2024 vision

Democrats Need a Three-Year Plan to Save Democracy

Yes, Joe Biden not only can but must have a second inauguration, or we may not have those for a while. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Democratic Party has a big strategic problem looking ahead to the next two election cycles. The 2022 midterms are stacked decisively against Democrats, and the survival of the current governing trifecta in Washington is extremely unlikely. So while what happens between now and next November could affect the extent of Democratic defeats (with Senate control being pretty much a toss-up), the productive legislative phase of the Biden administration will soon be over. That means Democrats from Joe Biden on down need already to be thinking about 2024, when the stakes include, in addition to the strong possibility of a Republican governing trifecta, the continuation of the United States as a fully functioning democracy.

If Donald Trump himself runs and wins in 2024, American will enter a terrifying period in which the country will be governed by a man with zero respect for basic democratic norms and who has suffered zero consequences for his past misconduct. Even if Trump does not run, he has already corrupted the GOP and destroyed its commitment to every past notion of faith in democratic institutions to a degree that any foreseeable successor as presidential nominee will be a seasoned Big Liar and election subverter promoting an agenda that includes radical reductions in the right to vote and to control one’s own bodily integrity (assuming, as we should, that the Supreme Court is on the brink of reversing Roe v. Wade).

But here is the core problem: Voters don’t much care about the threat to democracy, as CNN explains:

Attempts to meddle with the certification of the Electoral College count and the partisan takeovers of the voting infrastructure don’t seem to be front of mind for an electorate drained by nearly two years of pandemic living and a creeping sense of economic panic, and that worries a range of Democratic governors gearing up for campaigns who gathered in New Orleans this weekend for grim meetings about their 2022 electoral prospects.

Indeed, some Democratic governors think of saving democracy as a boring process issue compared to titanic concerns like holding down gasoline prices:

“Most everyday people are worried about their kids getting a good education, worried about getting paid for, making sure their roads are fixed, being able to connect to high-speed internet,” [North Carolina Governor Roy] Cooper said. “The political process issues — I’ve never been a real fan of making them a central part of messaging.”

So perhaps this means Democrats must reduce gasoline prices to save democracy, or at least make it clear they care a lot more about reducing gasoline prices than about boring or inexplicable stuff like election laws.

But because Democratic elites do understand what could happen if Trump becomes president in 2024 by hook or by crook, on an explicit platform of I never lose, they really need to begin right now developing a three-year plan for avoiding that calamity. Here are some factors that might shape such a plan:

Embrace “popularism” now!

In the ongoing debate as to whether Democrats should vindicate the values and interests of their core constituencies, or instead to pander as aggressively as possible to broad public opinion, I have typically been in the former camp. But in the emergency conditions Democrats and the country face between now and 2024, they need all the public support they can muster lest by 2025 they have no power and perhaps even no freedom to pursue any sort of agenda. So “popularism,” the identification of the Donkey Party with what the public wants, if it does not actively contradict core principles, is a practical necessity. Since changing perceptions of political parties takes a while, it should begin right now with the final touches being placed on Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, to the extent Joe Manchin allows it. Certainly, any version of BBB that clearly and conspicuously helps lower-to-middle-class families meet concrete costs of living like child care, housing, energy costs, or just the cost of raising kids would move in the right direction.

While “popularism” may well mitigate Democratic losses in 2022, it’s no time for naïve hopes that it — or anything other than a sudden end to COVID-19 and a big inflation-free economic boom with a big backlash to Supreme Court extremism on abortion added in — could make 2022 the third midterm since FDR’s first term in which the president’s party gained House seats. What it might do is to strengthen the party going into the far more consequential election of 2024 while improving conditions in the country as perceived by persuadable voters. If Democrats actually can give middle-class voters confidence they can better deal with – or better yet, avoid – the inflation that has long been poisonous for progressive politics, then said voters may be more open to those “boring process issues” like maintaining a functioning constitutional democracy.

