How Democrats Can Save Democracy
In 2020, Trump tried to ignore the results of the election. His efforts were incompetent, but he was plainly searching for the button that says, “President for Life” – then push it. And despite my blanket view that politicians are extremely power-hungry, I think that Trump was much more eager to become President for Life than any major U.S. presidential candidate in living memory. The other candidates over the last century, in contrast, were basically normal Americans who happened to be extremely power-hungry. Even FDR didn’t try to use World War II to postpone the 1944 election – and that would have been a fairly easy sell.
The upshot is that if Trump runs for the Presidency again, he will very likely try to ignore the electoral results again. And this time around, his supporters are planning ahead. While Biden, not Trump, now has the incumbency advantage, this is a troubling prospect for anyone who values an honest democratic process.
The standard reaction so far has been to take maximum advantage of unified government – and ramp up aggressive partisan rhetoric. This makes sense if your goal is to get the policies you want. Sure, the Republicans will try to undo some of them, but due to status quo bias, you’ll probably get to keep most of the policy changes you pass.
However, if you value the small-d democratic process over big-D Democratic policies, there is probably a better path. Namely: Strive to put Republicans’ minds at ease.
How? Take the initiative to de-escalate partisan tensions. Conspicuously refrain from pushing for more government spending, more regulation, or more taxes. Declare victory on Covid and return to normalcy. Drop the rhetoric about “systemic racism” and end controversial indoctrination in public schools. In short, make peace from a position of strength. Say: “If we Democrats were half as bad as Republicans claim, we’d be pushing all kinds of crazy policies. Instead, we’re giving the country a much-needed four-year vacation from acrimony. For us, the preservation of American democracy has top priority.”
Would this work? Not on everyone, and certainly not on every Republican. Yet it would probably sway tens of millions of non-Democrats. And since the next election will otherwise be close, that’s crucial. Furthermore, since Trump will probably be too old to run in 2028, and no successor is likely to enjoy similar devotion, that takes the country out of the danger zone. Woke Twitter will hate you, but in exchange you avoid turning the U.S. political system into an imitation of Russia’s, Turkey’s, or Hungary’s.
Some will object, no doubt, that Republicans are so crazy that they’ll paint the olive branch as a dagger-in-the-back. And they’re obviously right about some Republicans. I can’t imagine my strategy winning over Trump himself. Fortunately, that’s not necessary. As usual in democracy, you only need to win over the marginal actors. You don’t even need to convince them to change their vote. Just convince the marginal actors that the end is not nigh – that turning the U.S. into Australia or Venezuela is the furthest thing from your minds. Once convinced, plenty will simply stay home. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Appeasement often works.
Why, though, you may ask, should Democrats have to bear this burden? If Republicans are endangering democracy, shouldn’t they be the ones who strive to put Democrats’ minds at ease? The answer is that life’s not fair. Republicans simply care less about democracy than Democrats, so they’re not going to spend political capital trying to save it. Hence, their opponents have to pick up the slack. As Galadriel tells Frodo, “This task was appointed to you. And if you do not find a way, no one will.”
Admittedly, I could be wrong about Democratic priorities. Perhaps getting their way today matters more to them than the fate of American democracy tomorrow. Or maybe they just want to throw the dice and hope everything works out.