Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Blaming the Victims of Rigged Elections in 2022 and 2024

by Neil H. Buchanan

Will Democrats pass major bills at the federal level to protect voting rights?  The answer to that question depends ultimately on the one or two Senate Democrats who continue to insist that the filibuster in its current form is sacrosanct (even though it has been changed throughout the country's history) and that there is a way to get ten Republicans to vote for something to stop Republicans from disenfranchising Democratic voters.  Right.

As I wrote two months ago, even the enactment of H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 (the latter of which, named for former Rep. John Lewis, would undo most of the damage from Shelby County v. Holder) might well be insufficient to save democracy in the United States.  Still, that there is even a sliver of hope that the these bills might yet be passed by suspending or altering the filibuster rules, it is good news (of a minimal sort) that the Senate Budget Committee today held a "markup" session for H.R. 1.  If a good outcome is going to happen, this is a necessary step, no matter how challenging the remaining steps might be.
 
If anything, however, the likelihood of success is lower than it has ever been.  Consider what has happened since Georgia passed its shockingly cynical law to guarantee that Democrats lose all future elections in that state.  There were many condemnations followed by high-profile businesses taking principled stands, but the Georgia Republicans simply ignored it all (other than blaming everything on "wokeness").  That reaction, moreover, seems to have spent all of the opposition's energy.  Only a few weeks later, when Florida's Republicans outdid their frenemies in Georgia, there was no serious talk of boycotts of my state by sports leagues, conventions, or anything else.

In other words, Republicans understand the power of power.  They know that they can weather a few very bad headlines, assume that the storm will pass, and then get back to consolidating their anti-democratic gains.  If there is the possibility of passing federal legislation to undo some of the worst state-level Republican moves, it will have to be accompanied by massive public support for the Democrats to act.  Unfortunately, it appears highly unlikely that anything remotely like that will materialize.  Voting rights are now old news.

What will happen if Republicans' voting restrictions and other changes to election procedures are kept in place?  The short answer, about which I have been warning from any number of angles for the past several years, is that constitutional democracy will be effectively over in the United States.  Today, however, I want to think about how the political conversation will go in 2022 and 2024 as this inevitably plays out.  How will the pundits and politicians describe the Republicans' takeover when it happens?

I generally try to avoid sports analogies, because they are non-universal and are generally unnecessary.  Here, however, I want to make an analogy not to a particular sport ("Party X's strategy is like a double-steal," or "Politician Y needs to deploy a bump-and-run") but to the way that sports events are covered in the press.  Because so much political coverage mirrors the style of sports-talk blather -- the political press itself even talks about how much of what they do is "horse-race coverage" -- it is unsurprising that there would be similarities between the two categories of journalism.

Specifically, I am thinking about the ubiquitous situation in which an "analyst" is asked to explain why Team A defeated Team B.  While we expect empty talk from the athletes and the coaches -- "Bull Durham" continues to be the gold standard in perfectly capturing the art of sports cliches -- the ex-jocks and ex-coaches (and some actual sportswriters) who populate the booths and the studio shows are supposed to go beyond a running back saying, "We just gave it 110 percent, and praise God, we won."

As anyone who has listened to even a tiny bit of such pseudo-analyses knows, however, the supposedly knowledgeable and objective sports experts frequently spout equally empty nonsense.  Yes, there are some truly insightful thinkers sprinkled into the mix (the late Todd Christensen being an underappreciated master, and Ron Jaworski and a few others stand out from the rest).  Even so, the general run of the conversation is limited to cliches, context-free observations about one or another Big Play, or grandiose assessments of destiny.

The worst of such of commentary will quickly reach the conclusion that "Team A wanted it more," or "They were due."  But even when there is something more than non-falsifiable babble, it can often focus on something like "better preparation" or "a swarming defense."  Frequently, the difference between winning and losing in basketball is as simple as making or missing a free throw or two.  But rather than saying, "Team B blew two key free throws with 3.7 seconds remaining," we will hear about how Team A was clearly going to win the game, because ... just because.

And if Team B had made those shots and won the game, the same commentary would be used almost verbatim to explain that completely different outcome.
 
