The Politics of Democracy

Yesterday The Washington Post published my latest article, about how the reality of voter suppression has been completely swamped by Donald Trump’s fantasy of a vast international conspiracy to steal the 2020 presidential election.

Image by John Mounsey

The basic idea is this: For years, the battle for American democracy has centered on Republican voter suppression campaigns (and related efforts such as gerrymandering). Republicans in state government dilute the vote of racial minorities, the poor, and other Democratic-leaning groups; Democrats fight back through community organizing and lawsuits. In a matter of weeks, however, President Trump has completely changed the conversation: while Republican voter suppression actually works, all debates about the electoral process boil down to (a) “The election was stolen!” or (b) “That’s ridiculous, the election was just fine.” Only Trump could create a situation in which Democrats are applauding people like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—who purged hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls just a year ago. From a political perspective, the only beneficiaries of this reframing are Trump himself, who has another grievance to nurture among his followers, and the Republican Party, which can continue quietly suppressing the vote.

There were a couple of themes that were left on the cutting room floor but that I want to expand on here. One is the role of the media and, perhaps more importantly, the tastes of its audience. Educated, newspaper-reading Democrats are so astonished, baffled, and outraged by the Trump-Giuliani-Ellis-Powell freak show that all we want (in the moment) is for them to be defeated, repudiated, and humiliated. We relish the court opinions in which even Trump-appointed judges ridicule the “elite strike force” for amateurish arguments and procedural errors. With so few Republicans willing to call out the president for acting like a madman—and attempting a coup—people like Raffensperger, Greg Sterling (the Georgia election official who criticized Trump for endangering rank-and-file election workers), and even Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (who purged more than half a million voters when he was Secretary of State) become heroes. That’s where the battle lines are drawn.

The mainstream media are doing a good job of pointing out the president’s lies, tracking his attempts to overthrow the election, and exposing the spinelessness of the large majority of Republican politicians. When the president attempts a coup, you have to cover it. At the same time, this is yet another example of Trump’s ability to dictate the topic of conversation. In a country where most people don’t track the details of political debates particularly well, the central question has become: was the 2020 election stolen by Democrats or not? Since Republicans say the system is corrupt, Democrats have to say it is just fine. Many Trump supporters are absolutely convinced Joe Biden stole the election, which will motivate and inspire them for four years; Democrats who know the election wasn’t stolen will reap no such political benefit.

For a previous example, think about birtherism. Trump used the outright lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States as a way to make himself politically relevant, but it also appealed to feelings of racial resentment and mobilized people who might not otherwise have engaged in politics. The Democrats were obviously right about the actual issue—yes, Obama was born in the United States—but politically that got them nothing.

Another example is “fake news.” The term originally referred to news articles that were actually fake—that is, their content was fake and they were posted to websites that were made to look like newspaper websites—created by right-wing activists (or perhaps Russian disinformation campaigns) in order to be spread on Facebook. But then-candidate Trump immediately co-opted the term, using it to designate real newspapers that published articles he didn’t like—because they were correct. Through force of repetition and amplification, he won that linguistic battle; today, millions of his supporters rail constantly against the “fake news”—an imagined enemy that helps bolster their self-image as a minority oppressed by a cabal of educated elites. Discussion of actual fictional news stories is largely limited to well-informed people who read articles about politics and the media. Again, the fact that we are right about this issue—the Times and the Post are usually factually correct, while One America News and Newsmax (and much of Facebook) are pure fiction—does not gain us any political mileage.

Debates about elections, I believe, will turn out the same way. People who care about voter suppression will continue to talk about it and fight against it. It is certainly possible to defend Joe Biden’s victory while pointing out that his margin of victory would have been larger without voter suppression. (For example, after a Florida referendum gave people with felony convictions the right to vote, the legislature passed a 2019 law taking that right away until they pay off their accumulated fines and fees—a poll tax if there ever was one.) But the dominant topic of conversation will be the supposed Democratic conspiracy to manipulate elections, and only one side will benefit from it politically.

What this year exposed, however, is that there is nothing more important than the electoral machinery. As the Republican Party becomes more and more of a fringe personality cult, Democrats should be able to win national and most state elections. There are two main reasons why the party manages to underperform. One, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, is the Democratic establishment’s abject failure to give most Americans—particularly those trapped on the wrong side of the inequality divide—a reason to vote Democratic. The other is that we have been losing the battle against voter suppression and gerrymandering for the past two decades, as Republicans ruthlessly target state legislative victories so they can continue writing the ground rules of democracy. With the Biden administration’s prospects of achieving anything significant sorely limited by the party’s poor showing in the House and Senate (and by its own constricted ambitions), our best chance of avoiding defeat in 2022 and 2024 is to improve the electoral playing field. The battle for democracy is job one. And it is off to a bad start.

Books: Take Back Our Party, Economism, 13 Bankers, White House Burning. Professor, @UConnLaw. Chair, @southerncenter. Co-founder, @Guidewire_PandC.

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