Thursday, February 03, 2022

The Strongest Argument that Democracy is Not Dying is an Extremely Weak Argument

by Neil H. Buchanan
 
Could it be true that America is not a dead democracy walking after all, and in fact that there is not even a danger of democracy dying at all?  Please let it be true!  Are all of us who are warning about the authoritarian turn in the Republican Party, coupled with its newfound willingness not even to be subtle about trying to make elections meaningless, a bunch of hand-wringing drama queens who have lost perspective?

No, of course not, but in one of those strange alliances that occasionally develop organically between some on the right and some on the left, an online bro discourse has emerged that is attempting to dismiss existential concerns about the fate of our constitutional democracy and the rule of law through mockery and ridicule.  In a recent column, I (accurately) described a right-wing columnist as relying on "adolescent snark," but clearly there is nothing stopping left-wingers from doing the same thing.
 
In this case, sadly, they are doing so not to fight their opposites on the right but to agree with them.  This is dangerous, because it tends to take the air out of any remaining attempts to rally people of good will to engage in last-ditch efforts to save us from spiraling into a sham democracy.

I should be clear that there are plenty of circumstances where mockery and ridicule are wholly appropriate.  The only ways to deal with online trolls (other than ignoring them, which is almost always the better choice) is to mock and ridicule them.  Every word from Donald Trump (the ultimate troll) all but begs for such responses, and if deployed effectively, those rhetorical tools can do more to advance a cause than paragraphs of reasoned analysis ever could.
 
But just as every teenager who discovers that blank verse is a kind of poetry is tempted to just write down words and say, "Hey, I'm a poet!" some people think that simply calling someone else names counts as an argument.

Even when well motivated, moreover, such tactics can be misdirected, because the person being mocked or ridiculed could be right.  To take a very personal example, it turns out that Professor Dorf was ahead of the curve in anticipating the seriousness of COVID-19.  He was scheduled to fly down to Gainesville to co-present our most recent article at my law school in very early March 2020, but a few weeks beforehand, he told me that he was considering not making the trip.  I am embarrassed to say that I resorted to mockery and ridicule, telling him that he was overreacting.
 
My reaction was still friendly in its way, I suppose, and I certainly told him that I respected whatever decision he might ultimately make.  Even so, one of our conversations included a stretch in which he tried to explain what was coming, and I could not stop laughing and saying things like, "Oh, come on.  You know this sounds crazy, right?!"  I have since taken the opportunity to apologize and eat my words, because he was clearly and tragically proved to be correct. 

Not all seemingly outlandish predictions turn out to be true, of course, but just as Professor Dorf's insights in early 2020 were based on real-world facts and clear-eyed analysis, the death-of-democracy story has been staring us in the face for years, but few people have been willing to admit (even to themselves, most likely) that facts and logic point clearly to where this is all heading.

Now that many, many people are finally waking up to this scary reality, and especially now that even moderate Democrats and some apostate conservatives are admitting what we face, the backlash is growing among a contrarian subset of the in-crowd that lives and breathes politics.  The response takes at least two forms.

One response is to echo Republicans' attempts to engage in false equivalence.  A few weeks ago, when President Biden finally and forcefully said that democracy itself is at risk, the response was swift and fierce.  One columnist (whose work does not otherwise paint him as a Republican apologist) was especially exercised about Biden's response to a question about future elections.  Under the absurd headline, "When Biden imitates Trump, he is on a dangerous path," the writer led off his analysis with this:

Democracy depends on respecting the results of elections, even when you don’t like the outcome. That is the chief lesson of 2020.

But now, in a disturbing echo of sore loser Donald Trump, President Biden and other top Democrats are saying that the only way Democrats can lose in 2022 is if Republicans successfully prevent them from voting.

"Well, it all depends," Biden said Wednesday at a White House news conference when asked whether the coming elections would be legitimate. When another reporter followed up to ask whether the president really fears the midterms won’t be free and fair, Biden imagined Republican election officials discarding votes. "I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit," he said defiantly.

Ooh, Biden was "defiant," you say?  (See?  Mockery!)  This is nonsense, because whereas Trump earned his reputation as a sore loser by asserting endlessly without evidence that the election was stolen from him, Biden was not merely "imagin[ing] Republican officials discarding votes" but was instead appropriately reacting to new laws that give Republican officials the power to discard votes.  Two people can report to the police that someone is trying to rob them, but the fact that one of them is lying does not mean that the other one is making things up -- especially if the liar has also been seen casing the other person's house and buying lock-picking tools.
 
