One of my Indivisible t-shirts boldly asserts: Register & Phonebank & Canvas & Vote & Win. Under the rubric of “phonebank,” you can add textbanks and letter-writing. Taken together, these form the foundation of the progressive left’s grassroots volunteer efforts to win elections — including next week’s midterms. The hope is that, via these actions, we can (1) persuade independents to vote for the candidates we support and (2) energize our base of supporters to make sure they get out and vote.
Although it’s difficult to measure exactly how effective these strategies are, there is good evidence to believe that they can make a difference. They may even have been determinative in the Blue Wave of the 2018 midterms. But that is already a long time ago — a time when the country’s outrage with Trump was at its peak and people were eager to mobilize. Long-term victory seemed within our grasp. Not so much anymore. Today, despite our best efforts, the country is more in the grip of Trumpism than it was even two years ago. Whatever we’re doing, it doesn’t seem to be working.
That’s why I believe phonebanks and such are no longer a viable grassroots tactic. Certainly not a sufficient one. It’s not that these progressive efforts are less effective than they were before. It’s that they are increasingly not up to the challenge of countering what the other side is doing. Since the rise of Trump and the MAGA movement in 2016, the rules of engagement have dramatically shifted. Anti-democracy trends that have been developing for decades in our politics, have finally reached a critical mass. The left now finds itself bringing a knife to a gun fight — like the swordsman in the classic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And we know how that turned out.
More specifically, I see two troubling political trends at work here. One is old and familiar. The other is newer but far more dangerous.
The older trend is the increasing power of the minority — due a combination of the election rules laid out in the Constitution and more recent dramatic demographic shifts. Because each state gets two Senators, less-populated states have disproportionate power in Congress. That’s always been true — but never more so than now. For example, the population of California is approximately equal to the population of the 20 least populous states. Those combined states have 40 Senators while California has only 2. Less populous states tend to be rural and have traditionally leaned right. This gives the GOP a built-in advantage going into any Senatorial election. This same trend similarly means that, with the GOP in control of the majority of state legislatures, gerrymandering of Congressional districts has led to more “safe” House seats for Republicans than Democrats.
Finally, the Electoral College allows for a Presidential candidate to win office with only a minority of the country’s popular vote. Again, this has always been a possibility. But it has only happened twice from the birth of our nation until 1999. Yet, thanks to the aforementioned demographic shifts, it has happened twice since — and in both cases the Republican candidate won. This is how the GOP increasingly depends on winning. Barring a dramatic change in voting preferences, the GOP may rarely, if ever again, win a presidential election with a majority of the popular vote.
I don’t believe the framers of the Constitution envisioned a time when the demographics would be this extreme — and lead to such lopsided divisions. But here we are. It’s an uphill battle for left-wing phonebanks and canvassing to affect the outcome of an election — when faced with this handicap. But it’s possible, especially in a tight race. Unfortunately, things gets worse.
The second more recent trend is that a major part of the GOP’s election strategy is to oppose elections altogether. Instead, they are in engaged in a series of activities designed to disrupt elections and, if they lose the vote anyway, declare the results as fraudulent.
You might naively assume that both sides are equally engaged in phonebanking and canvassing. Unfortunately, the assumption is in error. Only the left seems focused on these grassroots efforts. Case in point: I did a Google search for “Phone banking for Republicans.” Over 90% of the search results listed left-wing sites aimed at stopping Republicans! I kept trying different terms and kept getting similar results. I can’t discount that Google may be filtering my results based on my previous searches. Still, it strongly suggests that the GOP is not heavily invested in these mainstays of the left.
So what are they doing instead? They are disseminating a toxic brew of disinformation, conspiracy theories and lies spread by social media. As a recent example, check out the vicious lies that popped up almost within minutes in the wake of the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. These lies continue to be disturbingly effective. I’m not saying Democrats never engage in these actions — but it’s pervasive among the GOP in a way that dwarfs whatever the Democrats may be doing.
Beyond that, right-wing activists are pushing voter intimidation actions, planned election day disruptions and subsequent election challenges. Abetting these efforts, the GOP itself has pushed to enact voter suppression laws (eliminating ballot boxes especially in Democratic districts, unnecessary voter ID requirements, etc.) — even going so far as to allow (Republican-held) state legislatures to overturn the popular vote. To make all of this easier to do in future elections, the GOP has put forward hundreds of election-deniers to fill offices across the country — in every position from Secretary of State to Senator. Hanging ominously over all of this is the threat of escalating violence.
