Confronting the Democracy Crisis
A practical guide to saving our system
On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office at the depths of the Great Depression. The banks were all closed and the country was sad and terrified. Millions wanted a dictator, a word with a positive connotation at the time. Studebaker even had a car called “The Dictator” that sold fairly well.
The following week, FDR went to the Georgetown home of retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was celebrating his 92nd birthday. Over bootleg champagne (as if President Biden and Justice Elena Kagan were smoking weed), Roosevelt asked Holmes for advice. “You’re in a war, Franklin,” Holmes told him. “And in war you must form your battalion and fight.”
FDR took the advice and attacked the Depression from all directions, but without assuming dictatorial powers. He knew how high the stakes were for democracy. “If you succeed, you’ll be our greatest president and if you fail, you’ll be our worst president,” a visitor told him. “No,” Roosevelt said. “If I fail, I’ll be our last president.”
Now we are again engaged in a war to save American democracy. Democrats, independents and the few remaining Never Trump Republicans must form their battalion across a broad front that includes morale, language, legislation, accountability and technology.
President Biden gave a good speech Thursday about the Trump “dagger pointed at the throat of democracy” and he eloquently explained how dark events of the past have often led to brighter outcomes. But Democrats have good reason to feel depressed about the order of battle.
An astonishing 21 million Americans believe that violence—the great destroyer of democracy—may be necessary to restore Trump to the White House. Republican legislatures in several states are politicizing vote-counting and Trumpist secretaries of state may refuse to certify the 2024 outcome if their cult leader loses, throwing the election into the House where Trump would prevail, even if Democrats still control that chamber. (Under the Constitution, every state gets one vote and there are more Republican states than Democratic ones.) Given that and the 6-3 Republican majority on the Supreme Court, its only natural to think democracy has been checkmated.
Not so. Democrats need to suck it up. They need to avoid being, as David Plouffe, who served as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, put it, “a bunch of bedwetters.” And as the midterm campaign heats up this year, they need to stop wringing their hands and start ringing doorbells. If they have no contested races in their area, they can access easy-to-use call tools that allow them to take part in a campaign for the state legislature a thousand miles away.
Too many Democrats assume, wrongly, that they will lose control of Congress in November. More likely, they will at least hold the Senate, where they may even pick up a seat or two (perhaps in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and even Ohio). While the odds are worse in the House, gerrymandering has not tilted the playing field as much to the GOP as predicted, and Biden’s anemic poll numbers aren’t especially relevant now. Ten months is a lifetime in politics. There’s plenty of time to rally the troops—Obama had more than a million volunteers working on Election Day 2008—and win.
Unfortunately, they will have to win comfortably to prevail. We should expect almost all Trumpsters to challenge any elections they narrowly lose. Soon, many Democrats may do the same. The difference is that Democrats will respect court decisions rebuffing their challenges.
…as the midterm campaign heats up this year, they need to stop wringing their hands and start ringing doorbells.
Some strategists say the Democrats cannot run on protecting democracy. They must focus on Covid, the economy and delivering on their promises. Fair enough. But that applies to winning votes. First, you have to mobilize your army of volunteers. For that, saving democracy is a compelling call to arms. As is voter suppression. Black voter turnout surges when the rights they fought and died for are on the line.
As George Orwell understood, politics is often about controlling language. In recent decades, Republicans have been much better at framing issues and driving a message. “Death taxes” and “Build the Wall” stand up pretty well rhetorically against….what? It’s a sign of the paucity of sticky Democratic lines that one of the only memorable ones comes from the far left and was turned into a caricature: “Defund the police.”
On democracy, Democrats got off to a good start last year with “The Big Lie.” It hasn’t change anyone in the “Stop the Steal” crowd but at least it gives pro-democracy forces something to work with when trying to win independents.
But cementing “the Big Lie” into the national consciousness is not enough. A broader re-branding is essential. “Authoritarian” is clunky and “illiberal” (the way Viktor Orban describes himself) is confusing. We need to call those who incite rightwing violence what they are: “Fascists.” It’s a strong word, but as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright implies in her book, an accurate one.
…cementing “the Big Lie” into the national consciousness is not enough. A broader re-branding is essential…We need to call those who incite rightwing violence what they are: “Fascists.”
While we’re at it, the larger story should be called “the democracy crisis.” Americans are slow to respond to challenges unless they are defined as crises. And in this case, it happens to be true. We’re in an intense, critical period—full of peril—and should call it what it is.
Same for the two-party system, which should now be described as the Democratic Party versus the Anti-Democracy Party. And anti-vaxxers shouldn’t be the only ones tossing around the word “freedom.” Real freedom is not possible without democracy. So Democrats should start routinely calling themselves, “freedom-loving Democrats.”
