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Is talking about democracy a good way to defend it?
The MAGA Republicans and the "so what?" problem
Hey folks, had a little snafu and published what was supposed to be today’s piece on Sunday morning — sort of like a little Mother’s Day bonus content. But since that wasn’t planned, I now don’t have a piece ready to go for today. But we have gotten a lot of new members over the past few months, so I thought I’d do an ungated version of a piece that originally ran last September but that I think continues to be as relevant as ever with the GOP primary heating up and we confront center-left people with the question of what exactly we want to say about it.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong, factually, with saying that Donald Trump’s political movement is an authoritarian menace to the integrity of American political institutions. And while characterizing the ideological tenor of that movement as “semi-fascist” is inflammatory, I don’t think it’s incorrect.
I do wonder, to an extent, about the purpose of this discourse, though.
One aspect of the Biden administration’s rhetoric that does have a clear point is the president’s habit of drawing a distinction between “MAGA Republicans” and a democratic front that’s composed of “Democrats, independents, and mainstream Republicans.” In other words, he’s trying to create a permission structure for some right-of-center people to vote for him and his allies without abandoning their identity as Republicans.
At the same time, Biden has never made real coalitional overtures in this direction. We don’t have HHS Secretary John Kasich. There was a lot of agita from the left during the 2020 campaign that Biden would try to incorporate old-line GOP foreign policy hawks into his administration, but he hasn’t done that. Liz Cheney is not going to become Interior Secretary after she leaves Congress. Which is fine. Biden has actually been quite successful at restoring elements of routine bipartisan legislating, and he’s done so without giving up the partisan progressive agenda. If he were to abandon that agenda in pursuit of a grand coalition, I think there would be tons of pitfalls. This is just the tension that every politician has to deal with — expanding the coalition while also delivering for the base.
And I think what the “semi-fascist” discourse is trying to accomplish is painting one segment of contemporary Republicans as strikingly different from the Republicans of the recent past.
But this is where the strategy trips me up.
There are, of course, meaningful differences between the 2022 GOP and the 2012 GOP, but also important continuities and similarities. One can choose whether to emphasize the differences or the similarities, and it seems to me that the wisest course is to emphasize the similarities.
A look at the map
Biden won Arizona in 2020, but by less than his overall national margin of victory. So while Arizona is in one sense a blue state, I think it’s more accurate to characterize it as leaning red. The same is true of Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Wisconsin, all of which are Senate battlegrounds in 2022.
But four of these six pivotal states — states where Biden won, but by less than his national average — were bluer than average in the 2012 cycle.
Iowa, Ohio, and Florida also feature contested Senate races this cycle, and the idea of Democrats winning any of those states seems pretty far-fetched to me. But Obama carried all three of them in 2012 (though like Biden in Arizona, Obama’s margin of victory was smaller than his national average), and if they were winnable in the recent past, why shouldn’t Democrats aspire to be competitive there today?
But if that’s their aspiration, they need to align their strategy and tactics in a way that makes sense.
In some of these states, Obama/Trump voters outnumber Romney/Biden voters by a very large number. Democrats should absolutely hit Republicans with Trump’s most egregious behavior (running around the country promising to pardon people who stormed the Capitol and assaulted cops is really bad!), but I don’t think it makes overall sense to emphasize the idea that this is not your father’s Republican Party. Your father’s Republican Party was about as popular in the aggregate, but its supporters were distributed in a less geographically efficient way.
Instead, Democrats should tell people that this is mostly old wine in new skin. The fact that J.D. Vance used to be vocally anti-Trump doesn’t just show he’s a hypocrite; it’s a reminder that his actual interest in Republican Party politics is the stuff that Trump has in common with less-popular-in-Ohio figures like Mitt Romney and John McCain.
The return of classic politics
There’s a palpable sense in Washington that Biden and the Democrats got their mojo back over the course of August. A lot of that is the falling price of gasoline; some of it is Republican Senate candidates’ weird blunders.
But a huge part of it is the backlash to the Dobbs decision and the increased salience of Republicans’ extreme positions on abortion. While Trump clearly got on board, the idea that all abortions should be illegal is hardly a distinctively Trumpian position — this is a longstanding policy disagreement between the parties, one where Trump was almost certainly compelled to adopt policy positions he has no great personal affinity for because the movement is so committed to it.
This issue has helped lift Democrats because it scrambled normal thermostatic trends.
But it’s also helpful precisely because it’s such a non-Trump controversy. If you think about who are the people who voted for Obama twice and then for Trump, a lot of them probably think abortion should be legal but don’t like immigrants. Switching from a world where the highest-salience controversies are about immigration to one in which they’re about abortion helps Democrats get those votes back. It’s good to remind people that anti-abortion politics is part of a broader agenda that’s hostile to contraceptives, hostile to gay couples’ right to marry, and that generally has busybodies policing everyone’s sex lives.
