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The Democracy Endgame

Overview

The threats to our democracy did not end with the 2020 election. Authoritarian politics continue to fester, especially at the state level, and could very well return to the White House. A coordinated, long-term, and nationwide strategy is very likely needed to protect and perfect our democratic institutions.

To help write the next chapter in the grand strategy against authoritarianism, Protect Democracy invited some of the country’s top democracy scholars to an essay and discussion series titled Democracy Endgame: The Grand Strategy Against Authoritarianism in the U.S.

In this essay and discussion series, scholars propose medium and long-term strategies to protect and rebuild American democracy. They consider critical questions like:

  • How should pro-democracy actors in government, civil society, the private sector, media, and academia orient their strategy over the coming years and decades?
  • What are the longer-term goals when it comes to rebuilding democratic society on cultural and institutional levels?
  • Are there key inflection points between progress towards a more inclusive democracy and a return to backsliding?
  • What do good outcomes in the medium- and long-term look like? And what are the off-ramps for authoritarian-leaning actors, factions, and voters in the United States?

 

These essays reflect solely the viewpoints of their authors and not of their affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.

Levitsky & Ziblatt: How Democracy Could Die in 2024, and How to Save It

By Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

To read this article on The Atlantic, click here. For a PDF of this document, click here.

The greatest threat to American democracy today is the possibility of a stolen presidential election. As we argued in our 2018 book, contemporary democracies die often at the ballot box, through measures that are nominally constitutional. As horrific as the January 6 assault on the Capitol was, American democracy is unlikely to fall victim to a violent insurrection. Rather than extremist militias overrunning the Capitol, we should primarily be alert to mainstream Republicans “legally” overturning elections.

The threat to democracy in the U.S. today is worse than we anticipated when we wrote How Democracies Die. We knew Donald Trump was an authoritarian figure, and we held the Republican Party responsible for abdicating its role as democratic gatekeeper. But we did not consider the Republicans to be an anti-democratic party. 

Four years later, however, the bulk of the Republican Party is behaving in an anti-democratic manner, and could very well overturn a presidential election. This scenario would represent a lethal “heart attack” for American democracy. And just like responding to an actual heart attack, it requires that we address both the acute crisis and underlying longer-term conditions that give rise to it. Working on these two fronts simultaneously are the two central tasks facing defenders of American democracy today.

Surviving the short-term threats to elections

For the first time in U.S. history, a sitting president refused to accept defeat and attempted to overturn the election results. But rather than oppose this attempted presidential coup, leading Republicans either cooperated with it or enabled it by refusing to publicly acknowledge Trump’s defeat. Leading Republicans also refused to break with the forces behind the January 6 assault on the Capitol. In the run-up to January 6, most of them refused to denounce extremist groups, which were spreading conspiracy theories, calling for armed insurrection and assassinations, and were ultimately implicated in the insurrection. Few Republicans broke with Trump after his incitement of the insurrection, and those who did were censured by their state parties. 

Between November 2020 and January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define pro-democracy parties. Based on this behavior, as well as the GOP’s behavior over the last six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally.

As we argued in How Democracies Die, our constitutional system relies heavily on forbearance. Whether it is the filibuster, funding the government, impeachment, or judicial nominations, our system of checks and balances works when politicians on both sides of the aisle deploy their institutional prerogatives with restraint. In other words, they do not engage in constitutional hardball, or deploy the letter of the law in ways that subvert the spirit of the law. When contemporary democracies die, they usually do so via constitutional hardball. Democracy’s primary assailants today are not generals or armed revolutionaries, but rather politicians—Chavez, Putin, Orban, Erdogan—who eviscerate democracy’s substance behind a carefully-crafted veneer of legality and constitutionality.

How Democracies Die pointed to a troubling rise in constitutional hardball in the U.S., even before the rise of Trump. An example was Senate Republicans’ 2016 decision not to allow President Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. The move was entirely legal, but in practice it amounted to stealing a Supreme Court seat. This is precisely what could happen in the 2024 election.

Electoral hardball can be devastating to a democracy. Elections require forbearance. For elections to be democratic, all adult citizens must be equally able to cast a ballot and have that vote count. It is strikingly easy to use the letter of the law to violate the spirit of this principle. Election officials can legally throw out large numbers of ballots based on the most minor of technicalities in the voting process (e.g., the oval on the ballot is not entirely penciled in or there is a typo or spelling mistake in the mail-in ballot form). Large-scale ballot disqualification may accord with the written letter of the law, but it is inherently anti-democratic, for it denies suffrage to a large number of voters. And crucially, if hardball criteria are applied unevenly, such that many ballots are disqualified in one party’s stronghold but not in other areas, it can turn an election. 

Republican officials across the country are laying the legal infrastructure to engage in electoral hardball. Since January, according to Protect Democracy, Law Forward, and the States United Democracy Center, Republicans have introduced 216 bills (in 41 states) aimed at facilitating hardball tactics. As of June 2021, 24 of these bills have passed, including in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. The approved measures allow Republican-controlled state legislatures or election boards to sideline or override local election administrations in Democratic strongholds. This would allow state legislatures or their appointees to meddle in local decision making, purge voter rolls, and manipulate the number and location of polling places. It would also allow Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere to do something Trump tried and failed to do in 2020: throw out ballots in rival strongholds in order to overturn a statewide result. Finally, the new laws impose criminal penalties for local election officials deemed to violate election procedure. This will enable statewide Republican officials to compel local officials to engage in electoral hardball via threats of criminal prosecution. Throwing out thousands of ballots in rival strongholds may be profoundly anti-democratic, but it is technically legal, and Republicans in several states now have a powerful stick to enforce such practices.

Republican politicians learned several things in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. First, they learned that our electoral system creates a plethora of opportunities for constitutional hardball—legal steps that can be used to overturn unfavorable election results. Trump failed at this in 2020, due to sheer incompetence, but his campaign to overturn the results revealed a variety of mechanisms that may be exploited in future elections. These cannot be unlearned. The soft underbelly of American democracy has been exposed. Second, Republicans learned that they would not be punished by their voters for attempting to steal an election. To the contrary, they learned that efforts to overturn an election would be rewarded by Republican voters, activists, local and state parties, and many donors. 

The 2020 election may, in effect, have been a dress rehearsal for what is to come. All evidence suggests that if the 2024 election is close, the Republicans will deploy constitutional hardball to challenge or overturn the results in various battleground states. Recent history and public-opinion polling tell us that the Republican activist base will enthusiastically support—indeed, demand—electoral hardball tactics. And the new state election laws will facilitate them. Democratic strongholds in Republican-led battleground states—such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and possibly Michigan and Wisconsin—will be especially vulnerable. And if disputed state-level elections throw the election into the House of Representatives, it is likely that a Republican-led House would hand the election to the Republican candidate (no matter who actually won the election).

It is useful to compare this process to the evolution of the Supreme Court nomination process. Prior to 2016, it was almost unthinkable that an opposition-controlled Senate would simply refuse to allow the president to fill a Supreme Court seat. Indeed, nothing of the sort had occurred since 1866. And yet Republicans, secure in the knowledge that their behavior was legal, did the unthinkable: they stole a Supreme Court seat. Because the move was constitutional, there was nothing Democrats could do about it. A similar process could unfold around the 2024 election. Based on the GOP’s behavior since 2016, but especially since November 2020, there is every reason to think that Republicans are now willing to use constitutional hardball to overturn an election. And since the move would likely be deemed constitutional, there is likely nothing that Democrats would be able to do about it. 

In sum, the absence of formal guardrails governing American elections leaves our democracy vulnerable to abuse. The system has faced crises before—including the disputed elections in 1824 and 1876. Given the considerable authority granted to state legislatures by the Constitution, the processes of voting, vote counting, and even the selection of electors can easily be subverted for partisan ends. It is thus critical that the electoral guardrails be hardened through federal legislation prior to the 2024 election.

To save democracy, democratize it

Beyond the acute crisis facing American democracy, however, is a deeper problem: the radicalization of the Republican Party. Unless and until the GOP recommits itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, American democracy will remain at risk. Each national election will feel like a national emergency. Therefore, the de-radicalization of the Republican Party is a central task for the next decade.

Normally, in a two-party democracy, if one party veers off course, it is punished at the ballot box. Electoral competition is thought to be a natural corrective for political extremism: Parties that stray too far from the average voter’s positions lose votes, which compels them to moderate and broaden their appeal to win again. When a professional sports team loses, it fires its coach, acquires new players, and regroups. The same should hold for political parties. Indeed, if you ask moderate or Never Trump Republicans what will get Republicans back on course, they will almost invariably answer “devastating electoral defeat.”

