America may have survived an attempted coup to overthrow democracy on January 6, 2021, but that does not guarantee that another coup will never happen. Rather, the January 6 Attack looks and feels more like a sneak preview of the burgeoning authoritarian onslaught that’s yet to come. So why are so many Democrats so consumed with rebranding the same political strategy that led us into this danger in the first place?
WARNING: Today’s story includes some dark subject matter on terrorism, authoritarianism, and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
As we’ve been saying, voters value results over rhetoric.
According to CBS News’ and YouGov’s most recent national poll, President Joe Biden manages to claw his way back to nearly 50% approval, yet 53% of American voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of “infrastructure issues”. Yet when YouGov polled the overall Build Back Better reconciliation package, it attracted 54% support. And when YouGov polled a laundry list of proposals in Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, nearly all attracted 60%+ supermajority support.
Thus far, that’s been a consistent trait of recent poll data: Most Americans seem to support Biden’s Build Back Better plan – even the allegedly “controversial” aspects like climate change action and raising taxes on the richest Americans – yet Biden’s own poll numbers are much more underwhelming. Why do so many Americans see this strong disconnection between Biden and his policy agenda?
CBS News polling shows Americans are more familiar with the $3.5 trillion price tag of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda than any of its individual programs ideas, like expanding Medicare coverage and lowering prescription costs. @weijia reports: https://t.co/mtJYcN6Fhu pic.twitter.com/MK8IllkKNI
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 11, 2021
According to a recent focus group of Pennsylvania Democratic voters featured in The Bulwark, and according to The Washington Post’s recent interviews with Georgia progressive movement leaders, a possibly significant chunk of Biden voters are disappointed due to the large pile of (thus far) unfulfilled campaign promises. This, in turn, may be shooting down the character argument that Biden and so many of his allies tried to rely upon last year. After all, what’s the point of “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” if Democrats have already declined to battle on matters like voting rights, criminal justice, workers’ rights, and immigration reform?
As we’ve been warning on these pages all along, Democrats like Nevada’s own U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Governor Steve Sisolak (D) may have a hard time on the campaign trail next year if voters have a hard time understanding how Democrats are using their power to help constituents. Perhaps in a different time and place, we could just scoff at this latest manifestation of the “Democrats in Disarray” memes. But now that American Democracy itself is barely hanging on, America faces far more severe consequences if Biden and his Democratic Party can’t get their act together soon.
As we’ve also been saying, this is (still) a crisis. Here’s why we should care about what’s happening to the Republican Party.
Late last month, former Nevada Attorney General and current U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt (R) openly attacked James DeHaven, a Reno Gazette-Journal journalist who was simply covering Laxalt on the campaign trail. While some local media figures were taken aback by Laxalt’s incredibly hostile treatment of DeHaven and the entire RGJ for simply reporting facts about Laxalt, his record, and his statements on the campaign trail, Laxalt’s grotesque publicity stunt really just provided another example of the accelerating radicalization of the Republican Party. After all, in the gubernatorial primary, Dean Heller (R) still refuses to admit that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Joe Lombardo (R) still tries to thread some nonexistent needle between Trumpism and sanity, and Joey Gilbert (R) continues to enjoy outsized influence over the field despite (or because of?) his open embrace of attempts to overturn the 2020 election results, as well as his ongoing COVID-19 denial.
When we venture beyond the state line, this trend becomes even more obvious. In Arizona, some Republicans have resorted to lying about their own “post-election audit” that failed to uncover any evidence to corroborate any of former President Donald Trump’s “voter fraud” allegations. Despite this Arizona Audit debacle, Republicans in Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and possibly additional states (yes, even states where Trump won!) are pursuing similarly reckless “audits” and “recounts”.
#Strongmen, now out in paperback w/a new epilogue on Jan.6, has a chapter, "A Greater Nation," about corrupt leaders who are acclaimed as national saviors. Different players, same scam for a century. https://t.co/ch2CsmMkPH https://t.co/9wvxC1KwFS
— Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat) October 9, 2021
On the other side of a very heavy camera filter, the National Finance Director for the Make America Great Again, Again PAC is now calling for 2020 election audits of all 50 states. pic.twitter.com/BLgVcDlIYC
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) October 12, 2021
Speaking of Trump, he continues to hold campaign-style rallies across the country. At these rallies, Trump continues to lie about his 2020 election loss. At these rallies, Trump continues to whip his fans into pure fire and fury with his still steady stream of lies – lies about himself, lies about Joe Biden, lies about his other political foes, lies about his presidential record, lies about his business record, and lies about just about anything and everything he wants to lie about.
