When it comes to elections, the Republican Party operates within a carapace of lies. So we rely on the Democrats to preserve our system of government.
The problem is that Democrats live within their own insular echo chamber. Within that bubble convenient falsehoods spread, go unchallenged and make it harder to focus on the real crisis. So let’s clear away some of these myths that are distorting Democratic behavior:
The whole electoral system is in crisis. Elections have three phases: registering and casting votes, counting votes and certifying results. When it comes to the first two phases, the American system has its flaws but is not in crisis. As Yuval Levin noted in The Times a few days ago, it’s become much easier in most places to register and vote than it was years ago. We just had a 2020 election with remarkably high turnout. The votes were counted with essentially zero fraud.
The emergency is in the third phase — Republican efforts to overturn votes that have been counted. But Democratic voting bills — the For the People Act and its update, the Freedom to Vote Act — were not overhauled to address the threats that have been blindingly obvious since Jan. 6 last year. They are sprawling measures covering everything from mail-in ballots to campaign finance. They basically include every idea that’s been on activist agendas for years.
These bills are hard to explain and hard to pass. By catering to D.C. interest groups, Democrats have spent a year distracting themselves from the emergency right in front of us.
Voter suppression efforts are a major threat to democracy. Given the racial history of this country, efforts to limit voting, as some states have been implementing, are heinous. I get why Democrats want to repel them. But this, too, is not the major crisis facing us. That’s because tighter voting laws often don’t actually restrict voting all that much. Academics have studied this extensively. A recent well-researched study suggested that voter ID laws do not reduce turnout. States tighten or loosen their voting laws, often seemingly without a big effect on turnout. The general rule is that people who want to vote end up voting.
Just as many efforts to limit the electorate don’t have much of an effect, the Democratic bills to make it easier to vote might not have much impact on turnout or on which party wins. As my Times colleague Nate Cohn wrote last April, “Expanding voting options to make it more convenient hasn’t seemed to have a huge effect on turnout or electoral outcomes. That’s the finding of decades of political science research on advance, early and absentee voting.”
Higher turnout helps Democrats. This popular assumption is also false. Political scientists Daron R. Shaw and John R. Petrocik, authors of “The Turnout Myth,” looked at 70 years of election data and found “no evidence that turnout is correlated with partisan vote choice.”
The best way to address the crisis is top down. Democrats have focused their energies in Washington, trying to pass these big bills. The bills would override state laws and dictate a lot of election procedures from the national level.
Given how local Republicans are behaving, I understand why Democrats want to centralize things. But it’s a little weird to be arguing that in order to save democracy we have to take power away from local elected officials. Plus, if you tell local people they’re not fit to govern themselves, you’re going to further inflame the populist backlash.
But the real problem is that Democrats are not focusing on crucial state and local arenas. The Times’s Charles Homans had a fascinating report from Pennsylvania, where Trump backers were running for local office, including judge of elections, while Democrats struggled to even find candidates. “I’m not sure what the Democratic Party was worried about, but it didn’t feel like they were worried about school board and judge of elections races — all of these little positions,” a failed Democratic candidate said.
Democrats do not seem to be fighting hard in key local races. They do not seem to be rallying the masses so that state legislators pay a price if they support democracy-weakening legislation.
Maybe some of the energy that has been spent over the past year analyzing and berating Joe Manchin could have been better spent grooming and supporting good state and local candidates. Maybe the best way to repulse a populist uprising is not by firing up all your allies in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.
The crisis of democracy is right in front of us. We have a massive populist mob that thinks the country is now controlled by a coastal progressive oligarchy that looks down on them. We’re caught in cycles of polarization that threaten to turn America into Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We have Republican hacks taking power away from the brave state officials who stood up to Trumpian bullying after the 2020 election.
Democrats have spent too much time on measures that they mistakenly think would give them an advantage. The right response would be: Do the unsexy work at the local level, where things are in flux. Pass the parts of the Freedom to Vote Act that are germane, like the protections for elections officials against partisan removal, and measures to limit purging voter rolls. Reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent Congress from derailing election certifications.