They may be right. There is a hitch, however: Competition’s effects are being undermined in the U.S. today by what political scientists call countermajoritarian institutions. We believe that the U.S. Constitution, in its current form, is enabling the radicalization of the Republican Party and exacerbating America’s democratic crisis. The Constitution’s key countermajoritarian features, such as the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate, have long been biased toward sparsely populated territories. But given that Democrats are increasingly the party of densely populated areas and Republicans dominate less populated areas, this long-standing rural bias now allows the Republican Party to win the presidency, control Congress, and pack the Supreme Court without winning electoral majorities. Consider these facts:

  • Republicans have won the popular vote for the presidency only once since 1988,  yet have governed the country for nearly half of that period.
  • The Democratic and Republican Parties each control 50 seats in the U.S. Senate, even though Democratic senators represent 40 million more voters than do Republican senators.
  • The three justices who most recently joined the Supreme Court were appointed by a president who did not win the popular vote—and were confirmed by Senate majorities that did not represent a majority of Americans.

Countermajoritarian institutions shield Republicans from genuine competition. By allowing Republicans to win power without national majorities, this constitutional welfare allows the GOP to pursue extremist strategies that threaten our democracy without suffering devastating electoral consequences. Most Americans oppose most of the Republicans’ current positions. But if we do not reform our democracy to allow majorities to speak, expecting the GOP to change course would be naive.

Americans tend to view countermajoritarian institutions as essential to liberal democracy. And some of them are. In the United States, the Bill of Rights and judicial review help ensure that individual liberties and minority rights are protected. But many of our countermajoritarian institutions are legacies of a pre-democratic era. Where they pervade the electoral or legislative arenas, they do not protect minority rights so much as empower partisan minorities and, in some cases, enable minority rule.

To save our democracy, we must democratize it. A political system that repeatedly allows a minority party to control the most powerful offices in the country cannot remain legitimate for long. Following the example of other democracies, we must expand access to the ballot, reform our electoral system to ensure that majorities win elections, and weaken or eliminate antiquated institutions such as the filibuster so that majorities can actually govern. Congress is considering limited democratizing reforms, such as banning legislative gerrymandering. But those proposals pale in comparison with the extent of the problem.

Serious constitutional reform may seem like a daunting task, but Americans have refounded our democracy before. After the Civil War and during the Progressive era and the civil-rights movement, political leaders, under pressure from organized citizens, remade our democracy. Always unfinished, our Constitution requires continuous updating. American democracy thrived because it allowed itself to be reformed. Given the scale of the threat, reforming our democracy over the next decade is among the most pressing challenges we face today.

This article was originally published on the website TheAtlantic.com and is republished here with The Atlantic’s permission
This essay reflects solely the viewpoints of its authors and not of their affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.

Diamond: How To Secure American Democracy

By Larry Diamond

To read this essay on American Purpose click here. 

Any strategy to repair and secure America’s teetering democracy must begin with a clear analysis of the causes of our predicament.  At the surface, I suggest two: a level of partisan political polarization not seen in more than a century and a serious erosion in public commitment to democratic values and norms.  Beneath these are the familiar social and economic drivers:  steeply rising social and economic inequality, to levels that should be considered morally intolerable; the intense pace of globalization, with its relentless displacement of manufacturing jobs and continuing flows of immigration from diverse parts of the globe; partly as a result, the increasing racial diversity of the United States, with the foreseeable prospect of its becoming a majority-minority country; the growing cultural gulf between racially diverse urban, professional, and coastal populations and predominantly white, culturally conservative, more religious heartland and southern populations; and the corrosive impact of social media on truth, trust, tolerance, and mutually respectful discourse.

Only rarely in our history has American democracy confronted such a formidable combination of challenges to the survival of our Constitutional experiment.  Managing these threats will require carefully conceived and energetically mobilized campaigns with three aims: to defend and reform elections, to empower democratic majorities, and to build a broad pro-democracy political coalition.

Defending Democratic Norms and Processes

The most crucial imperative in the short term is to defend the integrity of the electoral process against partisan – Trump Republican – efforts to capture control of electoral administration and certification.  These functions should not rest with partisan actors—not with state legislatures and not even with elected secretaries of state, who in most states run as partisan candidates.  Rather, they should be entrusted—at the state, country, and local levels—to career non-partisan officials.  The problem today is that Trump’s loyal followers have identified these vulnerable stress points in the system of organizing elections, and they are going after them.  We need a broad national coalition—including diverse leaders of business, labor, and civic institutions—to defend impartial electoral administration as a foundational principle of our democracy.

Next in urgency is fighting Trump Republican efforts to make it more difficult for people to register and vote.  Where state legislatures are pursuing these initiatives, the efforts clearly have the effect and the apparent intent of targeting racial minorities, poor people, and other Democratic constituencies.  In a democracy, voting rights should never be sacrificed—however partially—on the altar of partisan advantage, which is why we so urgently need the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.  The “For the People Act” (HR1/S1) would move more ambitiously not only to defend and extend voting rights but also to modernize voter registration, eliminate partisan gerrymandering, and reduce the disproportionate influence of big money in politics—all immensely worthy goals.  My one reservation is that the bill’s provision for a six-to-one match of small donations may favor more militant primary candidates who motivate large numbers of fervent followers to make these small donations, further polarizing our political system.

The most promising strategy in the near term to reduce partisan polarization—one that could be, and is being, adopted at state and municipal levels—is to shift current plurality elections to Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), as Maine, Alaska, and New York City have recently done.  We need a national state-by-state campaign to win the adoption of RCV. Congress should pass the Voter Choice Act, sponsored by Senators Michael Bennet and Angus King and Representative Dean Phillips, which provides $40 million in funding to help state and local governments change over to RCV.

In partisan primaries, RCV would attenuate polarization by requiring nominees to win a majority of the vote in order to be nominated, making it more difficult for politically extreme candidates to win by simply mobilizing their parties’ most militant voters.  For similar reasons, RCV favors more moderate candidates in general elections, while also giving voters more choice and control and, since no votes are “wasted,” allowing a third party or an independent a greater chance in the contest: If a voter’s first choice doesn’t win outright and no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, the first-choice vote is transferred to the voter’s next choice.  Particularly intriguing is the “Top Four” system adopted by Alaska voters in November, 2020.  Beginning in 2022, Alaska will hold a single “blanket” primary – advancing the top four finishers to the general election, in which RCV determines the winner.  This system will make it much more difficult for a party’s extreme wing to defeat a broadly appealing moderate – like incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski: The Alaska reform appears to have emboldened her in her moderation.  Some reformers favor a “Top Five” final round to further enlarge the circle of competition.

Other reforms are needed to make American democracy fairer—that is, more reflective of the wishes of the majority rather than the minority.  There is very little prospect of Constitutional amendments in the next decade or two to address major defects – for example, by eliminating the Electoral College and reducing the disproportionate power of small states in the U.S. Senate. But we should push for legislative solutions wherever possible.  An innovative approach that would probably survive a Supreme Court challenge, a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would award the presidency to the winner of the national popular vote by requiring states that pass the enabling legislation to award their electoral votes to the candidate with the most votes nationwide, no matter who wins the most votes in each individual state.  But the compact can take effect only when states that make up a majority of the Electoral College (at least 270 votes) have passed the legislation; at the moment, the movement is 95 electoral votes short.  A simpler reform would make the Senate more representative by granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. National legislation could also make the House more diverse (and congressional delegations more representative of the partisan balance in each state) by dividing medium-sized and large states into multi-seat districts of three to five members each. After this division, the reformed system would use  proportional representation, administered through RCV, to choose winners in the new multi-seat districts, as provided in the Fair Representation Act.  By creating bigger, more diverse congressional districts, the new system would also render gerrymandering largely irrelevant.

Breaking the Cycle of Dysfunction

Yet, the forces tearing the country apart are such a potent mix that they cannot be relieved by institutional political reforms alone.  Unless the United States addresses the social, economic, and cultural drivers of these forces, polarization will persist.  And a growing body of academic analysis shows that under conditions of extreme political polarization—when contending political forces see one another as existential threats to transcendent values—political leaders will be willing to pursue – and their followers, including ordinary voters, to endorse — undemocratic measures meant to enable them to get and keep political power come hell or high water.  

This dilemma has not been confronted honestly enough by Democrats, democrats, and progressives struggling to defend the democratic order.  On the one hand, the vicious cycle of democratic dysfunction and populist reaction can be broken only by empowering democratic majorities to address the fundamental challenges of wiring, greening, rebuilding, and renewing the American economy and leveling our current grotesque degree of inequality through better provision of public services and more just taxation.  But the steps needed for this kind of empowerment – in particular, eliminating the Senate filibuster—may themselves be further polarizing. Such steps can also make it easier for another authoritarian-minded president to aggrandize and abuse his executive power. In other backsliding democracies, the ability of an autocratic executive to command reliable parliamentary support has been a major factor in the democracy’s decline or demise.

