the body politic

The Only Strategy Left for Democrats

After this week, the mandate is clear: Make people’s lives better. And stop trying to placate Republicans.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, as Trump supporters mobbed the Capitol building, breaking windows, looting the chamber, vandalizing lawmakers’ offices, and leaving members of Congress and Capitol staffers huddling behind barricades, the news alert came pinging in: Jon Ossoff’s Senate race had been called.

It was a distant, disconcerting reminder that millions had woken up Wednesday feeling unexpected joy. It’s not that the violent chaos on Wednesday was, or should have been, a shock: Reports of the planned unrest had been circulating for weeks, the threat of right-wing resentments for decades.

But still, the violence muted some of the poetry of Tuesday’s victories: that Raphael Warnock, pastor of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where John Lewis worshipped, and Jon Ossoff, who worked as an intern for Lewis, had both won historic victories not six months after Lewis’s death; that a Black man and a Jew won in Georgia 57 years after James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi while trying to register Black voters; that Stacey Abrams — who was robbed of a gubernatorial win in 2018 by alleged voter suppression and had resisted calls to run for the Senate herself to instead work against voter suppression — had a role in her state flipping both the White House and the Senate. That the efforts of all of these generations of people to fight for full enfranchisement will create conditions that make passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act possible.

But while the violence of right-wing rioters pushed some acknowledgment of these historic resonances aside — and muted recognition of the activists and organizers, led by Black and brown women, who’ve been building Georgia’s progressive infrastructure for years and made these Georgia wins real — it also underscored what Tuesday’s victories had already made urgently clear. Democrats have been presented a mandate to govern aggressively on behalf of the people and the nation, and in the face of a violently unspooling and destructive right-wing party. Democrats have won the White House, and the Senate. They have been actively called upon by voters — the majority of voters, the majority of electors, the majority — to offer this country vigorous and far-reaching protections, support, and stability.

Because guess who’s in terrifying disarray: Republicans.

This violence is chilling, unhinged, and completely predictable. Predicted, in fact, by lots of people who have been watching the trajectory of right-wing politics, and who in turn have been called hysterical by those on the right and the left for pointing to its escalating violence. Because it was violent long before Tuesday: In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump recalled the “good old days” when protesters would be beaten for interrupting a rally; as he incited chants of “Lock her up,” the crowd at the Republican convention that nominated him pulsed like an punitive jury at a witch trial. In 2017, Trump called armed white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville “very fine people,” and during a 2020 presidential debate, told members of those groups to “stand back and stand by.” Last year, armed insurrectionists took over the Michigan statehouse and allegedly planned to kidnap and murder the state’s governor Gretchen Whitmer.

On Tuesday, the day of the runoff in Georgia, Utah senator Mitt Romney was yelled at in the airport and called a traitor by travelers on his plane to Washington. In the weeks since the presidential election was decided, extremists have threatened the family of Georgia’s Republican secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Last month, Republicans held a rally where the crowd was urged to harass Georgia governor Brian Kemp — the former secretary of State who oversaw the 2018 gubernatorial election in which he ran and won a contested victory over Abrams, but who had not been able to prevent his state for voting for Biden and had not denounced the result as illegitimate afterward. “Lock him up!” the crowd shouted at Kemp, not just a Republican stalwart, but perhaps the party’s most successful contemporary exemplar of having overcome the forces of popular democracy. They are calling to lock up that guy.

This has long been the dangerous death rattle of a power system that would rather rip the nation apart — would rather violently storm its Capitol, villainize, and destroy its very operatives — than distribute its power more equitably.

It is also the starkest possible evidence that Democrats must steer straight toward the kinds of mechanisms that are this calamity’s direct and robust inverse: toward strengthening and empowering a populace, toward a governance that prioritizes dignity and care and safety and security for everyone, not just the already powerful. That means money, and a speedy, determined reknitting of a social safety net that has been maliciously unraveled over decades.

Which necessarily means governing like you are trying to save not just your own jobs but your nation and its people: from a coup, from a contagion, from the daily perils that have engulfed them for too long and from which our government has done too little to protect them.