Despite the incredibly clear evidence that Donald Trump continues to provide a clear and present danger to the future of American Democracy, Republican politicians here in Nevada and across the nation continue to bend the knee and kiss Trump’s ring. Whether it’s true believers like Joey Gilbert, juiced up party insiders like Adam Laxalt, or serial opportunists like Dean Heller and Joe Lombardo, they all serve as stark warnings of what happens when an entire political party essentially gives up on democracy and embraces a demagogue.
Is “popularism” the answer? Not so fast.
So far this month, a group of political media pundits have escalated their “hot take” showdowns into a full-blown Twitter feud over how Democrats can prevent total political annihilation later this decade. On one side, Democratic pollster David Shor and allied Democratic campaign consultants sing the praises of “popularism” – or the concept that Democrats should only campaign on popular policies, and they should avoid policies, ideas, and topics that don’t consistently poll above 50%. According to the “Church of Shor”, Democrats face so many structural hurdles to obtaining and maintaining power with their current electoral coalition that relies too heavily on the allegedly fickle-minded voters of color and the “elitist” attitudes of college-educated white professionals.
On the flip side, progressive opponents of “popularism” – or as The Week’s Ryan Cooper calls it, “survey liberalism” – view David Shor’s assessment of the Democratic Party’s coalition, progressive and leftist activists, and American voters’ political psychology as overly reductive. After all, Donald Trump regularly campaigned on unpopular policies like building a border wall, incarcerating immigrant children, banning TikTok, banning abortion, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and attempting to overthrow American Democracy after losing the election. Yet even as Republicans by large continue to embrace Trump and Trumpism, they nonetheless hold (at least?) near even money odds of winning control of Congress next year. If “popularism” is truly the secret to success, then why do Republicans consistently outperform the bulk of their policy platform at the ballot box?
This past May, we actually tested a key plank of Shor’s “popularism” platform: his claim that Black Lives Matter activists’ calls to “Defund the Police” and other leftist activists’ demands for social justice nearly secured Trump’s reelection and Republicans winning control of Congress last year. Shor used election results from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to contend that Black Lives Matter protests resulted in a net loss of votes for President Joe Biden, but we examined evidence from Minnesota, Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and California suggesting otherwise.
Note to Democrats: If you really want to save democracy, you need to deliver the goods ASAP.
Throughout this year, we’ve been arguing that Democrats must deliver the goods to voters in order to generate enough enthusiasm among their base voters and enough good will among swing voters that they probably need to survive next year. More recently, the American Liberties Project’s Matt Stoller and The American Prospect’s Executive Editor David Dayen added more depth and a proper label for this concept: “deliverism”.
As Dayen argued in his column detailing what “deliverism” means, and as other experts like artist and activist Bree Newsome and Gaslit Nation co-host Sarah Kendzior have repeatedly pointed out, Democrats have fallen into a serious credibility gap by failing to establish a record of consistently delivering on their campaign promises whenever they win enough governing power to do so. Whether it’s the consistent failure of delivering sufficient action on climate change, the on-again-off-again efforts to fix our health care system, the repeated failures to raise the federal minimum wage, the consistent failure to protect immigrant civil rights and deliver comprehensive immigration reform, or additional policy realms where Democratic presidents and congressional leaders have been consistently inconsistent at best, Democrats’ “strategic retreats” and “pivots toward moderation” backfire on them once voters see that they again failed to deliver on their campaign promises. Instead of appreciating the “smart strategy”, they just notice broken promises, and they have a harder time believing Democrats’ next round of campaign promises on the very same issues where they broke their prior promises.
Perhaps the worst example pertains to democracy itself. Biden frequently campaigned on promises of “restoring democracy” last year, including protecting and strengthening voting rights, pursuing justice for the ongoing attacks on democracy here in the U.S. and around the world, and delivering results (see above) that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that democracy still works. Yet as long as the dark forces who orchestrated the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol continue to walk free, and as long as “nothing fundamentally changes” on the ongoing far-right attacks on voting across the country, Democrats may have an even harder time convincing voters to endure more severe hurdles in order to vote for Democrats. After all, how does “democracy is on the ballot” even make sense when voters can’t see how their prior votes resulted in saving American Democracy?
While Democrats argue over “popularism”, a growing chorus of Republicans embrace the far right and rebrand fascism as “populism”.
In Rutherford County, NC this morning, Madison Cawthorn said that when Republicans regain power, he is going to make sure Fauci is prosecuted. He then says, “I will seize every single Chinese asset in America.” (Good for Wall St and corporate donors to know). pic.twitter.com/RrR66yN1kg
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) October 16, 2021
As we noted earlier, Nevada Republican candidates like Adam Laxalt and Joey Gilbert are openly running on Trumpism. Just on the other side of Lake Mead, QAnon movement leader Ron Watkins is not only selling NFT’s, but he’s also selling a possible run for Congress next year. Also in Arizona, the sudden Republican frontrunner in the gubernatorial primary is Kari Lake, a former news anchor for the Phoenix Fox affiliate station who leapfrogged ahead of the rest of the field thanks to her wholehearted endorsement of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election that earned her Donald Trump’s endorsement.