To make America governable again, the filibuster should be eliminated, or at least made much more difficult to invoke and much easier to overcome.  But further empowering Congressional majorities also requires constraining the ability of unified party control of the White House and Congress to erode democracy.  Applying this kind of constraint requires bolstering the independence of the judiciary, law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Secret Service, and other institutions of accountability and oversight—like career prosecutors and departmental inspectors-general—to make it much more difficult for a corrupt, power-aggrandizing president to politicize or remove them. 

The most important long-term reform that could strengthen the political independence of the judiciary would be to restructure the Supreme Court by imposing fixed terms for justices.  I favor 18-year term limits, while giving presidents the ability to nominate justices in the first and third years of their presidential terms, with the Senate required to vote the nominations up or down within 120 days – or else the nominees would be automatically confirmed. The system would be phased in: The Court would be temporarily enlarged until the current justices retired. Then, under the new system, the size of the Court would decline to its traditional nine-member size. Because the proposed legislation (H.R. 824) does not force any sitting justice off the Court or pack it with a single tranche of balance-shifting nominees, and because it would give predictable Court appointments to future Republican and Democratic presidents alike, it would not be a partisan court-packing effort of the kind that FDR tried and failed to pull off.  But it would still be contentious – and nearly impossible without a serious national conversation about depoliticizing the Court.

We should also try innovative ways to enrich civic participation while reducing partisan polarization.  One promising prospect is “deliberative democracy,” in which diverse citizens come together in an atmosphere of civility to weigh arguments for and against contending policies. This method, when bolstered by the science of stratified random sampling, can supplement traditional democratic decision-making (or, too often, decision non-making) by bringing together a highly representative microcosm of a city, a country, or even an international group.  The randomly selected citizens, informed by balanced briefing papers, would deliberate; afterwards, they would be polled. The results can tell us how an entire society would decide some issues if it were able to consider them under what my Stanford colleague James Fishkin calls “good conditions.”

In our 2019 experiment “America in One Room,” the method produced dramatic reductions in partisan polarization on both specific issues like immigration and the economy and “affective polarization”—the emotional gulf between Democrats and Republicans.  If it were scaled up to involve a broader degree of participation—with participants recruited, for example, through schools and community organizations—the process might diminish our explosive partisan divides, by beginning to generate mutual understanding and even empathy among citizens who now inhabit almost entirely separate social, cultural, and political worlds. 

Building a Broad Coalition

The strategy of bridging divisions actually has a place even in electoral battles. In what Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq have described as “near misses” in other countries’ battles with creeping authoritarianism, the best way to arrest the decline of democracy is to defeat the authoritarian party at the polls.  Such defeats are harder, though, if an authoritarian party can change the rules and defy the popular will to guarantee its victory.  Even if elections are honest, defeating authoritarian populism requires fashioning a broad coalition to deflate the populist strategy of creating and exacerbating polarizing divisions.  Defenders of democracy won’t win at the polls simply by denouncing their opponents’ betrayals of democratic norms; they must peel away populist supporters through inclusive messages that address these voters’ economic and cultural anxieties and show real respect for their dignity and worth. As the party in power now, Democrats must deliver on their promises to improve economic fairness and opportunity for lower- and middle-income Americans, including those in rural areas; they must also show they are serious about combatting crime and illegal immigration.  These requirements fly in the face of left Democrat demands to “defund the police” or simply accept illegal immigration.  Moreover, a democratic coalition cannot indulge white supremacist sentiment or ignore police discrimination or brutality against people of color—indeed, it must combat racism in all its forms.  Thus, the path to forging an electoral majority substantial enough to survive any state Republican administrative efforts to obstruct or nullify it will involve a delicate balancing act.  Irrespective of what “should” be done in the abstract, a sharp turn to the left by Democrats on cultural issues is likely to guarantee an Electoral College victory by a Trump-like Republican in 2024—and, then, an escalating assault on the pillars of our democracy.

Too many Americans dismiss the experiences of other countries as irrelevant to our “exceptional” national story.  Today, however, American democracy is exceptional only in its proximity, among advanced industrial democracies, to failure.  Both history and recent experience teach us that democracy is a precious, hard-won gift that can be lost and that in its hour of maximum danger, people who believe in it must rally across political and ideological divides to make its defense their first priority.

Larry Diamond, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He coordinates the democracy program of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. This essay is co-published with American Purpose.

 

This essay reflects solely the viewpoint of its author and not of his affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.

Bibbins Sedaca: How to End America’s Partisan Meltdown

By Nicole Bibbins Sedaca

To read a version of this article in the Dallas Morning News, click here.

Perhaps surprisingly, polarization in U.S. politics has actually increased public engagement in democracy. A majority of Americans contribute money to candidates, attend political rallies, or work for political or civic campaigns. Voter turnout reached an all-time high in 2020, with multiple demographic groups raising their participation. Even political leaders are increasingly speaking about the importance of the country’s democratic institutions. 

While this trend is important, political activism will not necessarily translate into a stronger democracy—unless and until Americans recognize that how they engage is just as important as whether they engage in public affairs. In short, Americans must be just as dedicated to maintaining and upholding the integrity of our democratic system as they are to advancing their partisan interests.

Winning at all costs

Engaged Americans actually risk weakening our democracy if they bend rules to advance their views, deny the right of others to hold opposing views, or refuse to accept the legitimacy of democratic processes when they dislike the results. On a daily basis, we see examples of such behavior from politicians as well as civic leaders reflecting their supporters: from the drafting of laws that make it more difficult for some Americans to vote to the gerrymandering of congressional district maps, from threats to pack the Supreme Court to using “cancel culture” to silence others’ views. These leaders are undermining the very foundations of our democracy, often while arguing that they are trying to save it.

Numerous studies have indicated that ordinary Americans are also increasingly willing to compromise democratic norms and institutions for the sake of their political goals. A 2020 survey by Yale University’s Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik showed that only about “3.5 percent of voters will defect from a candidate whom they otherwise support, but who does something destructive of democratic norms.” According to a 2020 Pew study, “Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly say it is very important for elected officials in the opposing party to treat officials from their own party with respect. They are much less demanding when it comes to members of their party treating the other side with respect.” 

We are losing sight of the responsibility of each American to uphold our democratic institutions and principles, not just secure victory for Democratic or Republican agendas.

It may seem strange to highlight this challenge at a time when the country is contending with more pressing and dramatic affronts to its democratic order, namely the denial of the 2020 presidential election results and the related January insurrection at the Capitol. While our nation has unquestionably been shaken by these phenomena, we must recognize that they are only the most extreme manifestations of a much broader erosion in democratic norms. There is no moral equivalency between violent insurrectionists on the one hand and peaceful partisan activists on the other, but we cannot pretend that addressing political violence alone will restore the health of American democracy.

Preventing a race to the bottom 

Across the political spectrum, leaders and citizens are justifying their own undemocratic actions by citing the real or imagined abuses of their opponents. Breaking this cycle of blame shifting is particularly difficult given that so many people in one party—today’s Republican Party—have clearly embraced the fallacious denial of the 2020 election results, ignored or downplayed the reality of the January violence, and pursued flawed voting restrictions at the state level. This lopsided culpability has left many centrists and left-leaning leaders with fewer democratic partners on the right, and with a fairly strong case as to why they would be justified in a less-than-democratic response. While the imbalance is real, there is nonetheless no justification for either side to take shortcuts that undermine democratic norms and institutions.

Consider the cost of undemocratic measures to advance one party’s interests. If the party in power in a given setting unilaterally changes election rules in its favor, for example, it can expect the same treatment whenever and wherever it is in the minority, raising the stakes of each contest and creating new incentives to win by any means necessary. This is the path to instability, violence, and authoritarian rule.  

Ending a majority party’s use of such undemocratic measures to advance their platform is unquestionably the right thing to do for a healthy democracy.  But it is also in the self-interest of all parties to pursue such a strategy in the short and long term, given that each will undoubtedly shift from being in the majority and minority over time. 

Respecting democratic norms and political pluralism does not mean agreeing with opposing views, nor does it require excusing or remaining silent in the face of ideas that are undemocratic, racist, or extremist. It simply means rejecting illiberal practices in one’s reactions to them, and relying on democratic processes to address the country’s daunting challenges.

Unfortunately, even the notion of what is democratic has become entangled with partisan identity. For many Americans, any action that advances what they agree with is perceived as democratic and legitimate, and any action that advances the agenda of the other party must therefore be undemocratic and illegitimate.

To reconnect with the true meaning of democratic principles, we must acknowledge and protect those institutions and norms that provide space for a range of views and policy options, including those with which we disagree. Democracy supporters are distinguished by their commitment to fair structures, rules, and processes—regardless of whether they are dissatisfied with a given short-term outcome. Once they begin to recognize one another on this basis, believers in American democracy can work together to protect and improve our system, even as they continue to debate and compete on other matters.

