Maybe John Ganz and I are sharing a brain, I don’t know. But I endorse what he’s written about the problem we face with the Republican Party’s aversion to allowing free and fair elections or accepting the results when they lose. Before I get to that, though, I do want to acknowledge the basic point that Josh Barro is making with his complaint about the Democrats’ pro-democracy messaging.
When Democrats talk about “democracy,” they’re talking about the importance of institutions that ensure the voters get a say among multiple choices and the one they most prefer gets to rule. But they are also saying voters do not get to do that in this election. The message is that there is only one party contesting this election that is committed to democracy — the Democrats — and therefore only one real choice available. If voters reject Democrats’ agenda or their record on issues including inflation, crime, and immigration (or abortion, for that matter), they have no recourse at the ballot box — they simply must vote for Democrats anyway, at least until such time as the Republican Party is run by the likes of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.
This amounts to telling voters that they have already lost their democracy.
On the surface, Barro has identified a contradiction. On the one hand, the Dems are saying that they’re the defenders of political choice and then on other hand they’re insisting that there’s only one choice in this election. Can both things be true?
First, let’s be clear that voters most definitely have the freedom to vote for whomever they want in the 2022 midterm elections, and if they don’t like their options they can write someone in or stay home. There are no Democrats arguing that only Democratic candidates should appear on the ballots or that voters should be restricted in their choices. There are no elected Democratic election officials or gubernatorial candidates promising that if they or their party wins, the opposition will never be victorious in their state again.
What President Biden and other Democrats are arguing is that this freedom of choice isn’t guaranteed in future elections and is, in fact, imperiled by the Republican Party. So, they’re not saying, for example, that anti-choice Republicans have to vote for pro-choice candidates. They’re saying that one risk of voting for an anti-choice candidate is that you could lose your political choice baby along with your reproductive choice bathwater. This isn’t a threat. It’s not coercive. It is information. It is prognostication.
Now, if you accept that this risk is real, it can clarify your options in the voting booth but it doesn’t restrict them. Contrary to what Barro says, this isn’t a matter of having already lost your democracy but a matter of taking measures to preserve it. And if you believe what the Democrats are saying, even if you oppose them on most or all of the other issues of the day, the restriction in choice you’re feeling is coming entirely from the Republican side’s anti-democratic characteristics. The GOP is forcing you to oppose them even though you prefer their policies in other respects. Objectively, this calculation exists and is the same whether the Democrats talk about it or not.
Now, Barro goes on to make a more political point, which is that the Democrats would do better, if what they’re warning about is true, to follow the example of other political parties and coalitions from other countries who show more ideological flexibility when faced with some kind of existential threat to their democracy. As Ganz points out, Barro’s examples from Israel and Hungary are comically bad, but the premise makes a good degree of sense.
Shouldn’t the Democrats temporarily abandon their ideological agenda in an effort to be as welcoming as possible to anyone who is concerned about preserving our democracy for the future? It’s true that Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have done this with their own ideology and are out there campaigning for some Democrats. Couldn’t the Democrats meet them halfway in the middle?
It’s an attractive idea, but since it’s presented in a strategic wrapper, it worth noting that blowing off your base’s political ambitions is far from a slam dunk way to win elections. Elections are won by getting the most votes, not by assuaging John Barro’s struggles with cognitive dissonance.
…if you’re going to tell people they must vote for your side to keep a dangerous authoritarian out, you also do what you can to make them feel ideologically comfortable within the coalition on issues besides elections themselves.
If it were possible to win elections with just crossover votes, without turning out your own natural coalition, this strategy would be solid. But, realistically, the best that can be done is to tone down some of the messaging’s hard edges in a bid to be more welcoming.
The problem the Democrats have right now is really not that they’re doing an inadequate job of explaining the threat to democracy if the Republicans win, nor is it that their platform is too partisan to attract independents and conservatives. Their problem is that they’re in charge at a time when people are very unhappy. Voters tend to express their unhappiness by punishing incumbents. A winning strategy has to convince a lot of people that the Republicans are the source of their unhappiness, and that’s a heavy lift.
Not a few political strategists think any discussion of the threat to democracy is wasted energy that should be put to talking about issues that are more likely to drive voter choice, like inflation, abortion and crime. So, maybe the Democrats should focus less on being the place for a broad non-threatening coalition of supporters of democracy and more on what voters indicate they care about the most.
To me, though, Ganz gets to the heart of the matter when he writes that the Republicans “don’t want the country to be a democracy anymore. They know it. We know it. But for some reason all these pundits say we shouldn’t say it.”
We should say it, and by saying it there are some voters who will actually listen.
Enough to save the day?
We will soon find out.