This Trump Train doesn’t end in Arizona. Across the country – whether it’s known January 6 Attack participant Derrick Van Orden (R) running for Congress in Wisconsin (again) with most establishment Republicans’ full support, incumbent Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-North Carolina) continuing to boast of the weapons he brandishes and the incendiary rhetoric he relishes in, or Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R) picking up the far-right campaign against “critical race theory” that’s actually another thinly veiled far-right nod of approval for institutional racism – Republicans up and down the ticket are pledging their allegiance to Donald Trump and adopting platforms of Trumpism that once upon a time were considered “unacceptably extreme”.
Laura Loomer says it’s time to primary all Republicans who won’t admit the election was stolen from Trump. pic.twitter.com/1lRzRrw4Lr
— PatriotTakes 🇺🇸 (@patriottakes) October 17, 2021
Just look at the polling on January 6 and the aftermath. In the first days following the coup attempt, polls mostly showed a supermajority of Americans disapproving of the January 6 Attack and the fascist groups who launched the attack. If we are to believe the gospel according to “The Church of Shor”, Republicans should have quickly and thoroughly disavowed Donald Trump and the January 6 insurrectionists simply because their attempted coup was brutally unpopular. Yet instead of permanently disavowing Trump and Trumpism, they rebranded the insurrection as a “protest”, they spread false rumors about Black Lives Matter and Antifa groups, and they refused to accept the truth about who initiated the violence. Most Republican voters now accept these lies as their “truth”, and the polling landscape on American Democracy itself increasingly resembles the partisan polarized default setting for American politics in general.
This is no accident. As expert scholars on fascism and authoritarianism – such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jared Yates Sexton, Elie Mystal, and Sarah Kendzior – have been warning since Trump’s first presidential campaign, Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party accelerated the Republicans’ normalization of the Trumpist anti-democracy agenda. This, in turn, made it easier than ever for Trump and his apparatchiks to rebrand their fascism as “populist” and “anti-establishment”. This, in turn, makes it easy for Trump and his Republican allies to argue that if Democrats fail to deliver better results, voters should just vote for Republicans regardless of any esoteric, ethereal, and just plain out-of-touch arguments that Democrats make about democracy.
Spoiler alert: “Popularism” is not really all that new. Unless Democrats actually use the power they have now, they risk losing democracy itself.
Eleven months ago, we examined how and why Democrats lost in 2004, and how the 2004 presidential election provided warning signs of what would eventually unfold during the Trump years. Since Bill Clinton’s presidency, Democrats had already decided to run “proto-popularist” campaigns based upon whatever was polling well at the time. Though this early version of “popularism” worked for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Clinton failed to provide much of any down-ballot coattails, and eventually George W. Bush and his Republican Party turned this alleged strength into a glaring weakness by contrasting Democrats’ “wishy-washy flip-flops” with Republicans’ “strength, steadiness, and resolution”. Even worse, the Clintonian Democrats’ embrace of “pro-business” neoliberalism eventually paved the way for the rise of Trumpism by way of their policies accelerating the growth of economic inequities and endemic poverty.
Contrast Hillary Clinton’s 2016 narrow loss with Joe Biden’s 2020 narrow win. Though Hillary Clinton actually laid out a broad array of policy proposals during her 2016 campaign, she’s best/worst remembered for contrasting her “popular” embrace of traditional American ideals versus Trump’s “unpopular” attacks against communities of color, people with disabilities, a constantly growing list of women, and American sovereignty itself – a contrast of “values” that fell apart amidst Trump’s nonstop disinformation campaign and voters’ disappointment with then President Barack Obama’s failure to deliver “change you can believe in”. Though Joe Biden often preferred to campaign on vague character arguments of “battling for the soul of the nation” throughout the 2020 campaign cycle, he eventually provided more concrete promises for significant action, and these concrete promises for major action proved far more persuasive than vague “values” arguments that tend to perform better in polls than in real life.
Hillary Clinton herself has come around to amplify anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy scholars’ warnings about how close we actually are to losing our democracy. This is not some pie-in-the-sky esoteric argument, so it’s long past time for more Democrats to stop treating the fragility of our democracy as such. It doesn’t take much for an attempted coup to evolve into a successful coup. If Joe Biden wants to prove that American Democracy still works, he and Congressional Democrats need to deliver the goods and do so soon.