What democracy looks like 

So how can Americans contribute to the important work of reversing partisan polarization and strengthening democratic institutions?

Political leaders must be willing to critique colleagues in their own party when they violate democratic principles and codes of behavior, underscoring the fact that the rules are meant to be applied impartially and universally. Rather than defending gerrymanders in one state while denouncing them in another, for example, they should work – ideally across party lines – to end the practice altogether.   

Elected officials must also oppose structural or legal changes that might benefit them in the short term while degrading the system in the long term, weakening checks and balances and damaging public faith in democracy as a whole. In the case of Supreme Court reform, rather than engaging in tit-for-tat attempts to entrench an ideological majority, democracy supporters should reach consensus on a rule-based solution that would restore predictability, fairness, and integrity to the appointment process.

More broadly, lawmakers and chief executives must regularly and vocally acknowledge the fundamental rights of their political opponents, even as they express disagreement with a particular view. Journalists must report on politicians’ adherence to democratic principles, consistently and regardless of party, and must do so as a regular course, not just around elections. And voters must ultimately hold their leaders accountable, supporting candidates based on both their platform and their commitment to a level playing field. 

These sorts of actions may seem unlikely in the current climate, and progress will undoubtedly be challenging. But it remains eminently possible.  

Americans have the opportunity and responsibility to show that they are committed to both our democracy and their interests. 

A story from not so long ago reminds us what this could look like.

In 2008, rivals John McCain and Barack Obama were in the midst of a heated presidential campaign. At a town hall meeting, a Minnesota woman said to McCain, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not… he’s not… he’s an Arab.”

Immediately and decisively, Senator McCain rejected the false information, along with the undemocratic notion that someone’s ethnic heritage would make them unfit for leadership. McCain affirmed these democratic basics while pivoting to the different policy approaches that he and Obama were presenting to voters.

He said very simply, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about.”

That is also what democracy is all about, and we must choose to fight for it.

 

This essay reflects solely the viewpoint of its author and not of her affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.

Haney LĂłpez: Can Democracy Survive Racism as a Strategy?

By Ian Haney LĂłpez

As a practical matter, at the present moment the survival of democracy in the United States hinges upon the electoral success of the Democratic Party. Given the radicalization of the Republican Party, there is little prospect that democracy endures unless Democrats win enough elections to remain in control of the federal government.

Major hurdles facing the Democratic Party include the disproportionate power of rural states, gerrymandered districts, voter disenfranchisement, the composition and rules of the Senate, and other factors. But chief among these challenges looms identity politics—the success of the right’s identity politics, and the tendency of Democrats to engage in identity wars with each other.

The Democratic Party is famously bad at communicating a unifying story about its vision for society. Indeed, Democrats all too often campaign as if their opponent is another faction of their own party rather than the Republicans. And then, with each new loss (or distressingly narrow victory), Democrats take aim at each other anew, further strengthening the sense that their brand is disarray.

Many factors contribute to conflict among Democrats. But nothing hamstrings the Democratic Party’s power to define itself and its mission as much as the right’s strategic racism. The GOP’s embrace decades ago of racial dog whistle politics has turned Democrats against each other. One Democratic faction believes with every fiber that white racism must be directly confronted, though this alienates white voters and loses elections. The other side insists that the best strategy is to mainly ignore racism—though this leaves unchallenged the Republicans’ main electoral strategy. Democrats are thus two Titanics, steaming in opposite directions. From their respective decks, each can see the iceberg in the other’s path, but not the jagged teeth beneath their own bows. For democracy itself, whatever hope there is depends on both these Titanics turning.

Dog Whistle Politics

In 1961, Barry Goldwater represented an insurgent faction within the Republican Party that opposed the New Deal consensus that government should work for working families, asserting instead that private enterprise and lightly regulated capitalism were the surest engines of national progress. Understanding the widespread popularity of the New Deal, Goldwater’s wing proposed pursuing their class agenda by pandering to white backlash. Using folksy language, the Arizona businessman argued that Republicans “ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Goldwater meant in the South, where many whites, traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, were increasingly aggrieved by civil rights. But precisely because of the civil rights movement’s success, Goldwater would not speak in the plain language of white supremacy. Instead, he adopted dog whistles, coded terms like “states’ rights” designed to give a neutral veneer to racist sentiment.

For Goldwater himself, the racial strategy failed. His opponent Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide, based on campaign promises for activist government to end poverty. But Johnson, it now turns out, was the last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote.

There are two points directly relevant to our current situation. One is that in 1964, white voters by a landslide supported a sweeping progressive agenda they understood as akin to prior New Deal programs—which is to say, government programs designed to help them. Likewise, modern polls show high levels of support for redistributive policies. There’s nothing inherently conservative about American voters, nor even white voters more narrowly, at least in terms of economic issues. The “conservatism” of the voting public, rather, is driven by race. The second point is this: over the last six decades, dog whistle politics has completely remade U.S. electoral politics, bringing us to the cliff’s edge of authoritarianism buttressed by racially-aggrieved populism.

Much has been written about the recent radicalization of the Republican Party. Most of its elected officials now adopt dangerously anti-democratic positions, from the big lie about stolen elections to support for insurrection, from efforts to disenfranchise whole swaths of voters to encouraging vigilante violence against other Americans. Less often emphasized is that racial politics is the prime driver behind this transmogrification.

“It’s a mistake for the party to accept the beliefs of Sen. Barry Goldwater and write off the negro vote.” In 1962, Richard Nixon issued that caution, from his vantage as a moderate Republican and a former vice-president. “If Goldwater wins his fight,” Nixon foretold, “our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party.” But by 1968, Nixon had decided to join the Goldwater’s duck hunt, adopting what was then called the “Southern Strategy.” Nixon understood its ugliness. But he also concluded that he had no choice but to employ coded racism if he was to triumph.

Like Nixon, generations of GOP candidates have made the same Faustian bargain, employing racial demagoguery to win election. Some, likely, have genuinely hated people of color. Most, one suspects, have been more directly motivated dog whistling’s power to win elections. Yet racial demagoguery is not a weapon easily holstered. It remains a loaded gun lying around, easily picked up by someone else willing to go just a bit further—and not just in competition with Democrats, but as a strategy to use against other Republicans. As a result, for six decades the Republicans have been, and remain now, locked into a radicalizing cycle. New cohorts win as firebrands, and then lose as RINOs. Over the decades, we’ve seen the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, the Gingrich Revolution, the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus, and then Trumpism. And even Trumpists now find themselves overtaken by the apocalyptic storm of QAnon. More than anything else, it is racial demagoguery and the radicalizing cycle it drives that has brought us to the precipice of democratic collapse.

Identity Politics

Not infrequently, political professionals dismiss “stories” as superficial, even trivial, because they’re seen as cheap words rather than practical policies or concrete outcomes that directly improve people’s lives. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is the classic formulation. But it’s not the economy, or at least, not directly. Axios reported that after the widespread condemnations of the January 6 insurrection, consumer confidence among Democrats rose nearly 4 points while it fell by 5.6 points among Republicans. The trigger? Not any change in the economy, of course, but rather a shift in the evaluation of whether Donald Trump would actually leave the White House. Similarly, many pundits initially attributed Trump’s 2016 victory to economic hardship, only to have more sober analysis demonstrate the power of racial resentment to shape perceptions regarding the state of the country, including the economy. More generally, pollster recognize that with each switch in the party controlling the presidency, big partisan shifts occur in how people regard their economic situation. It’s not that hardship doesn’t matter. Economic distress and anxiety make people more prone to accepting volatile ideas, including the need to dramatically alter course. Still, though, it’s the frame that people use to understand their lives, more directly than the conditions themselves, that drive how they participate in politics.

Look at the GOP’s catastrophic pandemic politics.  Republican officials have enacted policies that discourage mask-wearing and vaccination, with predictable outcomes of illness and even death. Even so, their base rewards them. Here’s Republican House member Lauren Boebert at the summer 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, applause resounding as she strides the stage with fiery rhetoric: “We’re here to tell government, we don’t want your benefits, we don’t want your welfare, don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci ouchie. You leave us the hell alone.” We can hear Boebert angrily link vaccinations to “government,” “benefits,” “welfare,” and wanting to be left alone. This is not policy talk, it’s identity politics, and racial identity politics in particular (even though the pandemic would seem to have nothing to do with race).