When your house is on fire, drop what you were doing, and put it out. Maybe finally Democrats will do that.
Steve Bannon Is On to Something
In his 2020 book “Politics Is for Power,” Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts, sketched a day in the life of many political obsessives in sharp, if cruel, terms.
I refresh my Twitter feed to keep up on the latest political crisis, then toggle over to Facebook to read clickbait news stories, then over to YouTube to see a montage of juicy clips from the latest congressional hearing. I then complain to my family about all the things I don’t like that I have seen.
To Hersh, that’s not politics. It’s what he calls “political hobbyism.” And it’s close to a national pastime. “A third of Americans say they spend two hours or more each day on politics,” he writes. “Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute of that time is spent on any kind of real political work. It’s all TV news and podcasts and radio shows and social media and cheering and booing and complaining to friends and family.”
Real political work, for Hersh, is the intentional, strategic accumulation of power in service of a defined end. It is action in service of change, not information in service of outrage. This distinction is on my mind because, like so many others, I’ve spent the week revisiting the attempted coup of Jan. 6, marinating in my fury toward the Republicans who put fealty toward Donald Trump above loyalty toward country and the few but pivotal Senate Democrats who are proving, day after day, that they think the filibuster more important than the franchise. Let me tell you, the tweets and columns I drafted in my head were searing.
But fury is useful only as fuel. We need a Plan B for democracy. Plan A was to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Neither bill, as of now, has a path to President Biden’s desk. I’ve found that you provoke a peculiar anger if you state this, as if admitting the problem were the cause of the problem. I fear denial has left many Democrats stuck on a national strategy with little hope of near-term success. In order to protect democracy, Democrats have to win more elections. And to do that, they need to make sure the country’s local electoral machinery isn’t corrupted by the Trumpist right.
“The people thinking strategically about how to win the 2022 election are the ones doing the most for democracy,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard and one of the authors of “How Democracies Die.” “I’ve heard people saying bridges don’t save democracy — voting rights do. But for Democrats to be in a position to protect democracy, they need bigger majorities.”
There are people working on a Plan B. This week, I half-jokingly asked Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, what it felt like to be on the front lines of protecting American democracy. He replied, dead serious, by telling me what it was like. He spends his days obsessing over mayoral races in 20,000-person towns, because those mayors appoint the city clerks who decide whether to pull the drop boxes for mail-in ballots and small changes to electoral administration could be the difference between winning Senator Ron Johnson’s seat in 2022 (and having a chance at democracy reform) and losing the race and the Senate. Wikler is organizing volunteers to staff phone banks to recruit people who believe in democracy to serve as municipal poll workers, because Steve Bannon has made it his mission to recruit people who don’t believe in democracy to serve as municipal poll workers.
I’ll say this for the right: They pay attention to where the power lies in the American system, in ways the left sometimes doesn’t. Bannon calls this “the precinct strategy,” and it’s working. “Suddenly, people who had never before showed interest in party politics started calling the local G.O.P. headquarters or crowding into county conventions, eager to enlist as precinct officers,” ProPublica reports. “They showed up in states Trump won and in states he lost, in deep-red rural areas, in swing-voting suburbs and in populous cities.”
The difference between those organizing at the local level to shape democracy and those raging ineffectually about democratic backsliding — myself included — reminds me of the old line about war: Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. Right now, Trumpists are talking logistics.
“We do not have one federal election,” said Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run for Something, which helps first-time candidates learn about the offices they can contest and helps them mount their campaigns. “We have 50 state elections and then thousands of county elections. And each of those ladder up to give us results. While Congress can write, in some ways, rules or boundaries for how elections are administered, state legislatures are making decisions about who can and can’t vote. Counties and towns are making decisions about how much money they’re spending, what technology they’re using, the rules around which candidates can participate.”