As Bill Clinton showed in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2012, presidents can bounce back from midterm losses — even midterm disasters — to win second terms. But that means beginning to strengthen the president’s popularity now.

Tailor 2022 strategy to 2024 needs

National-political-party leaders naturally want to spread resources around as much as possible to satisfy hungry little birdy mouths. And leaders engaged in specific electoral venues are going to focus on greasing the squeakiest wheels in their worlds. Thus even if House Democrats and their donors know the odds of hanging onto the House are 5 percent, the marginal seats that will determine control are likely to get the greatest attention, and the same is true of those involved in Senate, gubernatorial, and state-legislative races.

That needs to be replaced in the emergency conditions of 2022 by a party-wide strategy for focusing on 2024 general-election battlegrounds, particularly those where power over voting rules and election administration are at stake in the midterms. To be upfront about it, the partisan affiliation of the secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada and of the governor of those states plus Pennsylvania (where the secretary of state is a gubernatorial appointee) could have a large bearing on Trump’s election coup opportunities. So too with the partisan control of legislatures, Trump’s favored vehicle for choosing electors no matter what voters want. It certainly matters to Democrats locally whether they control similar offices in clearly red or blue states. But from a national party point of view at this moment in history, it just doesn’t matter whether the governor of Massachusetts, Illinois, or — dare I say it? — New York is a Democrat or a Republican. Maintaining control of the commanding heights of the rules governing the 2024 elections and the administration of the results to provide for a neutral playing ground friendly to voters is the best way to ensure that it is not our last free presidential election for a good while.

Democrats must talk more about democracy

Yes, many voters are bored or confused by laws governing voting and elections. For that matter, the third of the electorate composed of base Republican voters is all but convinced that Trump’s electoral coup preparations are the only way to save democracy from Democrats who believe in such nefarious schemes as making it easier to register to vote and to vote by mail or in person on pre-election Sundays (often used by Black churches to get “souls to the polls”). Scratch a conservative concerned about “election fraud” and you will usually find someone who doesn’t really believe those people should hold votes equal to their own).

So campaigning strictly on saving democracy won’t work among those who might be willing to tolerate a little fascism if it’s lubricated by cheaper petroleum products. But not talking about the threat to democracy at all is simply self-destructive. And as Politico Playbook notes in defense of its own relatively sparse coverage of the GOP’s descent into authoritarianism, Democratic leaders seem to be deferring too much to the polls showing voters are indifferent:

If Democratic candidates aren’t talking about America’s anti-democratic movement, and if President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer aren’t doing it every day in Washington, then the coverage will reflect that. That is not a defense of the political-media ecosystem but just a description of it.

This isn’t just a matter of raising the visibility of the threat to democracy generally. The prospect of a return to office in 2024 by an openly authoritarian and ever-more-extremist Trump is a sure-fire energizer for the Democratic base in 2024, whether or not it is or can be in the 2022 midterms. A Democratic Party pursuing swing-voter-pleasing “popularism” needs a “save democracy” warning to get its own most reliable voters to the polls. It helps that no exaggeration is necessary, and that Republican issue extremism — as on abortion — is also increasingly in play. The Americans most likely to face the personal risk of losing their rights or their livelihoods in an authoritarian Trump Restoration need to hear alarms early and often.

The future is now

I speak of a three-year plan in part because three years from today presidential electors will cast ballots in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. There is no question Team Trump has a game plan for controlling that process whether or not Trump wins the popular vote in sufficient states to win an electoral-vote majority legitimately despite what might well be a third-straight national-popular-vote defeat. There is also no question that the Republican Party has determined for the moment at least not to stand in the way of MAGA preparations for a coup if it needs one. Sure, Democrats could get lucky and the threat might recede again. Or perhaps they could accidentally save democracy by simply taking the steps needed to restore Joe Biden’s popularity (though Biden was pretty popular when Trump nearly stole the presidency last time around). Either way, it’s time to get started.

Democrats Need a Three-Year Plan to Save Democracy