Imagine the Worst to Protect Ourselves

By Mike Koetting June 21, 2022

Post before last I asked people what they thought we should do about the electoral dilemmas I raised.

On the specific issue, there was virtual unanimity in favor of ending party primaries and using completely open primaries with the top two proceeding to the “final”. Another suggestion, was to end “winner take all” awarding of electoral votes, something I have previously supported. One person suggested it might be easier to get these reforms passed if they had a long lead time so current incumbents wouldn’t feel so threatened.

On the broader issue of how to address the depth of the political division in America, the prevalent attitude was some version of “Hang on….it will get better.”

I can’t rule that out. In fact, I desperately hope it’s correct. But the alternative to that is descent into a Viktor Orban style illiberal quasi-democracy, the kind of place for which Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are running practice sessions in Florida and Texas right now.

Most of us don’t want to believe it could happen in the rest of the nation. We console ourselves with the notion “Those are crazy states.” But I suspect most of us, if we are honest, know how close we are to this cliff. The combination of voter fear, gerrymandering, voter indifference, voter suppression and the way the electoral college works could lead to a Republican president in 2024 and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But we just want to assume that somehow this obvious deviation from American practice will right itself, as it has done in the past.

This is a potentially serious failure of imagination. Yes, American democracy has managed to avoid the precipice for at least the last 100 years. And there is an obvious danger in taking every set-back as a sign of imminent disaster. Compromise, therefore democracy, requires some set-backs. But the risk on the other side is that by the time you’re sure the pendulum isn’t swinging back, you’ve waited too long.

George Packer offers a seriously scary article on how our democracy could unravel. It’s scary not because it outlines a lurid, messy civil war or an immediate lurch into a Soviet society. Making those the alternative, he suggests, is actually a defense mechanism. Precisely because they are far-fetched, they allow us to downplay the threat. Rather, the article is scary because in his imagination the decent is much more banal.

He imagines a Republican Electoral College victory in 2024, propelled in part by dodgy practices in a couple swing states. At first there would be protests and civil unrest but eventually those would peter out and the country would lapse into cynicism leading to acquiescence. People would be focused on caring for themselves and staying out of trouble. Those with resources could buy what they need—as abortions are still available to Texans with means—or flee the country. Maybe there would even be some more supports for the less wealthy to dampen unrest. With control of government, and the Supreme Court, the power of these folks would become hard-wired, as Trump unartfully tried to do. America might never become exactly Hungary but we could cease to be America as a beacon of freedom. Or even a place I want to live.

I am not saying these will happen, let alone that they are inevitable. But I am saying that we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. If we simply dismiss the possibility of a Trumplican take over, we make it easier to happen.

What to Do?

I suspect one of the reasons most of us want to minimize this possibility is that we don’t know what to do about it. The answer is not obvious. There is no reasoning with a group that has made it clear it is impervious to reason. Structural fixes, such as I proposed in recent blogs, aren’t going to arrive in time.

At present, the anti-Trumplicans are of two different minds. On the one hand, there are those who believe what is necessary is to disavow slogans and positions that are easily characterized as too off the mainstream. (Defunding the police and abolishing ICE are poster cases.) On the other hand are those who believe that we need to double-down on core values and bet that through turn-out we can generate a majority. Unfortunately, as near as I can see, neither by itself is a winning strategy. And pursuing both simultaneously is a really difficult proposition, even before accounting for the difficult circumstances of pandemic fall-out and the Ukrainian mess.

Still, we must try.

As Michael Luttig said in his statement to the January 6 committee, “The former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy.” And while this is a sentiment many of us share, it is particularly important coming from a person with such impeccable conservative Republican credentials.

Neverthless, I worry that unless we get all the people who share progressive agendas to turn out—whatever their misgivings—and enough of the people who are rattled by the obviously authoritarian tilt of the Trumplicans, the Trumplicans could take over the country.

Here’s a very modest set of thoughts that could help thread the needle:

Hammer on economic issues. As I argued in the last blog, there are a very large number of Americans concerned about economic issues. I suspect the most salient economic issue, inflation, cannot be easily solved. Nor can the most important—rampant inequality and environmental threats. We need to continue working on real solutions to these. In the meantime, however, we can focus on how corporations are treating the rest of America and continually force Republicans to vote against measures that would provide economic relief and/or reign in the reach of large corporations. The proposals have to be sufficiently modest that they can easily be accommodated within the logic of “mainstream” sentiment. But there is more mainstream sentiment for increased government guardrails than is often assumed.

Focus on Republican unacceptability. The majority of Americans support abortion, gun control, increasing taxes on the 1%, sensible immigration policies, racial justice, toleration of gays and better environment protections. Republicans, in thrall to the minority that controls their party, have positions on these that are odds with the American people. While it is true that the willingness of most people to let these issues override other instincts in voting is suspect, the accumulation of these issues will start to make a difference. Moreover, the palpable ridiculousness of the “Big Lie” will sooner or later start to weigh on those whose attachment to the Trumplicans is more circumstantial than fundamental. (Which is, of course, why Republicans are so anxious to “get beyond it.”) Finally, it’s clear that untrammeled, the Trumplicans are perfectly willing to fundamentally undo the country. The recently-adopted platform of the Texas GOP included an eye-ball popping list of demands to remake the country into something very different from the one we live in today—including a willingness to let Texas “reassert its status as an independent nation.” These are steps much too far for most people. But for that to change votes, the Democratic options can’t seem “scary”.

Manage the rhetoric around wedge issues. We need to remember the majority of Americans also favor limits on abortion, wouldn’t go too far on gun control, worry about too much immigration, don’t want to feel guilty about racial problems, and are wary of too sudden shifts to protect the environment. In short, they are centrists. It is inevitable that some will make statements that are too extreme for the mainstream. And it is equally inevitable that the other side will try to make political hay. (Indeed, I just suggested this is part of what Democrats need to do.) The only thing to do is to acknowledge the reasons for the rhetoric without becoming trapped in it. The dynamic of social change is complicated. Change needs people who push the edges. At the time, most people considered abolitionists, suffragettes, even Martin Luther King too extreme. But Democrats need to be sufficiently disciplined to stick close enough to the center. In truth, Joe Biden has modeled a pretty good approach. People with more progressive agendas may disparage this, but hopefully they can be encouraged to realize that whatever their disagreements with the mainstream, they will be much worse served if the Trumplicans are in charge. And, critically, recognize that their not voting is the key to Trumplican victory.

Uphold Election Integrity. Erecting obstacles to voting and to correctly counting the results is part of the Trumplican plan for minority rule of the country. We need to focus on protecting election integrity in key swing states, a la Stacey Abrams and company. This will not be accomplished by screaming about the outrages, however outrageous they in fact are. What must be done is to organize to win under whatever rules are in place—and then fix the rules. Democrats also need to stop worrying about how progressive are the candidates they elect and focus on electing Democrats in swing states. The American system gives undue weight to wins within States. Sixteen “purer blue” candidates in California aren’t going to make a bit of difference.

None of the above are new or radical. I don’t know if they are enough. But I believe they are plausible approaches to preventing the installation of a government that would get Tucker Carlson’s approval.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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