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Date: 2024-05-21 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00023351

WHITHER DEMOCRACY? written by Rob Weissman

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Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess

Written by Rob Weissman

Since it’s impossible in my limited time to fully explain today’s “War Against Democracy, let me stipulate this: Donald Trump and his allies have unleashed neo-fascist forces that are aiming to sabotage the very functioning of our electoral system, introducing electoral and political violence in ways that we really haven’t previously seen in American history (excepting the Civil War). The core of the Republican party (not just the Trumpers) have embraced a policy of voter suppression designed to exclude people of color—young people, in particular—and they have adopted an extremist gerrymandering agenda that is designed to rig districts to give them control of the Congress as well as state legislatures. Let’s also stipulate that big money dominates elections among both parties, often determining who wins primaries, what candidates feel comfortable saying, and ultimately what they do as candidates.

To begin with, democracy is actually popular. Americans believe that we should have a democratic system, but there’s one huge caveat: people like democracy and accountability, but they’re not passionate about it as an abstract concept. Democracy reform lacks emotional appeal. But if you tie it to policies that people do care about, you can bridge that divide because people fundamentally understand that the whole system is broken due mostly to big-money dominance and political corruption. Now, if you tie that to issues they do care about – like drug price reform, education, expanding health care, raising the minimum wage – you have a winning package.

Foundationally, polling shows public sympathy for democratic norms. By large margins, people do oppose the Insurrection. In even greater numbers, they oppose the use of political violence. The work of the January Sixth Commission is extremely popular. There is pretty strong political support across the country for prosecuting Trump. Safe and accessible elections is a winning theme and phrase— the idea we want to ensure that every voice is heard. That speaks to a wide array of issues, but particularly the idea that state legislatures should not have the power to overturn election results, or have the final say in determining who won a contested election.

Assuring voting rights and prohibiting extreme gerrymandering are essential. They are included in the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement, both of which were put on hold when Manchin and Sinema refused to fix the filibuster. All that changes if Democrats hold or even expand their House and Senate majorities this fall.

Due to the Trump Court’s evisceration of voting rights (see its judicial activism in Shelby County), essential reforms include imposing penalties for voter intimidation, providing funding for election administration, and shifting toward affirmatively making it easier to vote in the ways that were so successful in the context of the pandemic— with more early voting, more voting by mail, and the use of dropboxes.

On gerrymandering, the key is to move away from partisan control over redistricting and toward lodging redistricting authority in independent redistricting commissions. That’s something you need federal legislation to do, since some states have reformed their redistricting procedures on their own, but at least half have not.

While those policies are all well liked by the American people, there is one counter-narrative that works well for the Republicans, which is the idea of voter fraud. Voter fraud is a total fiction. Letting yourself get drawn into the argument over whether it’s fiction or real is probably not a winner. You’re better off affirmatively making the case for stopping states’ anti-voter legislation— here you can see strong support in swing states for Congress to act and prevent states from making it more difficult to vote. There is comparable support in swing states for Congress to act to ensure that eligible voters are able to cast their ballots.

You can be very confident in talking about these popular policies—stopping voter intimidation, protecting local officials, supporting election audits, and so on. Some caveats: the traditional term of “voting rights” doesn’t do as well across the political spectrum— the “Freedom to Vote Act” was named that way for a reason. In terms of “addressing voter suppression,” we find that “voter suppression” is not the right term—“stopping anti-voter bills” is a winning formulation. You want to talk about “voters getting to choose their leaders, not leaders choosing their voters.

Let’s conclude with the issue of money and politics. Here the core reform is to replace the big-money funding of elections with small-donor funding and public-matching money; then comes the disclosure of all outside money— ending dark money is super popular; overturning Citizens United, which is resonant and popular now. There’s a lot of recent success with candidates running on the idea of rejecting corporate PAC contributions. According to a poll from Pew, nearly everybody thinks the system is corrupt, everybody thinks that big money dominates, everybody thinks corporations and the superrich have too much sway over elections and politics.

There’s also overwhelming support on whether there should be limits on the amount that individuals or groups can spend on campaigns; unfortunately for now, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that to be flatly unconstitutional. As a workaround, the Freedom to Vote Act, which advocates small donors and public funding to help assure more competitive elections, is actually much more modest than what the American public wants—the public is willing to go far when it comes to clamping down on big money dominance of our politics.

The elements in that bill that push transparency (ending dark money) poll at between 90-94 percent support— you’re talking really really high numbers when you’re over 90 percent. One of my favorite counter statistics is that only 80 percent of people believe that the earth revolves around the sun. So when you get to 90 percent and higher, you have something that’s really extraordinary.

Anything about stopping big money dominance of our elections resonates with people. There are conflicting views about whether “political corruption” is the right way to talk about this stuff, but there is no conflict in the polling on this. Surprisingly, just a basic simple formulation of preventing billionaires from buying our elections—people go for that, too.

But to close the deal electorally and substantively requires linking the democracy discussion to substantive comments—persuadables are more favorable to pro- democracy reforms that are tied directly to underlying policies that people care about. You talk about democracy and the need to address political corruption. You establish your bonafides with people as someone who gets it—that’s actually one of the things that Trump was able to do in the “Through the Looking Glass” world in which we live. You talk about political corruption. You say you want to take it on. You offer meaningful solutions for doing it. You’re establishing your credibility as someone who’s on the side of people, and you’re talking to them in ways that they care about. If you talk about taking on corporate power that blocks essential reforms at this nexus of big money dominance of our politics, you are reaching people in both their minds and their hearts.

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