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Are Democrats Too Exhausted or Distracted to Save Democracy?
We responded fiercely when Donald Trump got elected in 2016. Where’s that ferocity in 2022?
Remember how it felt to be a Democrat in January 2017?
A day after Trump gave his infamous “American Carnage” inaugural address, we marched in droves on cities, towns, and campuses across the country, speaking out against the misogynist-in-chief as part of the inaugural Women’s March. It was the largest single-day protest in American history. But that was only the beginning.
Democrats organized across the country to beat Republicans and win the 2018 midterm elections — a critical first referendum on Trump and the rapidly-radicalizing GOP. Moderates like Abigail Spanberger and Conor Lamb ran and won in key swing districts, helping catapult the party to overwhelming control of Congress. A CNN analysis captured the party’s unprecedented momentum: “2018 wasn’t a blue wave,” Harry Enten wrote at the time. “It was a blue tsunami.”
Not all energy went to defeating Trumpism. In deep-blue areas and on the ideological far-left, the anti-Trump energy was re-rerouted into newly-launched organizations like Justice Democrats focused on replacing party incumbents with progressive firebrands like AOC.
Fast forward to the present day: the all-important 2022 midterm elections are approaching and Democrats are in trouble. A year after the January 6th insurrection, with control of Congress and the future of democracy itself on the line, the party’s approval ratings are in the dumpster and Republicans are enjoying a historic 5-point edge nationally (the largest swing since Gallup began its tracking).
In 2016, Donald Trump was legitimately elected president and millions flooded the streets. In 2022, the mainstream GOP is making credible threats to destroy democracy and, well, where is that post-2016 energy right now?
More on that below, but first some of what our team was reading this week:
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Podcast: Lanae Erickson in the New York Times’ “The Argument” on how a big tent Democratic Party is critical to making lasting progress:
“[Erickson] argues that Democrats need to make their platform as broadly popular as possible in order to bring more voters under the party’s big tent. That’s the way to win, and then enact progressive policies.”
2. Lakshya Jain in Split Ticket on how ideologically extreme candidates are more likely to underperform more moderate candidates:
“Research suggests that the path of electoral moderation is generally more influential, and comparing ideology against electoral performance shows that there is a significant and quantifiable penalty for ideological extremism. Political Scientist Dr. Chris Warshaw found that the penalty for ideological extremism generally ranges between 1.1 and 2.3 points in vote share for House incumbents; while the penalty for this has declined over time, it remains sizable, especially in close races (and especially considering that 39 seats were within 5 points of the national environment, on margin). Our research at Split Ticket, which uses GovTrack’s measurement of incumbent ideology, finds something similar.”
3. Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam in the New York Times on how Democrats can stop a red wave in 2022:
“We asked about two dozen strategists in both parties what would need to happen for Democrats to hold the House and Senate in November. And while we’re not making any predictions, it’s possible that Democrats could retain control of Congress. Difficult, but possible.”
4. Podcast: Sean Illing and Dan Pfeiffer in Vox Conversations on how Democrats are now paying the price for setting expectations way too high in 2020:
“[Democrats] have done a very poor job of expectations management. We have let the country, the press, and our voters believe that certain things were likely to happen in terms of the size and scope of what we can accomplish with our very narrow majority. We are engaged in that right now where — despite Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema telling us 100 times over that they are not going to change their minds on the filibuster — we’ve set up a high-stakes showdown that ensures that we’ll have a giant loss right at the one-year mark of Joe Biden’s presidency.”
Can Democrats stave off the “Politics of Exhaustion”?
David Brooks has described the “politics of exhaustion” as the phenomenon by which voters stuck in between the loud, cynical, and apocalyptic movements on the far-right and far-left fringes begin to bow out of political participation in sheer exhaustion. He writes:
“Years and years of exhaustion have… made these people weary, cynical and disgusted. Exhaustion, as always, induces a sort of pessimism, a feeling that we are living in terrible times, a sort of weariness of the soul. As Peter Stockland of the think tank Cardus put it, ‘The combined effect of fear and exhaustion’ is ‘producing a cynicism so deep and murky and toxic that it verges on the sin of bearing false witness against reality.’ But the chief feature of the voters in the exhausted group is timidity. They do not get energy from conflict, the way, say, Trump does. Their instinct is to keep their heads down and just get through this craziness.”
The dynamic Brooks describes is very real and poses a serious problem not only for the Democratic Party but for the nation at large, most fundamentally because it is becoming clearer by the day that our democracy’s darkest hour is not behind us but ahead of us. We wrote last week about the recent report from Third Way on The Plot to Steal the Presidency, which outlines the looming threat to the American experiment in chillingly lucid and succinct terms. If there has ever been a moment when Americans, especially Democrats, quite plainly cannot afford to bow out of politics, it’s right now.
And yet it appears as though we’re in the midst of doing just that. As it currently stands, Republicans are the ones who are energized and ready to turn out in droves this year: a recent NBC News poll found that Democrats are trailing the GOP in enthusiasm by double digits. The main GOP committees even slightly outraised the main Democratic committees in 2021.
Even more jarring given where the threat to democracy is coming from, GOP voters are significantly more concerned about the state of our democracy than their Democratic counterparts. From Philip Bump in the Washington Post:
“Polling released [recently] from Grinnell College suggests that most Americans believe democracy in the United States to be under major threat. More than three-quarters see democracy as being under at least a minor threat. But when broken down by party, the divides are more stark: More than two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think that democracy faces a major threat compared to only about a third of Democrats.”
Democrats entered the Trump era fired up and ready to fight back, and now we’re… too tired and unconcerned to keep the energy alive?
It’s time for the Democrats to rewind the tape back to 2017, or even early last year, when the enthusiasm was high and the momentum was ours (the win-swing-districts enthusiasm, not the primary-Joe-Manchin enthusiasm).
And then, after some good nostalgic replays, it’s time to skip back to the present with the same energy — and focus it entirely on winning.