frightening. Mr. Biden during his visit to Capitol Hill went on to say further that “Who counts the vote! That’s what this is about, that’s what makes this so different than anything else we’ve ever done.” Centralized ‘counting’ of the vote cannot be good for democratic processes.

    Before the pandemic we had thousands of little old white-haired ladies who would meticulously supervise the integrity of the process and the vote in each and every polling place and municipality nationwide. Unfortunately, the coronavirus scared them all off and the count and tally was left to others. In order to regain the sanctity of our election results we need to bring back the little old white-haired ladies, in force.

      • Glycine and Phil, you have created what is called a “straw man” with your statements about centralized counting and keeping Democrats in power. The straw man is easy to knock down because he isn’t real, or true. And based on what we have been seeing on state and federal levels, the Democrats do not have power to be “kept.” I ask you to read the words of Heather Cox Richardson a respected professor or American history at Boston University: “In fact, there is no constitutional ground for opposing the idea of Congress weighing in on federal elections. The U.S. Constitution establishes that “[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”
        There is no historical reason to oppose the idea of voting rights legislation, either. Indeed, Congress weighed in on voting pretty dramatically in 1870, when it amended the Constitution itself for the fifteenth time to guarantee that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In that same amendment, it provided that “[t]he Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”” So please stop watching biased new media (and yes there are some biased in favor of progressive politics as well as right wing politics) and social media which is just opinions with false claims. Find the most educated and experienced but non political authorities to comment on the crucial issues that face our country today.

        • So we, that suspect change by political power, are uninformed and should seek expert advice. Your argument for federal voting law change doesn’t point out what is wrong with the system, you just suggest that we are not as informed, so unable to make right decisions……..How very Hillary of you !!

  3. In all the states’ voting legislation enacted in the last few years, which statutes are so egregious, so blatantly “Jim Crow 2.0,” that they mandate the for more federal, centralized restriction and control, overriding what their duly-elected State legislatures choose as their system of election?

    The fact that we keep hearing the “voters in line can’t have a drink of water” canard from the current administration (look it up, it’s false in the way that Biden and others describe it) suggests to me that there’s little there, there. Georgia’s new law actually expanded access to voting in several ways, but no provision can plausibly be said to deny the vote to even a single person.

    I also reflect on the relative newness of these urgent cries, and over-the-top comparison of these laws to “Jim Crow 2.0.” Where were the cries to centralize election authority when the Obama/Biden ticket swept to massive victories? And if we really want to de-rig the vote as much as possible, shouldn’t we be arguing -against- centralization, and for decentralization?

    The Tenth Amendment is so short, it fits in a tweet. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    I think each party’s biggest problem is that they seem to be focusing much more on the nitty-gritty of electioneering itself (e.g., doing whatever is possible to allow same-day registration, ballot harvesting, gerrymandered districts, what-have-you) instead of spending any time at all asking “What can we do to attract more people from the other tribe into our point of view?”

    If the problem is that elections are close, that’s because not enough effort has been made to truly hear and reliably respond to the needs of the persuadable middle.

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