I am not saying that it is not interesting to ask why a game was tightly contested -- especially if one team was heavily favored, or they frittered away a lead, or for other reasons -- which means that there is good reason (in addition to filling airtime) to say more than, "Team A won because they scored more points."  Still, it becomes far too easy to miss the most obvious explanation for an outcome by being too cute and overstating the importance of ancillary or meaningless factors.

In that light, here is my prediction about the political coverage in November 2022 and November 2024, after Republicans win in a way that will devastate the possibility of elections ever being free and fair in the future: The commentators will quickly converge on an explanation that involves blaming Democrats for "messaging problems" and failing to understand what voters want.

We saw this in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 elections, with some right-leaning Democrats and many pundits saying that Republicans won House and certain Senate seats because of public rejection of the idea of "defunding the police," or more generally because the Democrats talked like Democrats and not like Republicans.  When the Democrats lost two House seats in Florida in 2020, the pile-on was all about how Democrats "don't know how to talk to Latino voters."

But of course, Democrats lost seats in the House because they had picked up some very marginal seats in 2018, and they were going to revert to the mean in 2020, especially because it was a general election and not a mid-term.  And this is all in the context of Republicans having gerrymandered so aggressively that even being left with a 6-vote margin is little short of a miracle for Democrats.
 
Big Democratic gains in the Senate, which some polling deemed possible in October, were always more of a mirage than an achievable reality.  Was Mitch McConnell really going to lose his reelection in Kentucky?  Was South Carolina actually going to vote in a Black Democrat over Lindsey Graham?  Was Montana going to elect a second Democrat to the Senate?  I hoped as much as anyone that we would all be pleasantly surprised, but then reality came crashing down.

The same thing happens every two years when we are all again convinced that Texas is in play, even though it never is.  And because Texas's Republicans are upping the ante in the voter suppression game, it is even less plausible to imagine Texas's Democrats ever again winning statewide office -- and certainly not making gains in that state's aggressively gerrymandered U.S. House and state legislative seats.

In 2022 and 2024, the real story will be: "This was all baked in during the 2021 orgy of post-Trumpian 'voter security' laws."  Nonetheless, I will be stunned if the dominant stories are not based on the claims that: (1) the Democrats "have a wokeness problem," (2) the economy was too weak (or the Democrats underplayed its strength), (3) Democrats did not sufficiently rebuke BLM/antifa/defund people, (4) the Republicans' "ground game" was better, (5) Republicans fielded stronger candidates, or any of a list of other well-worn explanations that explain nothing.

Pundits have reliably short memories, and in any event they hate to be accused of discussing something that is so five minutes ago.  Anyone who tries to remind them that these are no longer free and fair elections will be met with eye rolls, some condescending but dismissive agreements, and suggestions that Democrats are sore losers.

And all of that is also why I also predict that the pre-election conversation will quickly move past any discussions of systemic election rigging by Republicans.  The press not only wants to avoid being seen to agree with one party's claim -- no matter how accurate -- that the elections are being rigged in advance, but they want to have A New Story.  "As anyone could have predicted, the Republicans' efforts more than a year and a half ago bore fruit today" is not a new story.  "Exit polls show that Democrats did not appeal to the voters" sounds like a new story, even though it conveniently leaves out who those voters are (and are not) and why only those voters were allowed into the voting booths.

I suppose that it is possible that the Democrats could mobilize a large registration effort that overcomes all of the new hurdles being put in place.  They might also find a strategy to turn out enough voters to win (including finding loopholes that will allow the voters to receive food and water while they stand in long lines).  Even then, however, the new laws in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere also empower Republicans to manipulate results after the fact and refuse to certify unpleasant outcomes.

And if all of that happens, yet another sports cliche will come to the fore.  Just as a team that was robbed by bad officiating is told that "they would have won the game if they had not allowed the other side to be in a position to win with some bad calls," Democrats will be deemed to have lost because they did not somehow figure out how to win by enough to win.
 
"It shouldn't matter that your team bus was sabotaged on the way to the game, that your team mysteriously came down with food poisoning, that the timekeeper was the opposing coach's daughter, or that the refs called phantom fouls.  Winners figure out how to win."  Prepare to learn in 2022 and 2024 that Democrats did not "do what it takes" or "have enough desire" to win.

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