An NPR analysis found 15 Republicans running for secretary of state in 2022 who doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s win. In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, the incumbent Republican secretary of state who stood fast against Trump’s pressure, faces two primary challengers who hold that Trump was 2020’s rightful winner. Trump has endorsed one of them, Representative Jody Hice. He’s also endorsed candidates for secretary of state in Arizona and Michigan who backed him in 2020 and stand ready to do so in 2024. As NPR dryly noted, “The duties of a state secretary of state vary, but in most cases, they are the state’s top voting official and have a role in carrying out election laws.”
Nor is it just secretaries of state. “Voter suppression is happening at every level of government here in Georgia,” Representative Nikema Williams, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, told me. “We have 159 counties, and so 159 different ways boards of elections are elected and elections are carried out. So we have 159 different leaders who control election administration in the state. We’ve seen those boards restrict access by changing the number of ballot boxes. Often, our Black members on these boards are being pushed out.”
America’s confounding political structure creates two mismatches that bedevil democracy’s would-be defenders. The first mismatch is geographic. Your country turns on elections held in Georgia and Wisconsin, and if you live in California or New York, you’re left feeling powerless.
But that’s somewhere between an illusion and a cop-out. A constant complaint among those working to win these offices is that progressives donate hundreds of millions to presidential campaigns and long-shot bids against top Republicans, even as local candidates across the country are starved for funds.
“Democratic major donors like to fund the flashy things,” Litman told me. “Presidential races, Senate races, super PACs, TV ads. Amy McGrath can raise $90 million to run against Mitch McConnell in a doomed race, but the number of City Council and school board candidates in Kentucky who can raise what they need is …” She trailed off in frustration.
The second mismatch is emotional. If you’re frightened that America is sliding into authoritarianism, you want to support candidates, run campaigns and donate to causes that directly focus on the crisis of democracy. But few local elections are run as referendums on Trump’s big lie. They’re about trash pickup and bond ordinances and traffic management and budgeting and disaster response.
Lina Hidalgo ran for county judge in Harris County, Texas, after the 2016 election. Trump’s campaign had appalled her, and she wanted to do something. “I learned about this position that had flown under the radar for a very long time,” she told me. “It was the type of seat that only ever changed who held it when the incumbent died or was convicted of a crime. But it controls the budget for the county. Harris County is nearly the size of Colorado in population, larger than 28 states. It’s the budget for the hospital system, roads, bridges, libraries, the jail. And part of that includes funding the electoral system.”
Hidalgo didn’t campaign as a firebrand progressive looking to defend Texas from Trump. She won it, she told me, by focusing on what mattered most to her neighbors: the constant flooding of the county, as violent storms kept overwhelming dilapidated infrastructure. “I said, ‘Do you want a community that floods year after year?’” She won, and after she won, she joined with her colleagues to spend $13 million more on election administration and to allow residents to vote at whichever polling place was convenient for them on Election Day, even if it wasn’t the location they’d been assigned.
Protecting democracy by supporting county supervisors or small-town mayors — particularly ones who fit the politics of more conservative communities — can feel like being diagnosed with heart failure and being told the best thing to do is to double-check your tax returns and those of all your neighbors.
“If you want to fight for the future of American democracy, you shouldn’t spend all day talking about the future of American democracy,” Wikler said. “These local races that determine the mechanics of American democracy are the ventilation shaft in the Republican death star. These races get zero national attention. They hardly get local attention. Turnout is often lower than 20 percent. That means people who actually engage have a superpower. You, as a single dedicated volunteer, might be able to call and knock on the doors of enough voters to win a local election.”
Or you can simply win one yourself. That’s what Gabriella Cázares-Kelly did. Cázares-Kelly, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, agreed to staff a voter registration booth at the community college where she worked, in Pima County, Ariz. She was stunned to hear the stories of her students. “We keep blaming students for not participating, but it’s really complicated to get registered to vote if you don’t have a license, the nearest D.M.V. is an hour and a half away and you don’t own a car,” she told me.
