Democrats can’t rely on GOP missteps to win
(CNN)With midterm elections approaching in November, Democrats have surprisingly good reasons to feel optimistic. Republicans have reminded voters of how bad things can get with them in charge, as a spate of unpopular laws go into effect in conservative states that criminalize abortion and put the lives of pregnant women at risk, not to mention attempt to legally force legions of Americans into unwanted parenthood. Since recent estimates from the Brookings Institution show that raising a child has never been more expensive, that reality hits particularly hard for voters who must now consider whether forced parenthood comports with their vision for America.
At the same time, the Republican frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination and the undisputed head of the GOP — former President Donald Trump — is the subject of an investigation over his handling of classified documents and potential violations of the Espionage Act and other laws. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
What was initially believed to be a Republican sweep in November now has a bluer outlook, and for that, the GOP can thank itself.
But Democrats shouldn’t get too confident. We are living in an America that is crueler, more divided and more despairing than at any point in my lifetime. And while those conditions can lend themselves to positive and even transformative social change, they often do the opposite, pushing populations toward bigotry, hyper-nationalism and reactionary politics.
Democrats are going to have a hard time harnessing voter energy toward positive change. They can, however, make the case that a Republican victory would be disastrous. To do that, they should lean into touting popular policies they will implement and emphasizing real threats posed by a GOP win. They need to make the case about what they would do to counter right-wing extremism. Ditto voting rights and the threat to democracy itself. Democrats need to come to voters not just with dire and accurate warnings, but a plan of attack beyond “vote for us.”
When President Joe Biden pointed to the “semi-fascism” of the Republican Party’s rightmost flank, he was not exaggerating. And while plenty of Americans are understandably fed up a Democratic Party that holds the levers of power has failed to achieve goals crucial to its overall agenda, Biden is also right that this election is for nothing less than the soul of the country. And as long as much of the Republican Party keeps walking down its current antidemocratic path, the same will be true of subsequent elections as well.
While voters handed Biden a victory in 2020, the last two years have been fairly lackluster. Biden did offer some important improvements in people’s lives, most notably extending important economic lifelines to get Americans through Covid shutdowns. And just this month, Biden also announced a significant student loan relief program, unshackling a great many graduates from up to $10,000 ($20,000 for Pell grant recipients) of student debt and reining in predatory interest rates.
But thanks in large part to congressional recalcitrance, including from two moderate Democratic senators in Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the Biden administration has not been able to go as far as many Democratic voters would have liked on some of our country’s most pressing needs, from universal pre-K to paid parental leave to legislation to curb climate change that goes far beyond what the Inflation Reduction Act will do.
While economists may quibble about who or what is at fault for our odd economic reality — inflation coupled with healthy jobs reports — Americans are feeling the pinch on their pocketbooks. Add that to a growing sense of pervasive disorder and discord, and the reality that rates of some serious violent crimes shot up during Covid-19 after years of decline, and Democrats had good reason to be worried about how they might fare in November.
But then, Republicans got what they wanted: A Supreme Court that stripped the broad right to abortion from American women and conservative state governments that immediately outlawed the procedure with few (and in some cases, no) exceptions for rape victims, fetal anomaly or a pregnant woman’s health. Extreme anti-abortion politics may dominate among Republican Party elected officials, but they are vastly unpopular nationwide, and these Republican-penned laws go far further in restricting abortion rights than even most Republicans say they want.
Stories now abound of women seriously injured or nearly dying because of these laws. And while Republican-led states are forcing pregnant women to give birth against their will, the cost of raising a child has ticked up to more than $300,000 — and that’s before paying for college. States that outlaw or likely will outlaw abortion are much, much worse than states with liberal abortion laws when it comes to support for women and children, and even whether a woman and her child are likely to make it through childbirth at all. Perhaps as a result of these extreme attacks on women’s right and the immediately apparent and dire consequences, huge numbers of women have registered to vote since the Supreme Court issued its decision, portending a large-scale female rejection of anti-abortion Republican candidates.
Republican voters also got what they wanted when they cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, and the Republican establishment largely got in line; many of those who initially warned of the dangers Trump posed became pathetic sycophants singing his praises, and the very few who stuck to their principles have largely been voted out of office.
Trump misled no one about who he was: A ruthless businessman who always put his own interests above all else; a man who did not believe the rules, legal or otherwise, applied to him; a demagogue whose campaign was largely bereft of policy but heavy on reactionary rhetoric. But that hardly makes the midterms Democrats’ to lose.
The same landscape of despair and dissatisfaction that make Republican anti-abortion laws so galling is also a landscape in which far-right movements often thrive. You see this in views creeping more into the conservative mainstream, with right-wing commentators suggesting that only a small group (wealthy White men) should have the right to vote, Republican candidates for office publicly romanticizing violence or fantasizing about murdering the opposition and even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warning that people will “riots in the streets” if Trump is held legally accountable.
This is the ideology underpinning so much of Trumpism: That there are “real” Americans who are deserving of all of our nation’s privileges and protections and the less-real ones who are not. That can be an awfully tempting view for those who believe they are part of the in group, who are searching for a simple explanation for the complicated forces that have shaped their lives, and who need some sense of greater purpose — and may find it in being an armed thug for Trump.
It is also creeping awfully close to fascism.
When Biden made the point, though, that a propensity for “semi-fascism” drives reactionaries toward the Republican Party, conservatives howled — despite decades of calling just about every Democrat, including the extremely moderate Biden, a “communist” or a “socialist.” The hypocrisy is indeed a bit rich — right up there with the people whose favorite campaign chant was “lock her up” now threatening street riots if the investigation of Trump ends in criminal charges.
It’s equal parts absurd and dangerous. The stakes were high in 2020; they are high in November; they will be high again in 2024, unless the Republican Party moderates itself and decides it would like to participate in a multiparty representative democracy, rather than dominate in a single-party state. But there is little indication that Republicans will course correct. While they continue their turn toward a dangerous anti-democratic ideology, Biden’s “semi-fascism” characterization was, if anything, too kind. He would have been more correct to drop the “semi” and call violent authoritarianism exactly what it is.