Taken together, these tactics amount to a potent combination of unethical, potentially illegal actions that allow GOP candidates with minority support to none-the-less attain or claim victory — especially so in critical swing states. Eagerly adopted by an energetic cadre of MAGA supporters — it is proving to be an effective counter-strategy. Phonebanks can’t help win an election — if your supporters can’t vote. And you can’t protect your right to vote if the election officials are all right-wing election deniers.
What’s the solution? What can/should we do differently to combat these trends?
One possible approach is to do nothing different from what we have been doing — other than try to do it better. In the short term, the hope is that our efforts will be at least good enough to stave off complete disaster. Over the long haul, the hope is that the GOP’s Trump-fever eventually breaks and politics returns to some degree of normality. Unfortunately, as long as the current GOP tactics lead to success, I doubt that will ever happen.
This could well mean a descent in autocracy — but I doubt that will deter the GOP. It doesn’t even matter if the GOP honestly doesn’t want to see the end of democracy. They will go down this road anyway. The lure of near-certain short-term success will win out over potential long-term threats (just ask those fighting to save the planet from a climate-change catastrophe).
A second alternative is to play copy-cat: Fight back with the same strategies that the right is employing so effectively. Aside from the fact that it likely won’t work if we don’t control enough state governments, most on the left would reject the idea anyway. It’s morally reprehensible. A classic case of two wrongs very much not making a right.
What’s the third alternative? I don’t know. I am not wise enough to have a sure answer. I’m not sure there is one. At least not a good one. Prepare for civil war? Maybe. It’s a bit like asking what can we do to prevent Putin from using nuclear weapons. Actually, there is a lot we can do — but if Putin is determined to use them even if it risks an “apocalypse” — there is ultimately nothing we can do. Returning to politics, this is what keeps me up at night, fretting about the future of our democracy.
I don’t mean to imply that the success or failure of Democrats is entirely dependent on grassroots actions. Far from it. It obviously depends as well on the actions of the Democratic Party and their candidates — including fund-raising and television ads and rallies and such. And at this level, I believe Democrats have a serious messaging problem. They still haven’t adequately absorbed the key lesson from George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant): winning a political debate is not simply a matter of assembling the “best” facts. It’s a matter of emotional appeal as well. That’s never been more true than it is today — when the country is divided into silos each with their own “alternative facts.” The GOP gets this; the Democrats don’t.
It would also help if, for the critical issues of most concern to the electorate, Democrats are not almost always playing defense. It’s not enough to say: “No, we are not in favor of defunding the police. No, we aren’t trying to tell today’s school children they are racists. Yes, inflation is bad but it’s not Joe Biden’s fault. Yes, we are sensitive to coal miners losing their jobs due to green energy. Yes, crime is on the rise, but it’s not nearly as bad as the GOP claims.” The GOP has become expert at framing the debate and forcing Democrats to react. We need to turn the tables. We need to be more aggressive and force the GOP to defend. We managed to do this on the abortion debate this year — but that is not typical. Bernie Sanders, as usual, has offered some helpful ideas.
Finally, zooming out to the larger picture, the problems go way beyond the confines of the left. We live in frighteningly partisan and divisive times. Racism and anti-semitism are on the rise. The current popularity of extreme views is as great as it has ever been in our history. We have faced crises of extremism before (see Rachel Madow’s Ultra podcast for one example) — and have emerged relatively unscathed. But that offers no guarantee that we will see the same result this time. Our Democracy is not guaranteed. It only survives if we all agree to support it. When one political party abandons that agreement we are in deep trouble.
We now live in a country where a near-majority continues to believe the total falsehood that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election…where, despite Trump’s cornucopia of crimes and lies, he could still be our next President…where Fox News remains the dominant cable TV news outlet…where absurdly unqualified candidates like Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz and Kari Lake have a good chance of winding up in the U.S. Senate or in a Governor’s mansion. And, if election results do not go the way the GOP is hoping, we can expect an upsurge in conspiracy theories and violence. This does not omen well for our future.
It may already be too late to stop this train. The 2022 midterms may turn out to be the tipping point from which there is no turning back. As Rachel Madow put it: “Our vote this year is about whether we ever get to vote again.”