There’s a “Chicago welfare queen” with a “tax-free cash income . . . over $150,000,” Ronald Reagan repeatedly said on the campaign trail in the 1970s and 80s. The welfare queen as a Black woman on a government-subsidized binge is now widely recognized as a racial dog whistle, making the term an effective starting point for understanding the right’s basic story. On the most obvious level, this story centers race, conjuring ugly stereotypes about African Americans. They are supposedly irresponsible and lazy. They could work if they wanted, but they prefer handouts over honest labor. More than shiftless, they’re thieving. They are not just receiving welfare; they’re ripping off the system. In short, African Americans abuse rather than deserve welfare.

To hear this story as only about race, however, misses the most important political work it performs. This story endeavors to give a negative racial cast to liberal government itself. Reagan promoted a zero-sum frame in which government efforts to help Blacks come at the expense of whites. Reagan was communicating to white voters that they were the opposite of Blacks: dutiful not irresponsible; hardworking not lazy; law-abiding not criminal; self-reliant not dependent on handouts. They were, to retrieve other dog whistle terms, the Silent Majority, the real Americans, America’s heartland and its patriots, the makers rather than the takers. Thus, government was not just misguided in its efforts to provide routes of upward mobility. It became a threatening force in the lives of whites. Liberal government, Reagan insinuated, took crucial dollars in the form of unfair taxes from the pockets of hardworking, decent, financially struggling whites, so that welfare queens could tool around in Cadillac splendor.

There are many permutations of the welfare queen story. There’s also an entire genre of dog whistles that focus, not on government programs, but on physical threat, for instance from “criminals,” “illegal aliens,” or “terrorists.” Even in the threat context, however, the racial story is designed to directly impugn government: it’s liberal government, allegedly, that refuses to control these menacing others, for instance by handcuffing the police or by throwing open the border.

What are the basic building blocks of identity politics? At root, these are the most important questions asked and answered by identity politics: who we are, who threatens us, and who will fight for us. Who we are is a question of status. Are we valued, respected, welcome, even superior to others? The right elevates white people as the true heart of the nation, the patriots, job creators, and makers, those who are law-abiding and innocent, deserving and righteous. It does so in code that gains powerful subconscious validation from centuries of white supremacy that finds contemporary expression in much of American culture as well as our nation’s concrete reality—cities and corporate headquarters, rural areas and places of worship, public schools and Ivy League universities.

As to the source of threat in people’s lives, the right warns voters that they’re beset not only by people of color but even more so by liberal government, which betrays white people by siding with minorities. The message is simple and oft-repeated: everyone is on their own, endangered by other Americans and traitorous government, and must largely fend for themselves and their families. On the level of physical safety, this rhetoric encourages buying a gun (gun sales have recently surged, with 2 out of 5 households now owning guns). In terms of the economy, it implies working as hard as you can in the marketplace. When you believe that you’re threatened by people who look different than you rather than by the bosses and the financiers, you shun building power with other workers, whether through unions or politics.

And who will fight alongside you, against the looming dangers? First and foremost, it’s your own narrow community. In demagogic politics, fear of others is used less to foment complete social atomization than a sense of connection with those who might offer mutual defense—the unity that comes from joining forces against the barbarians at the gate. Self-identified white evangelical Christians comprise the demographic cohort most likely to support Republican candidates. Voters in white, rural communities are trending in that direction. The New York Times reported that in 2021 many such communities in Virginia voted for Glenn Youngkin, the victorious Republican candidate for governor, at rates surpassing 70 and 80 percent. The paper also noted that “in interviews with a dozen white, rural voters who backed Mr. Youngkin, policy was less important than grievance and their own identity politics.” Youngkin’s closing argument to voters stressed his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Karen Bass, who voted for him, was persuaded to support Youngkin because, she said, white children “are no longer allowed to be kids, we’re treating them like little monsters.”

As for which politicians will be seen as allies, shared identities matter, for instance along the lines of race and religion. But even more important, voters who accept the right’s narrative support politicians who endorse their worries about dangerous others. Biden’s genuine religiosity and personal integrity mattered less to the vast majority of Republicans than Donald Trump’s supposedly bold truth telling about Black Lives Matter protesters, Latin American immigrants, and Muslims. In Virginia, voters not only elected Youngkin, a white man, but also a Black woman, Winsome Sears, as lieutenant governor. Her being Black was raised as a defense against the charge of GOP racial pandering. But Sears, too, campaigned against the fabricated threat of racial indoctrination in schools, for instance claiming “if Critical Race Theory means that telling a child that once you emerge from the womb you are a racist and a colonizer and whatever else, that’s not going to be good.” Sears had also served as national chair of Black Americans Making America First, a coalition that promotes Donald Trump and defends him after racist comments.

The Race Left

Half-a-century ago, Democrats recognized that the GOP had found a tractor beam to pull working class whites out of the New Deal coalition. But they struggled to find an effective defense. George McGovern, campaigning against Richard Nixon in 1972 in Little Rock, Arkansas, assailed Nixon for “playing to racist emotions.” In San Antonio, Texas, McGovern said there is “no question that [the Nixon] Administration is playing to racist emotions in the country—the President has done that from the very beginning.”

McGovern lost in a landslide that left him with support from less than one in three white voters. Other factors contributing to McGovern’s defeat included early opposition from the Democratic establishment and chaos around his initial vice-presidential pick. But his denunciations of Nixon’s dog whistle politics as “racist” played an important role.

Since the late 1930s, the Democratic Party has relied on African American voters to win elections. By the 1960s, the party’s national leadership was committed to supporting wide-ranging civil rights even in the face of massive resistance and open racism in the South, including in places like Little Rock. But this commitment to frontally opposing white racism did not translate well into a response to dog whistle politics.

“The machinist’s wife in Dayton may decide to leave the Democratic reservation,” the liberal pollsters Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg warned in their 1970 book The Real Majority. “If she thinks the Democrats feel that she isn’t scared of crime but that she’s really a bigot, if she thinks that Democrats feel the police are Fascist pigs and the Black Panthers and the Weathermen are just poor, misunderstood, picked-upon kids, if she thinks that Democrats are for the hip drug culture and that she, the machinist’s wife, is not only a bigot, but a square, then good-bye lady—and good-bye Democrats.” The crux lay in the code used by dog whistling. Those stampeded by talk of thugs, law and order, forced busing, and the silent majority did not understand themselves as racists. Rather, they experienced their reactions as commonsense concerns about crime, their children, and being heard, and they deeply resented the implication that they were prejudiced.

Dog whistle politics is often misunderstood as a secret handshake between a politician and voter when both are closet racists. But in fact, dog whistling is so powerful because it hides the underlying racism even from the voters most agitated by the racist prods.

In the summer of 2020, I ran a project with Way to Win as well as Lake Research to measure the persuasive power of Trumpist dog whistling. We asked almost 2,000 eligible voters to react to a message ripped from Republican rhetoric. It advocated “fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws,” and declared that “our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe” and that “taking a second look at China, or illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs, is just common sense.” Since it drew upon GOP language designed to activate white racial anxiety, it’s no surprise that the majority of white respondents found this message convincing. Here’s the shock: at identical levels, so too did the majority of African Americans. And Latino respondents were convinced at rates that were just slightly higher than the white cohort.

African Americans and Latinos are not as likely as white voters to support Republicans; partisan messages never operate uncontested, and Black and brown voters identify with Democratic messages even more highly than with the right’s frame. Rather, the point is that dog whistle politics is still, well, dog whistle politics. It is not, as is now commonplace to announce among liberal political professionals, a blaring sound truck, a shrieking train whistle, or a klaxon of open white supremacy. Rather, the overwhelming majority of voters—including majorities of Latinos and African Americans—interpret racial dog whistles not as bald racism but as common sense.

And yet, like McGovern, one side of the Democratic Party continues to campaign by denouncing white racism. Consider this language, also from our study: “There’s been a horrible explosion of hate in this country. Certain politicians promote xenophobia, racism, and division. And it’s not just their words. It’s their policies, too. We see it in how they rip families apart at the border. And in how the police profile, imprison, and kill Black people, and use excessive force against people marching for justice.”

Akin to how we assembled a dog whistle message to test, we put this language together by drawing from the rhetoric of race-focused Democratic activists and politicians. Call this side the Race Left—those Democrats convinced that the party must directly confront white racism. Compared to the dog whistle message, the Race Left language was far less persuasive to white voters, and also lost, though not quite so badly, among persuadable voters of all racial groups. It was also the least persuasive Democratic message to African American and Latino audiences.

Why does a story stressing white racism perform so poorly? Recall the core questions of identity politics. To the question of who you are in this society, the Race Left’s condemnations of Republican racism effectively say that you’re a bigot—at least, that’s what you are if you’re worried about illegal immigration, drugs and criminal gangs, and supporting the police. Yet that’s the majority of Americans, white, Black, and brown, who feel such fears are reasonable.