Part of why so little has been offered to those who have needed it is that the Democratic Party, which is purportedly (if sometimes implausibly) supposed to represent the vulnerable, has approached politics and power with fear, not assuredness or moral authority.

For decades, practically since the very civil-rights (and women’s, and gay-rights) movements that provoked the hard-right backlash contractions that found their apotheosis over these past four years, Democrats have governed from a crouch. They have run nervously from the barest suggestion that they might indeed want to create a durable, inclusive republic in which government takes an active role in supporting and making life better for the governed.

And in their sops to bipartisan comity, and after all their defensive concessions to the opposition — Republicans who have made only the most lackadaisical efforts to dress up their work for corporate interests in “real American” white patriarchal identity politics — Democrats have gained almost nothing. A historic yet unbearably incomplete and fragile reform of health care — and for it, the erosion of labor and civil rights; environmental and reproductive-health-care protections; the privileging of the market above all else, and with it the widening chasm of economic inequality.

Good-bye to all that, buttercups. Placation of the opposition is morally suspect, but also, it doesn’t work.

This should have been clear before this week, such as when Obama offered up a middle-of-the-road Supreme Court nominee and nonetheless got robbed of his constitutionally afforded right to appoint a justice.

But if it wasn’t evident before, after this week it should be: You cannot appease an opposition that is eating even its own. A Wednesday poll found that 45 percent of Republicans approved of the storming of the Capitol building; it’s the Republican Party’s job to figure out whether or how to cede to or appease them; it’s not Democrats’ responsibility to, in turn, cede to Republicans. So stop trying, stop dreaming of it, stop talking about it.

Start building something that is not reactive and defensive but forward-looking and strong: your own vision for what this country could be, for what you describe it as being in your political oratory. Because the opportunity here isn’t to persuade conservatives to like you through conciliatory language and milquetoast gestures, rather to enact the kinds of policies that would, in fact, make everyone’s lives, including Republicans’, better.

Yes, that means rebuilding voter protections. Also health care, a higher minimum wage, canceling student debt and lowering college costs, funding care work. Democrats are going to need to get those $2,000 checks out, now, and then again and again. Get the states the aid they need. Invest in federal programs that permit culture, the arts, and science to rebound not only from the current crisis but from years of government starvation. Govern like a party that takes pride in supporting its people.

Do not run from the right-wing charge that you are giving people free stuff in order to gain their votes: actually, just give them stuff. People need stuff. They need it now; they needed it yesterday; they needed it ten years ago. It is not nefarious to make people’s lives better in the hope that they will keep you in power so that you can continue to make their lives better: that’s actually a healthy view of how a government and its people might ideally operate. This country’s (long hollow) founding promise was representation, so represent the people in a manner that supports them and offers them dignity and stability, without ceding to the cruel self-dealing framework of the contemporary Republican Party.

And if you cannot wiggle into the headspace of understanding this as a moral and patriotic imperative, take a look at the dynamics the opposition party put on full display in Georgia and at the Capitol, and consider it a wily strategic opportunity.

Democrats have got to drive away from that mess. Way far away, in another direction, toward the promises their base is desperate for them to live up to. Govern like you won, winners. You won. And you won with candidates — in Warnock and Ossoff and also Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar and Katie Porter and Rashida Tlaib — who did not back down, did not cower from the often racist, sexist rhetoric of scary radicalism deployed against them as they ran.

This is the only path forward, because Democrats, you’re going to be painted as socialists no matter what you do. Joe Biden — Republican-friendly to his very core — was called a socialist by this right-wing party and its media. But if you’re gonna be handed the bill, the least you can do is enjoy the meal: Govern with appetite and energy and like you want to save the world.

The ice caps are melting, the plague is raging, the rioters have broken into the chambers, and the number of opportunities we have to save the planet and the union are dwindling, so go big or go home. Be the socialist you may or may not want to see in the world, but that you’re gonna get tagged as being anyway.

Boldness has not been the hallmark of yesterday’s Democratic Party, but it might be the only way to win tomorrow, and the truth is that even if you lose tomorrow — which you might, no matter what — you have in front of you a real opportunity to make the world better overnight.

The Only Strategy Left for Democrats