Obsessing over 'saving democracy' won't save democracy
You have to show people why they should even care that Democrats win
Even before Nancy Pelosi brought out the “Hamilton” video, my view was the Democrats’ political approach to the anniversary of January 6 was a lot of pointless pageantry.
Since a lot of people get inexplicably mad when I say that sort of thing, I want to be clear: I don’t think there is nothing to be done about last year’s Capitol riot. A lot of people committed crimes that day and it’s good the Justice Department is prosecuting them. More than 700 people have been charged over the last year, making this one of the largest prosecutorial efforts in our history. And I think it’s good there’s an investigating committee.
What I don’t think is useful is foregrounding the issue politically and trying to convince voters that we’re having an election about “institutions” or the specter of “authoritarianism” at a time when normal life remains so heavily disrupted by COVID and the primary bad actor behind the riot — Donald Trump — is not on the ballot.
If partisans find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be on the other side, I think they find it even harder to imagine what it’s like to be a marginally attached voter — someone who doesn’t obsess over politics, might vote or might not, or thinks the two parties are kind of similarly good or bad. Unlike the base, which turns out every time (that’s what makes them the base), these are the people who decide the outcomes of elections by changing their votes or by deciding not to vote, and you have to figure out how to talk to them.
While there’s been a lot of talk about focus groups of Democrats and Republicans and their widely divergent takes on the January 6 riot, I think the most important results are those from marginal voters: those who switched from Trump to Biden, or voted to re-elect Trump but say they regret it. What you’ll see is these voters barely think about the riot at all.
So why should those voters focus on what obsesses Democrats: the riot, Republican lies about the 2020 election results, Trump’s efforts to elect loyal election officials in states? Well, you could tell them it’s because if our democratic system doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, voters might not get the government they vote for. But these voters are the sort of people who voted for Biden over Trump because they wanted to get back to normal. They already haven’t gotten the government they voted for.
More broadly, political obsessives start from a position of expecting institutions to be responsive to them, which causes them to freak out about emergent threats that could interfere with that. Regular people (including a lot of voters who are not marginal) start from a position of much deeper skepticism about political institutions. They need to see proof that those institutions are responsive to their needs, and they aren’t right now.
So the number one thing Democrats need to do to convince voters of the importance of elections is what they promised at the last election: shut down the virus, open the economy, return life to normal.
The trouble for President Biden is that the recovery has taken some bad bounces that have made it hard to deliver on his promises. The Delta and Omicron waves have impaired the efficacy of the administration’s vaccine-centric approach to reopening (though I would note, the waves have not impaired it nearly as much as the maniacs trying to close schools again think); strong consumer demand has combined with supply problems specific to the automotive sector and fueled inflation and shortages.
Part of responding to those bad bounces entails specific policy shifts: getting more tests and pharmaceuticals out into the country so people and institutions can operate better during COVID instead of trying to abstain from normal activity; implementing policies like test-to-stay and revised isolation protocols so the virus doesn’t grind schools, businesses and hospitals to a halt, and people can go about their daily lives. Well before November’s elections come around — by the time Paxlovid is in every pharmacy — the administration’s goal should be living with COVID like any other airborne respiratory virus.
But it’s also a matter of leaders acting like they’re getting back to normal. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has been clear in his messaging for a year: The “emergency” phase of COVID management is over, and now we need to live with the virus while keeping the economy and core government services open. He’s not taking the Ron DeSantis approach: local communities can mandate masks, and Polis has been an unequivocal advocate of vaccines and boosters. This middle-of-the-road approach is popular, and unlike politically similar Virginia, Colorado looks very unlikely to fall to Republicans next year.
Biden and other national Democrats should talk more like Polis does.
Return to normal isn’t just a COVID policy. It’s also an inflation-fighting policy. Administration officials keep correctly pointing out that the best way to fight inflation is to increase the productive capacity of the economy, rather than by tightening monetary policies in order to reduce real output. Some urging from the president to get out and do things — of the sort you see from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, who are also Democrats — could get more consumers to actually make that shift.
The reason I propose this as an alternative to democracy-in-danger messaging rather than a both-and approach is this:
Ever since Donald Trump was first nominated, Democrats have become enamored of the mostly wrong idea that they can win political contests through disqualification. Because Republicans are so bad — so racist, so erratic, so fascist, whatever — voters can be told they are not even an acceptable option and therefore they must vote Democratic, whatever views they hold on any other issues; whatever the actual performance record of Democratic officeholders; even if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton.
They may think this messaging is powerful because it is the actual reason certain prominent conservatives like Bill Kristol have come to vote Democratic. It’s maybe even how Democrats won over rich Romney strongholds like Greenwich, Connecticut — the sorts of places where voters are most likely to think functioning democratic institutions will respond to their needs and demands. And of course it’s an appealing message for partisans because in theory it allows you to pick up more voters without adjusting your policy agenda at all. But especially without Trump on the ballot, this strategy is a mirage. Even in Greenwich, Republicans just reclaimed the state senate seat they lost in the Trump era.
Politics is virtually always about material interests. Republicans are campaigning on material interests, saying they’ll get prices down, the economy up, and schools open and focused on educating your kids. Republicans won Virginia’s elections on that message. Voters were unimpressed with Terry McAuliffe’s closing message that, after Trump, Republicans are like Trump, and therefore you must vote Democratic because Youngkin Trump Trump Trump, riots extremists Charlottesville etc etc etc.
Like it or not, satisfaction with everyday life is the ground the next election will be fought on. So don’t make fun of voters for caring about prices and shortages, and do get to work convincing them Democrats will get their lives back to normal like they said they would.
My big issue with a lot of the rhetoric about saving democracy is actually similar to some of the rhetoric about climate change. I think in both cases there is a clear danger and risk to inaction, but the rhetoric is so often catastrophic and sometimes doomist that reading about it is both extremely stressful for someone like me, and demoralizing/disempowering. The rhetoric so often feels like it's aimed towards a small group of elite corporate/government actors to accomplish some goal, and the everyday reader can only either act in their small way in advocacy/voting, or merely suffer in anxiety and fear over it.
That feeling is made worse by the disconnect I see between what politicians and elites say about saving democracy versus what they do. I think Yglesias pointed out that for how urgently many groups and politicians talk about saving democracy, the policy they pursue and the actions they take don't seem to match the level of urgency in their rhetoric. And at that point I start to wonder: is there a discrepancy between how urgent and dangerous they say the problem is versus how urgent they believe it is? Are they exaggerating the threat to maintain my attention because it's useful for them if I'm scared?
I really don't want to think like that. I want to feel like I have an accurate sense of the threat of democracy, like with climate change, without feeling helpless or like I'm being taken advantage of. January 6th unfortunately brought me back into a day of doomscrolling and losing sleep, because the coverage in the news and online was so frightening for me. And then the next day the coverage went back to normal -- that frustrates me and leaves me inclined to skepticism. I wonder how many other people might feel the way I feel about this.
Polis has done a great job, and I wish there were more Dems like him. But I'll also take DeSantis's approach over the more heavy-handed Dem governors. If DeSantis stopped with the weird banning of mask mandates, I'd like it much more. Let local communities decide what's best for themselves.