On a deeper level, condemnations of widespread white racism communicate to white voters you’re part of the problem, part of the group that originated, perpetuated, and still benefits from injustice. Racially progressive white voters are willing to see themselves that way. But the vast majority recoil. They are the contemporary versions of Scammon and Wattenberg’s machinist’s wife from Dayton.

Simultaneously, this story says to people of color, you’re victimized and hated by the dominant group in this society. Activists and those whose educations have stressed the history of racism in America often accept this self-conception. But many voters of color do not, especially professionally accomplished minorities as well as immigrants. In my focus group conversations last summer with Latinos across the country, many were repelled by anti-racist language that, in their minds, positioned them as hated people and predicted that their children would never fully belong in this society. Using the coded rhetoric of dog whistle politics, they preferred to see themselves as among the “patriots” and “hardworking Americans,” even if this meant accepting that the main threat in their lives came from “welfare queens,” “criminals,” and “illegal aliens.”

From 2016 to 2020, Trump improved his performance with every major non-white racial group, especially with Latino voters. In my research, how Latinos saw their group fitting into America’s racial order was the single most important factor driving partisan affiliation, larger than age, gender, region, or whether one’s family hailed from Mexico or Cuba, Puerto Rico or Venezuela.

For the Race Left, there is a hard truth here: condemnations of white supremacy backfire, losing support from voters across racial lines and thereby making justice for communities of color less likely.

Condemnations of white supremacy backfire because, perversely, the Race Left’s story strongly echoes the right’s racial narrative. Boiled down to its essence, the right says to the American public: our nation is locked into racial conflict, and everyone must choose a side. But that’s what the Race Left is saying, too. There are crucial differences: where the right blames racial conflict on thugs, invading aliens, and terrorists, the Race Left faults bigots, white culture, and systemic racism. Where the right says stand with white communities, the Race Left urges solidarity with communities of color. These differences are huge. But they’re overwhelmed by the larger similarity in the story about America the racial right and left share: we’re doomed to racial warfare and everyone must pick their side. Even apart from the electoral implications for the Democrats, this is a democratically unsustainable way to frame our relationship to each other as members of the same society.

It’s all the more important that the Race Left face this truth as the 2022 midterm elections fast approach, because the right will most likely focus its fire on racial justice activists themselves. The Race Left message I tested in July 2020 performed poorly—and yet, this was actually the highpoint of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a “racial reckoning” with white supremacy. Very soon thereafter, Trump and the right began a steady bombardment against racial justice activists, framing protesters as thugs and anarchists who preach a religion of racial hatred. In September, this campaign expanded to include “critical race theory,” an academic discipline studying racism that I’ve long been part of, as well as the 1619 Project, an effort to recenter slavery in American history. The narrative throughline from the right boils down to this: calls for “racial justice” are instead demands for “racial revenge.”

In the face of this new dog whistle, public support for Black Lives Matter collapsed. As the political scientists Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson report, “white people have actually become less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the death of George Floyd—a trend that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.” They also note that the increased support for Black Lives Matter among Latinos essentially evaporated by early 2021.

This past October, Education Week reported that laws to restrict teachers from teaching about white supremacy, systemic racism, and critical race theory had passed in 12 states, with another 26 states actively considering such bans. In November, the Virginia gubernatorial election ended with the Republican candidate closing his winning campaign with an ad tying his opponent to critical race theory. The dog whistles that dominate in 2022 will most likely focus first and foremost on the race left itself—on CRT and 1619, on calls to defund the police and abolish prisons, on “woke” denunciations of white supremacy and white privilege. How the Race Left responds can contribute to losing—or winning—elections.

The Colorblind Left

So Scammon and Wattenberg correctly understood that denouncing widespread racism among white people was likely to cost the Democrats “the machinists wife in Dayton,” their stand-in for white voters. The intervening fifty years have confirmed rather than falsified their warning. In addition, we now know that the Race Left’s rhetoric also repels significant blocs among communities of color.

But if Scammon and Wattenberg were correct in diagnosing the problem, they were wrong in their proposed solution. For them, and for most of the Democratic Party in the ensuing decades, the solution seemed clear: The Democratic Party had to temper its “pro-black stance.” Debate within the white community and in turn among Democrats had always swirled around how much to push for racial equality. But now this took on a new shape. With the GOP using Democratic support for civil rights as an ax handle to club liberals, and given how denouncing dog whistle politics as “racist” backfired, many liberals concluded they had no choice but to retreat from racial justice.  This meant, in practice, that Democrats should (1) resist being baited into responding to Republican dog whistling, and (2) should seek to deny Republicans more ammunition by distancing themselves from civil rights and efforts at racial repair.

Today, similar advice again echoes through the halls of power within the Democratic Party. David Shor has gained considerable attention for advising Democrats to say what’s “popular.” This seems innocuous enough, but as Ezra Klein reports, in practice Shor “and those who agree with him argue that Democrats need to try to avoid talking about race and immigration.” In contrast to the Race Left, we can call this the Colorblind Left—not because they don’t see racism, but because this side urges pretending not to see it. They recognize, correctly, that denouncing white racism backfires; but then, they conclude that the solution is to run silent regarding racial demagoguery while backing away from efforts to foster racial justice.

There’s much one could say about the racial privilege and position of those quick to advocate jettisoning a concern for civil rights and the well-being of communities of color. But set that aside in favor of a cold-eyed appraisal of the Colorblind Left’s proposed electoral strategy. First, it’s never worked. Michael Dukakis tried to ignore the Willie Horton ad depicting, in the words of one gleeful Republican operative, “a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.” Over the month when the Horton controversy reached its crescendo with little rebuttal from Dukakis, 12 percent of voters switched their allegiance to the Republican candidate, giving George H.W. Bush the lead and then the presidency. Bill Clinton did not win by ignoring dog whistles, but by imitating them, introducing himself as a new sort of Democrat who would end welfare as “a way of life” and would crack down on “criminals by supporting the death penalty.” Barack Obama and Joe Biden won initial election more in response to chaos and economic calamity under Republican administrations than on the strength of colorblind policy proposals.

However much it is accepted wisdom among Democrats, the run-from-race approach is less an electoral strategy than a last down hail-Mary pass. Viewed through the lens of identity politics, the weakness of the Colorblind Left’s strategy comes clearly into view. To who we are as well who threatens us, speeches on affordable healthcare or tax policy say precious little. Regarding allies, such rhetoric weakly implies that salvation will arrive in the laptops carried by policy wonks. The right is broadcasting Alien v. Predator onto a multi-sensory widescreen. The Colorblind Left urges viewers to tune their radios to PBS NewsHour. In short, the Colorblind Left cedes identity politics to the Right. Identity isn’t everything in elections, of course. But it is the principal rhetorical weapon of the right, and in electoral politics as in sports it’s very difficult to win by leaving the opposing team’s best player unguarded.

Plus, in this era, the colorblind strategy guarantees civil war in the Democratic Party. We are the George Floyd generation. We have stared transfixed and horrified into the business-as-usual eyes of police officer Derek Chauvin as he slowly crushes out a human life. We have celebrated a Black president, and we have seen him replaced by a president cheered on by white supremacists he calls “fine people.” For racial justice activists, Floyd’s murder stands as a bullseye surrounded by thick, concentric bands of racism: the many other police killings of Black and brown people; racialized mass incarceration and racialized mass deportation; spreading Republican attacks on voting rights; the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other armed evangelists of violent white nationalism storming the capitol.

Even for racial moderates like Joe Biden, it’s a new day. As president, he has denounced the “ugly poison” of “white supremacy,” and ordered his administration to repair “the unbearable human costs of systemic racism.” Democrats as a whole, and white Democrats especially, have become much more racially liberal over the last decade. The Democratic Party cannot avoid internecine mutual destruction if the Colorblind Left continues to insist that the way forward is for Democratic politicians to mainly ignore racism.

Race-Class Fusion Politics

In 2020, Joe Biden won with 43% of his total vote coming from Black, Latino and Asian American voters, combined with 53% of his support coming from white voters. In practice, Democrats are already a multi-racial coalition. But this has been more an accident, the product of pursuing votes in various racial communities, than of a purposeful strategy to build cross-racial solidarity. To lean into its de facto identity as the party of multi-racial democracy, the Democratic Party must address racism. And it must bring along as many voters as possible, including white voters as well as voters of color resistant to seeing white people as the problem. Shifting how they talk about racism gives Democrats a way craft a unified—and unifying—story.

Race-class fusion politics frames racial conflict as a divide-and-conquer strategy that threatens us all, people of every race and across the broad economic spectrum. The real enemy we all face, fusion politics says, is those who profit by intentionally stoking racial division. The Trumpist politicians fueling group hatred; the media personalities like Tucker Carlson harping on the “great replacement theory” lie that Democrats seek to displace white voters with ever more people of color; the dark money think tanks that promote attacks on affirmative action, welfare, and more recently critical race theory. These are the real enemies we face. And by naming them as such, Democrats can shift the basic us-them conflict in American politics. The core opposition in American life is not between white people and people of color, fusion politics says. It’s us all, against those who profit by promoting social strife.