We obviously need to restore teeth to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (the John Lewis Act) and secure the recent expansion of voting (the Freedom to Vote Act). The most important provisions involve not voter suppression but voter subversion—efforts in many states to allow partisan election officials and rogue state legislatures to overturn the will of the people.
The most important provisions involve not voter suppression but voter subversion—efforts in many states to allow partisan election officials and rogue state legislatures to overturn the will of the people.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema favor these bills but they are against a “carve-out” from the filibuster that would be necessary to enact them. Efforts to make them budge are underway and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set January 17 as a deadline to hasten a reform of the rules. Senators Jon Tester, Angus King and Mark Warner are working on a compromise along the lines offered by Jeff Blattner, a former top aide to Ted Kennedy. The arcane but important rule change would allow senators plenty of time for amendments before proceeding to a majority vote.
In the meantime, a bipartisan group led by Sen. Susan Collins is working to overhaul the 1887 Electoral Count Act so that it’s clear the vice president does not have the power to reject certified election returns.
This is fine—if a little like closing the barn door after the horse has (almost) escaped. The problem is that Republicans—and possibly some Democrats—will likely see it as a substitute for the other, much more important legislation. They’ll tell their constituents, “See, we did something about January 6,” and call it a day. Senate Democrats and the party as a whole cannot let them get away with this, though I have a sinking feeling they will.
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The bipartisan House Select Committee on January 6 is doing a fine job so far and its primetime public hearings—likely to begin in March—will almost certainly provide a gripping narrative of the coup plot and close call for democracy. If even 10 percent of independents come over to the side of truth and justice, it will be a real victory.
The committee is charged with making recommendations on how to prevent another January 6. Yes, we need new guardrails but the best way to avoid tyranny is to make sure Donald Trump is never president again. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1866 and used to bolster the prosecution in Trump’s second impeachment trial, contains language that disqualifies anyone from holding public office who has given “aid or comfort” to insurrectionists. This can apparently be implemented by majority vote of both houses of Congress and the signature of the president, plus a positive ruling from the Supreme Court on Trump’s inevitable court challenge.
Yes, we need new guardrails but the best way to avoid tyranny is to make sure Donald Trump is never president again.
Don’t assume that the three justices appointed by Trump and other conservatives will overturn a congressional vote to disqualify him or otherwise carry his water. That’s too cynical. Like everyone else in Washington, the justices know privately that he’s a menace. But unlike elected Republicans, they don’t fear seeing their careers threatened by this mountebank. The high court rejected all 60 of Trump’s appeals in election cases in 2020. In any event, we can expect to hear plenty of talk about a “14th Amendment solution” later this year.
Bolstering democracy with convictions is also essential. Attorney General Merrick Garland is not showing his hand but he hinted in his speech Wednesday that Trump is under investigation by the Department of Justice, which will likely lead to “the former guy” appearing before a grand jury. The challenge will be determining whether his shameful dereliction of duty on January 6 constituted a crime.
While we don’t know yet how the Atlanta case (involving Trump’s outrageous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger) or the New York case (involving wildly varying valuations of his property for bank loans and taxes) will play out, a deterrent effect may apply in litigation against his subordinates. There’s a good chance Dominion Voting Systems will win a huge judgment against Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, bankrupting them. This may make lawyers think twice before they bring bogus cases in the future. Meanwhile, Trump himself is getting payback for decades of ridiculously litigious conduct. He is now being sued in dozens of civil cases.
I’m also not confident about Congress reining in the tech companies so they don’t spread so much misinformation. It’s good to hear that a former Facebook executive is helping Congress draft bipartisan legislation that will make social media platforms more transparent, an essential first step. But there’s no indication lawmakers will repeal the infamous Section 230—the only real way to curb all the lying and viciousness.
Short of that, the fight for democracy must include a new movement for “algorithm reform.” With enough public pressure, social media companies should be forced to stop prioritizing incendiary content. And they can afford to hire more people in content moderation to keep lies off their platforms.
…the fight for democracy must include a new movement for “algorithm reform.” With enough public pressure, social media companies should be forced to stop prioritizing incendiary content.
At the same time, these behemoths and the insanely rich men who founded them (and the wives they divorced) can afford to fund media literacy and civics programs large enough to shape how the next generation absorbs information and appreciates the importance of democracy.
Six decades ago, President John F. Kennedy described the Cold War between communism and democracy as a “long twilight struggle.” Now that battle between darkness and light is playing out at home. We must form our battalion and fight.