Democrats also passed a very sensible, very balanced energy bill that invests in nuclear energy and includes permitting reform along with subsidies for renewables. But they paid for it by taxing the rich, which Republicans hate, so they uniformly — including the non-MAGAs like Romney — voted against it. To position himself as more moderate than Romney, Trump talked about taking on prescription drug prices. But he never did it. Biden and Democrats did, once again over the unanimous opposition of the GOP.
In terms of Biden’s approval rating, I think gas is the primary factor. But I think putting these classic issues — abortion rights and sexual freedom generally, taxing the rich, delivering affordable health care, and reducing pollution — front and center has helped. And in “mojo” terms, it’s been especially useful because it tends to unite Biden’s coalition rather than front-loading infighting about “cancel culture” and mask-wearing.
Trump is a disaster, Trumpism is not
Another way to put this is that while Donald Trump, personally, is dogged by so many personal scandals that he can’t be a highly effective politician, “Trumpism” — a worldview that’s about nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and supporting the Men With Guns — is pretty effective politics.
Some day I think Republicans may come up with a figure who delivers on the real political promise of Trumpism, which is honestly to just be more moderate on key policies. In other countries, it’s the most normal thing in the world to have a conservative politician who is not planning to eliminate the country’s universal health care system. A version of Trump who actually practiced “Trumpism” in that sense — rather than trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act — could have been much more politically successful.
But when GOP elites talk about the idea of Trumpism without Trump, that’s not what they mean. Their hero isn’t former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who expanded Medicaid and made headlines as tough on immigration; it’s Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who refuses to expand Medicaid and has also done a great job of ensuring that media coverage of Ron DeSantis focuses on basically anything other than his refusal to expand Medicaid. But Medicaid is a really big deal! If Florida expanded Medicaid, over a million people would get health insurance and tons of extra money would flow into the state. Medicaid expansion would reduce crime. The provision of health insurance to poor kids is also a big deal for educational outcomes — probably a bigger deal than the curriculum controversies swirling in the media.
So why doesn’t Florida expand Medicaid? Well, while the federal government would cover 90 percent of the cost of providing insurance to the 1.4 million eligible Floridians, the state would need to cover 10 percent. So if your top goal in life is to keep taxes on rich people low and you don’t care at all about the well-being of poor people, then a 90-10 split on Medicaid coverage is a bad deal. And that’s Ron DeSantis.
If you currently have Donald Trump and his manias at the center of your politics, it naturally raises questions like “what about this other guy?” One possible answer to that is that DeSantis replicates some of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, which is absolutely true. But the fact is I wouldn’t like some hypothetical non-authoritarian version of him either, because the deepest commonality between Trump and DeSantis (and old-fashioned Republicans like George W. Bush) is their fundamental ideological commitment to helping rich people minimize their taxes.
The “so what?” of defending democracy
The last decade has seen a significant intellectual shift on the right, led in large part by Peter Thiel, whose intellectual (rather than financial) influence is often overlooked.
People tend to forget this, but in the mid aughts, the standard political discourse featured a lot of progressives arguing that wage growth had slowed since the Reagan Revolution and conservatives mostly denying that, arguing instead that productivity statistics were missing something and living standards were rising faster than people knew. But as Thiel quipped in his line about how “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” conservatives have shifted from defending the post-Reagan economy as optimal to attacking it as beset by stagnation.
Thiel also explained in his 2009 piece “The Education of a Libertarian” that he has given up on the idea that electoral democracy is compatible with his ideas about good policy.
I think everyone with strong feelings on policy realizes at some point that there is some tension between their personal policy preferences and the democratic process. But sane people try to achieve reconciliation via priority-setting and pragmatic politics — the slow boring of hard boards, to coin a phrase.
The alternative, which Thiel embraces, is to try to subvert democracy to uphold property rights. This plays a very important role in the current conservative intellectual climate. Thiel is not a clown nor a joker. He’s an influential guy thanks to his money, but he’s also a smart guy who wields genuine intellectual influence on behalf of a fairly radical critique of democratic politics. Thiel’s views are based on what I believe is a serious misreading of world history, and I think they are dangerously exacerbating the risks of various kinds of catastrophes.
In terms of the actual practice of democratic politics, I’m a little less certain it makes a lot of sense to talk a lot about the abstract value of democracy.
But what I think is clear and underrated is that to the extent that Democrats feel compelled to address the democracy issue, it’s imperative to try to do so in a way that connects to concrete issues. You don’t want to say that “democracy” means “doing stuff liberals agree with,” you want to argue that democratic control of society means using the political system to ensure that economic growth is broadly shared. That’s what Trump’s elite backers don’t like about it, and that’s why destroying the mechanisms of electoral accountability is dangerous to the interests of the median voter in Ohio. Not because Trump represents a sharp conceptual break with the conservatism of the past, but because he represents a new sheen on what’s ultimately the same plutocratic idea.