(And in electoral politics we do need an enemy. At the most generic level, it’s a basic requirement of effective storytelling. In addition, any narrative without a villain will lose to the right’s constant depiction of people of color and liberal government as predators at the door. But perhaps most importantly of all, things are so desperate right now, people need to know why and whom to blame. True, there’s a danger of sliding into Democratic versions of demagoguery, or even of anti-Semitism with frames that blame “the powerful few.” Democrats have to be specific in the enemies they name. What Democrats cannot do is offer a convincing identity story in which no one threatens us. It’s not narratively compelling, and it’s not accurate, either.)

This is “race-class” fusion politics, race-hyphen-class. It is not “do both.” Almost everyone on the race left also talks about kitchen table issues. And those on the colorblind left episodically challenge racism, especially in response to shock-the-mind displays of white supremacy like the torch-carrying marches in Charlottesville or the hate-motivated murders in El Paso. The point of distinguishing the Race and Colorblind Left is not to suggest that Democrats are neatly split into groups that exclusively talk about racism, or instead completely ignore it. The point, rather, is to highlight how Democrats are at war with each other over how much to emphasize white racism—even as both sides talk about racism and class issues as basically distinct.

On the contrary. Rather than arising separately, the surging economic hardship in the United States is directly tied to worsening racism. This is the connection that race-class fusion politics explains to the country: our fates are linked, no matter our color, because racism is the main weapon in the class war the wealthiest Americans have been winning for the last 50 years. This is class war in the way that the Occupy movement framed it: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. But where Occupy gave little weight to race, fusion politics centers racism as the immediate threat that keeps working families from effectively fighting rule by the rich. Race-class fusion politics is not do-both. It is not additive. It is a very specific story about race inseparably fused to class.

There’s good evidence the race-class fusion story works. In focus groups and poll testing I and others have done over the last three years, we’ve probed the power of race-class narratives like this one: “we need to pull together no matter our race or ethnicity. We have done this before and can do it again. But instead of uniting us, certain politicians make divisions worse, insulting and blaming different groups. When they divide us, they can more easily rig our government and the economy for their wealthy campaign donors. When we come together by rejecting racism against anyone, we can elect new leaders who support proven solutions that help all working families.”

This message from July 2020 was more convincing to all respondents—white eligible voters included—than the right’s dog whistle fear message. It also performed better than the Race Left and Colorblind Left messages, including among voters of color. In other words, research suggests that a fusion race-class message is the most persuasive political message available today, right or left.

Yet the real strength of fusion politics rests not on how well it polls, but in what it represents to Democrats: a single story that can be genuinely owned by the contending Race and Colorblind sides. Fusion politics addresses the core concerns of the Race Left, directly confronting racism and also speaking in the most convincing frame to communities of color. In addition, fusion politics also satisfies the demands of the Colorblind Left: far from alienating white voters, it’s the most politically persuasive message among white voters (as well as for those voters of color disinclined to see themselves as racial victims).

To be sure, there remains plenty Democrats can debate about how best to bring government back onto the side of working families. Genuine differences in policy preferences will remain, for instance between economic populists like Senator Bernie Sanders and friends of Wall Street like Senator Chuck Schumer. Democrats representing multi-racial, working class cities like the progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will continue to have different priorities compared to centrists like Abigail Spanberger who represent well-off suburbs.

But what Democrats should no longer divide over is the basic identity story they offer voters. Who are we? We’re people doing our best to take care of our families, communities, and country, no matter what we look like or how long we’ve been here. Who threatens us? Those who intentionally push racial conflict so they can rig the rules for themselves while we’re divided. Who stands with us? Everyone willing to reach across racial lines to forge a common purpose, and especially those leaders who will bring us together to ensure that the American Dream is a realistic possibility for all communities.

Beyond elected officials, it’s also an important advantage that fusion politics resonates with activists as a compelling analysis of what’s happened to the country. Political messages can be based on intentional falsehoods, as dog whistle racism demonstrates. But Democrats lack propaganda outlets akin to those used by the right to normalize lies through repetition and saturation. There’s no dominant ideological machine to impose message discipline on fractious Democrats; nor close coordination between the Democratic Party and the news media, unlike the synergy between Fox and the GOP. As a result, groups that actively organize people—unions and grassroots-oriented activist organizations in particular—play an outsize role in Democratic politics. These organizers provide a key resource for spreading liberal ideas (in addition to the work they do helping to overcome the right’s disenfranchisement strategies).

But before activists will carry a message, they have to believe in it. For racial justice activists, fusion politics provides a powerful lens for understanding government violence against communities of color. When Nixon won his landslide reelection, for instance, the nation imprisoned roughly 200,000 people. Today, that number stands above 1.6 million. We now know that mass incarceration did not follow trends in crime. But to explain this violence mainly in terms of white rage or the continued shadow of systemic racism is partial at best. The rage is there, and so is the cumulative inertia of past racism. For sixty years and counting, however, the most destructive racial force in our society has been active, strategic racism—the racism that flows from cold political calculation rather than heated emotions. When politicians campaign on themes of law and order, gangs, and super-predators, they govern by building prisons and funding the police to fill them. In other words, mass incarceration reflects first and foremost racial demonization as a political strategy.

Nor is fusion politics new for racial justice activists. On the contrary, it’s the roadmap sketched for us by earlier generations, from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Hampton, to César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and even earlier, back to W.E.B. DuBois and before him the Fusion Movement that brought together newly emancipated African Americans and poor whites in the post-Civil War South. Some of these freedom fighters were more radical than others, but they all understood that racism is a class weapon and must be fought that way.

Focusing on the class side, fusion politics helps explain the economic calamity engulfing the majority of Americans. My race-class messaging research partner Heather McGhee uses the metaphor of the public swimming pool in her recent best-seller, The Sum of Us. When white voters believe that integration threatens them, they support politicians who drain away government for everyone, themselves included—in the areas of public amenities, but also extending to schools, jobs, the marketplace, healthcare, and the environment. Since the Nixon administration, the top 1 percent of Americans have captured an estimated $50 trillion dollars that would have gone to the bottom 90 percent, had the nation maintained the income distribution created by the New Deal. Instead, after 1974 the very wealthiest prospered, but the broad middle class stagnated, with households holding their position only because women flooded into the workplace. The nation is now marred by levels of wealth inequality not seen since the Gilded Era. Changes in trade patterns and technology contributed, as did other factors. But dog whistle politics was also key. It was the party of big business, after all, that rose to power on the back of coded racism.

SEIU and AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor groups, endorse a fusion of racial and economic justice. People’s Action, a national group working with grass-roots activists to organize rural America, carefully tested this approach in 2020 with strong results and now employs fusion politics. Likewise, Rev. William Barber’s new Poor People’s Campaign embodies fusion politics. The Sunrise Movement, activists fighting climate change, also adopt a fusion politics approach, as do Justice Democrats. These groups are to the left of most elected Democrats. No matter. The point is not that the broad left has to come to a single consensus on policy. Rather, the broad left has to tell a single, galvanizing story that brings together as many Americans as possible. The activist groups are indispensable to seeding the fusion story with voters, though ultimately it will be up to elected officials to give fusion politics legislative content.

Can the two Titanics of the Race and Colorblind lefts turn to steer a parallel course? To ask the question this way is to call to mind all of the forces that typically prevent big changes. But even so, their identity is something that Democrats can unilaterally control. Unlike so many of the proposed structural changes to protect democracy that cannot be enacted without either significant cooperation from Republicans or landslide Democratic victories, Democrats right now can begin to tell their own story about who we are to each other, who threatens us, and why we must fight for each other. Democracy, and not just the fortunes of the Democratic Party, hangs in the balance.

 

This essay reflects solely the viewpoint of its author and not of his affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.

Howell and Stokes: Beyond Lawyers and Technocrats

By William G. Howell and Susan C. Stokes

A version of this essay was first published at the Chicago Tribune, here.

Signs of democratic breakdown are everywhere: the partisan manipulation of electoral procedures, disbelief in election outcomes, distrust in political institutions, the legislative gridlock that just never seems to break. While exact remedies are elusive, the means of achieving them are not. Democracy will not be saved through strictly legal or technocratic interventions. Rather, its redemption requires a diverse coalition that enjoins the participation of attorneys and politicians, yes, but also activists, organizers, business people, journalists, clergy, and academics in both the social sciences and humanities.