Cázares-Kelly learned that much of the authority over voter registration fell to an office neither she nor anyone around her knew much about: the County Recorder’s Office, which has authority over records ranging from deeds to voter registrations. It had powers she’d never considered. It could work with the postmaster’s office to put registration forms in tribal postal offices — or not. When it called a voter to verify a ballot and heard an answering machine message in Spanish, it could follow up in Spanish — or not.
“I started contacting the records office and making suggestions and asking questions,” Cázares-Kelly said. “I did that for a long time, and the previous recorder was not very happy about it. I called so often, the staff began to know me. I didn’t have an interest in running till I heard the previous recorder was going to retire, and then my immediate thought was, ‘What if a white supremacist runs?’”
So in 2020, Cázares-Kelly ran, and she won. Now she’s the county recorder for a jurisdiction with nearly a million people, and more than 600,000 registered voters, in a swing state. “One thing I was really struck by when I first started getting involved in politics is how much power there is in just showing up to things,” she said. “If you love libraries, libraries have board meetings. Go to the public meeting. See where they’re spending their money. We’re supposed to be participating. If you want to get involved, there’s always a way.”
Taking the Long Way
Disciplines of the Soul are the Basis of a Liberal Society
.. Restrictions on campaign contributions provide one example, prohibitions against hate speech another. The liberal vision of freedom deems these limitations legitimate if they are aimed at expanding the realm and reach of individual autonomy overall. Thus the paradox of liberalism: expanded government for the sake of freedom.
.. But many conservatives (and all the more so libertarians) root their complaints in the same radical individualism as the progressives they oppose. They don’t object to the liberal view of liberty. Instead, they see liberalism as betraying it. They insist, for instance, that public redistribution of wealth is a greater constraint on free choice than the economic want it is meant to address.
The same goes for campaign finance laws and many other liberal efforts to limit liberty for the sake of greater liberty. They deem the paradox of liberalism a fatal contradiction.
.. Poverty in this sense does not necessarily involve injustice. By contrast, government redistribution of property can directly impinge on our rights of ownership, and thus can easily be seen as unjust.
.. This conservative idea of liberty, then, is less concerned with giving different people equal power to make their choices matter, but more concerned with letting every individual do what he wishes with what he has—provided he does not take from others.
.. The progressive sees freedom as a power to act while the conservative sees freedom as an absence of restraint.
.. both seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way.
.. Modern thinkers since Machiavelli and Hobbes have tended to assert that the purpose of society is simply to meet our basic needs for security in our person and property and our desire for liberty in all other things. This minimal view allows us to hope that an arrangement of institutions, incentives, and interests that keeps us out of each other’s hair will be enough.
The market economy, too, is premised on the notion that if all we want is prosperity and comfort, then we should be able to achieve those in spades without having to argue about moral premises too much.
.. A population of citizens generally capable of using their freedom well, not the American Constitution or the market system, is the greatest modern achievement of our civilization. That achievement is the prerequisite for liberalism, whether progressive or conservative
.. To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being. Such a person is not someone we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom.
.. The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire.
.. This liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction. To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation.
.. Religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of the press—these are liberties designed to protect our traditions of moral formation
.. the liberal political theory we claim as our birthright emerged in Britain after an era of nightmarish religious wars, in part to justify an already existing society in terms other than the contentious religious and political ones on which it had originally, gradually, come to be. This involved the formulation of an alternative creation story (man in the state of nature)
.. in essence, our liberal theories offer us truths wrapped in falsehoods—
- the truth that we are all created equal wrapped in the falsehood of a society built by independent individuals choosing to unite;
- the truth that we all deserve to be free wrapped in the falsehood that freedom is the absence of restraint.
The truths may add up to a case for the long way to liberty, but the falsehoods can easily be taken as a case for the short way: the liberation of the individual from outside constraints to pursue his wants as he wills.
.. The long way to liberty begins unavoidably with marriage and the family, and the case for the short way begins as a case against their necessity.
.. But work also buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability. It can help form us into better human beings and better liberal citizens. To see only its material utility is to imagine that work, like family, could be replaced by more efficient forms of distribution.