The many gatekeepers that line the legislative process and the deep divisions of authority that mark our system of separated powers make broad coalitions a virtual prerequisite for systemic policy change. And when this change is in the service of democracy itself, diversity is indispensable. To combat the cynicism, demagoguery, and us-versus-them worldview that sit at the center of the autocrat’s project, we will have to enlist far more than lawyers and technocrats.

President Biden seems to understand this. In a speech at the National Constitution Center in July, Biden denounced the efforts by some state legislatures to politicize the administration of elections as the “twenty-first century Jim Crow.” To counteract these efforts, Biden advocated not only for congressional action, but also for a broad-based movement in the service of democratic renewal. “We have to forge a coalition of Americans of every background and political party—the advocates, the students, the faith leaders, the business executives—and raise the urgency of this moment.”

Indeed we do. But Biden’s rhetoric has not always translated into practice. For example, while Biden should be applauded for assembling a bipartisan commission to analyze potential reforms to the Supreme Court, the commission consists of an extraordinarily narrow constituency of would-be reformers: all 36 commissioners have law degrees and serve either as federal judges or law professors. By offering commission seats exclusively to members of the legal profession, Biden all but ensured that that foundational questions about the appropriate role of the courts in a democracy would not be explored; that deliberations instead would circle around narrower, procedural concerns; and that the country, when all was said and done, would still lack anything approximating a roadmap or mandate for systemic change.

As the Biden administration carries out the Summit for Democracy and the year of action it inaugurates, we can hope that a more diverse assembly of democracy reformers is included. Encouragingly, the administration promises to “build a broader community of partners committed to global democratic renewal.” It must deliver on this front. The ambition and quality of a reform agenda, after all, can be measured against the size and diversity of the coalition it enlists. Reform movements succeed when they feature a broad array of talents, experiences, outlooks, and expertise, all united behind common goals.

Consider the lessons of past democracy movements. In the United States, the Progressive Era was a time of economic and social upheaval that resulted in new checks on corporate power, a slew of labor laws, and a modern civil service. The Progressive Era also was a time of democratic revival. Reformers established the nation’s first direct primaries, ballot initiatives, and recall elections that were intended to guard against political corruption and patronage. Through the Nineteenth Amendment, women were finally given a voice in the democratic process. Reformers also sought to expand and empower the presidency, the only government office for which all Americans can cast a ballot.

These were the hard-fought victories of a coalition of social scientists, philosophers, Social-Gospel Christians, novelists, muckraking journalists, teachers, social workers, and more. While this coalition surely included highly compensated attorneys and business leaders—the so-called “mugwumps” bitterly opposed to political corruption—they alone did not define a movement whose activities took place in settlement houses, churches, and schools. Rather, the movement’s most recognizable characters included scholar-activists (such as W.E.B. Du Bois) and the college-educated women (such as Jane Addams) who helped disperse their reformist ideas. Michael McGerr put the central lesson of the Progressive Movement this way: “Successful regulation required not only a powerful sense of urgency but a broad, cross-class coalition.”

And so it was during the civil rights movement that followed, when racial minorities joined coalitions of faith leaders, students, and activists to demand the fuller benefits of citizenship. Their efforts—and especially the combined work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—made politically possible the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Writes Sheryll Cashin, “This transformation in majoritarian democratic opinion would not have happened through mere reliance on the leadership of political elites.” Yet again, meaningful and enduring democratic reform depended upon the participation of a diverse array of interest and identity groups.

Of course, movements for political equality continued long after the 1960s. Earlier this year, coalitions of activists, entrepreneurs, and academics came together to challenge voting restrictions in several states. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight was far from the only organization to rise up against SB 202, the omnibus elections bill signed by Governor Brian Kemp in March. A joint legal challenge was immediately filed by the Georgia NAACP, Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, League of Women Voters of Georgia, GALEO Latino Community Development Fund, Common Cause, and the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe. In June, faith leaders representing more than 1,000 churches staged a protest at the Georgia Capitol, led by Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Corporate leaders and academics soon joined the fight. As the Major League of Baseball pulled its 2021 All-Star game out of Georgia to protest SB 202, nearly 300 CEOs including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg signed a statement condemning similar laws in Texas and elsewhere. Similarly, more than 100 scholars of democracy signed a statement of concern over the “deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy” at the hands of Republican-led state legislatures. So doing, each group contributed its own perspective, strengthening the movement’s core. For academics, it was an informed perspective of how and why democracies fail. For CEOs, it was the view that “If you lose the democracy, you lose capitalism.” And for the Sierra Club—which recently joined a protest coalition against Texas voting restrictions—it was an understanding that the preservation of democracy is a prerequisite for environmental protection.

Similar examples of diverse coalitions defending democracy can be found abroad. For example, in countries as diverse as Mexico, Turkey, Serbia, and the Czech Republic, aspiring autocrats have sought to eliminate judicial checks and interferences on their rule. Their playbook—elements of which we have seen in the United States—includes changing procedures for nominating and appointing judges, imposing mandatory retirement ages to rid the courts of independent judges, placing the courts under the ministry of justice, and, as a last resort, simply ignoring and refusing to publish unfriendly decisions.

Political opposition leaders and even international bodies, like the European Union, have had mixed success in resisting these strategies. But to the extent that resistance has succeeded, it has come from a diverse assembly of grassroots organizations, civil society groups, and social movements.

Consider government-judicial conflict in Poland. In 2015, the Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, gained the presidency, and his victory was followed later that year by a PiS majority victory in the Sejm, the national parliament. Among its first official acts, the new PiS government engaged in a full-on, multi-year attack on judicial independence. The attempted “reforms” included requiring that constitutional court decisions secure concurrence of two-thirds of the justices (though the Polish constitution required only a majority). Any three justices would henceforth be able to demand that a case be heard en banc—that is, by the full court—and the Prosecutor General would have to be present at all such sessions.

Effective pushback against these reforms came not from judicial organizations, retired judges, or lawyers—or not these alone—but from an energetic protest movement. When the Sejm proposed in 2017 to place the constitutional court inside the Justice Ministry—further exposing the court to political influence—a popular outcry promptly ensued. In July of 2017, President Duda surprised Poles by vetoing this aspect of the reforms. Duda claimed that he vetoed the change after consultations with legal experts, but that same weekend, thousands of Poles had taken to the streets in cities across the country, protesting the de facto absorption of the constitutional court into the government.

When a party like PiS, and a leader like Duda, set their sights on democratic institutions, resistance must be sustained by large-scale coalitions. In Hungary, Viktor Ă“rban and his Fidesz party have undermined governmental, academic, and civil-society institutions, in much the same way that Duda and PiS did in Poland. In Hungary, too, broad-based movements have been more successful at putting up effective resistance than have elite actors alone, which has yielded some notable victories in a period of otherwise deeply troubling democratic backsliding. In June of 2021, for instance, the Hungarian government announced a major investment in a Chinese university campus in Budapest, after years of funding cuts and closures of universities serving Hungarian students. The announcement was followed by massive street protests, involving students, faculty, and civic groups. After the weekend of protests, the government backtracked on the Chinese campus.

A final example of effective democratic resistance can be seen in Chile. Beginning in October 2019, a government-mandated subway fare rise sparked sustained protests that eventually involved an estimated 1.2 million people. The protesters were diverse, and included organizations of high school students, truck drivers, and grandmothers, among others. Their leadership was decentralized, and their demands went well beyond the reversal of the public transit fare increases. The protestors argued that Chile’s constitution desperately needed reform, as it had been crafted by the outgoing Pinochet dictatorship, at the end of the 1980s, with an eye toward preserving the privilege of the armed forces and of conservative parties allied with the military. After originally deploying some 20,000 troops to quell the protests, in November 2019 Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, agreed to hold a referendum that asked the public whether a new constitution should be drafted.

In October 2020, the referendum vote was held. The proposal passed with a large majority, thus kickstarting the process of creating a new constitutional assembly. This 155-member assembly was elected in 2021 and is notable for its inclusivity: 77 members are women, 17 seats were designated for indigenous members, and it includes a diverse set of individuals—not just career politicians, but scientists, historians, school bus drivers, and stay-at-home parents. In 2022, when this group is expected to have drafted a new constitution, Chilean voters will once again participate in a referendum, this time to decide whether to enact it. Thus, in Chile we see how a diverse group of engaged citizens can not only slow the pace of democratic erosion, but can pressure political actors to establish new structures that strengthen democracy.

Worldwide, the movements that have defended and improved democratic governance have tended to be broad, multi-class, and multi-organizational. They have drawn upon the expertise and commitments of lawyers and professional politicians, but also of journalists, academics, community organizers, activists, artists, and business people. This is true today in contemporary Eastern Europe and Latin America, just as it was true in the United States of the Progressive and Civil Rights eras. If Biden is to do his part to meet the profound challenges of this present hour, he too must raise the voices of a truly diverse coalition of democracy reformers.

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