.. Progressive economic policy at least since John Maynard Keynes has appealed to a sense that the ideal economy would be less focused on work. But this view ignores the formative potential of work beyond its utilitarian value.
.. in higher education, we are increasingly squeezing out liberal learning to make room for more skills training and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees. We surely need technical education, but that cannot be all that education means.
Liberal learning is out of step with our times because it offers us not vocational skills but the shaping of habits of thought and practice. It forms our souls through exposure to beauty, to truth, and to the power of the sublime that we can only glimpse through the mediation of rare artistic genius. It is, in this sense, closer to an aristocratic idea of leisure than to the modern idea of training.
.. We have almost all agreed that leisure is an opportunity for entertainment and unmediated pleasures. It would not be easy now to make the case for a different understanding of leisure as an opportunity to build habits of virtue, although some people do of course continue the practice of such edifying leisure.
.. “Local institutions are to liberty,” he tells us, “what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions, a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty.”
.. But if the long way to liberty is truly to lead us to a freedom that is more than license, it must draw as well upon an ideal of human emancipation that is more than political.
.. Religion in this sense offers a direct challenge to the ethic of the liberal society, and an explicit correction of its excesses.
.. And what is true of religion in particular is true more generally of the institutions of the long way to liberty: They are foundational to liberalism not so much because they counteract its vices as because they prepare human beings to handle the burdens and responsibilities of being free.
.. In our time, a commitment to the long way requires us to defend against a corrosive pseudo-liberalism. Championed by some progressives, but too often enabled by conservatives, it encourages precisely philistinism—a form of freedom that is but license for the morally unfree, and actively disparages every form of nobility, refinement, dignity, order, and transcendence.
.. What happens on the long way to liberty is so offensive to today’s progressives because the authority of our traditional institutions stands in the way of the social transformation they desire.
.. The progress that progressives dream of involves remaking the social order so that it becomes friendlier to an idea of liberty as the emancipation of the will—remaking society so that it becomes finally worthy of the liberated, autonomous individual.
.. But this has things backwards. Real progress very rarely looks like social transformation. It more frequently looks like personal transformation
.. bearing the duties and responsibilities of freedom without being prepared for them poses great dangers, especially the danger of abandoning our liberty in return for security or the passing pleasures and distractions of our abundant age. This danger is avoidable only if we take the long way to liberty
Smart Approaches, Not Strong-Arm Tactics, to Jobs
He can make you so nuts — he can so vacuum your brains out — that you can’t think clearly about the most important questions today: What things are true even if Trump believes them, and therefore merit support?
.. But I worry about his pugnacious tactics. I would be negotiating with Beijing in total secret. Let everybody save face. If he smacks China with “America First,” China will smack him with “China First,” and soon we’ll have a good ol’ trade war.
.. But what Trump doesn’t see is that while this may get him some short-term jobs headlines, in the long-run C.E.O.s may prefer not to build their next factory in America, precisely because it will be hostage to Trump’s Twitter lashings. They also may quietly replace more workers with robots faster, because Trump can’t see or complain about that.
.. “Trump wants to protect jobs,” explained Gidi Grinstein, who heads the Israeli policy institute Reut. “What we really need is to protect workers.”
You need to protect workers, not jobs, because every worker today will most likely have to transition multiple times to multiple jobs as the pace of change accelerates. So the best way you help workers is by ensuring that they are flexible — that they have the skills, safety nets, health care and lifelong learning opportunities to make those leaps and that they live in cities open to innovation, entrepreneurship and high-I.Q. risk-takers.
.. Eric Beinhocker, executive director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford, calls this the “new progressive localism.” For too long, he argues, “progressives have been so focused on Washington, they’ve missed the fact that most of the progress on the issues they care about — environment, education, economic opportunity and work-force skills — has happened at the local level.
Because that is where trust lives.”
Trust is what enables you to adapt quickly and experiment often, i.e., to be flexible. And there is so much more trust on the local level than the national level in America today.
.. he is saving jobs but hurting workers, because he is making workers less secure and less flexible.