The columnist is correct that the Democrats might have lost the midterms and the next presidential election in a legitimate fight, but that only makes it more obvious why Biden's response was correct.  Republicans are not even hiding their desire to make absolutely certain that they will not endure any unpleasant outcomes this Fall.  They would rather gain power by any means necessary.

At best, the Biden-shouldn't-be-saying-what-Trump-says response could be mere concern trolling, where the argument might not be that Biden is wrong but that it looks bad for him to feed public fears, even when there is a genuine danger.  But even viewed from that slightly better angle, this is merely an ex post version of the Trumpian strategy of preemptively accusing his enemies of doing exactly what he is doing (or has every intention of doing), most prominently including his repeated claims that Democrats were planning a coup, that they "never accepted" the 2016 election results, and on and on.   He even calls other people racists -- including black people -- repeatedly.

This, too, is occasionally seen among supposedly liberal pundits as well as conservatives.  Centrist Democrat Dana Milbank, for example, deployed the just like Trump strategy during the Democratic primaries in 2020, accusing Bernie Sanders of being "the Trump of the left."  Again, utter nonsense, because -- and I know that this has become a radical position -- the truth matters.
 
Although I was not a Bernie supporter, I was repeatedly appalled that the power brokers in the Democratic Party and their cheerleaders in the supposedly liberal press were themselves willing to be just like Trump in their own way, red-baiting their opponents and acting as if Sanders's and Elizabeth Warren's left-of-center policy positions were just as dangerous as Trump's attacks on the rule of law itself.  To be clear, those policy positions are not dangerous at all, but even taking seriously the position of the guardians of the status quo like the editorial board of The Washington Post, it is beyond insane to treat legitimate differences over, say, tax policy as equivalent to a lack of respect for the outcomes of elections.
 
So one illegitimate response to Biden's long-overdue warning about the Republicans' attempt to impose a one-party autocracy on America is to say that -- at least for the sake of appearances -- Biden is wrong to have at long last called Republicans out.   I should emphasize that this is not the same as the tendency among pundits to salivate about insider stories in a way that will shift the blame of any losses by Democrats onto things like bad messaging and weak candidates (rather than on the Republicans' assault on elections), but it is complementary to it.
 
There is, however, a perfectly good way to say that things might not be so bad and that we are not yet fully and completely doomed.  Post columnist Paul Waldman, for example, offered the following scenario in a recent column in which he supported Democrats' efforts to bow to reality and respond to gerrymandering with gerrymandering.  Why?  To get rid of gerrymandering!  Waldman offered this "series of events that could end partisan gerrymandering for Congress altogether:
  1. “Democrats have a surprisingly good year at the ballot box, holding on to their House majority thanks to the gerrymandering they’ve managed, while increasing their Senate majority by at least two votes.
  2. “With Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) no longer in control, the Senate passes an exception to the filibuster allowing voting rights legislation to get an up-or-down vote.
  3. “They pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which bans partisan gerrymandering; President Biden signs it.”
Even Waldman admits that this scenario is unlikely in the extreme, but he is nonetheless engaged in the important work of convincing people that all is not yet lost.  If there are paths, however narrow and improbable, to pull the country back from the brink of a de facto dictatorship, we must pursue them.  Similarly, today's entry on Verdict sees former prosecutor Dennis Aftergut arguing that Trump might in fact not be able to wriggle out of his many crimes -- an outcome that would not stop the rest of the Republican Party from continuing their efforts to create a post-democratic future, but which would still be good for the rule of law.

In that sense, then, there are perfectly plausible ways to call out people like me when we say that all hope is already lost.  Again, I have never said that all hope is lost, but my brand of weary pessimism does arguably run the risk of causing people to give up rather than rally to fight to the end.  Being encouraging has its place.

But the snarky bro response is nothing like that.  A recent example comes from the undeniably left-leaning The New Republic (a magazine that has not always been on the left, but I digress).  One of TNR's better writers decided for some reason to mock and ridicule the very idea that we are in an existential crisis.  In "No, Democracy Isn’t About to Die," Timothy Noah begins by trying to dismiss The Atlantic as a bunch of hyper-depressive nervous nellies, opening his piece with this bit of snark: "We’re fast approaching the point where a subscription to The Atlantic is a risk factor for suicide."

In response to important articles by Barton Gelman and others, Noah informs his readers that the cover on the print version of a recent Atlantic issue was "the fourth pitch-black Atlantic cover in two years," and in short order he refers to a different article as "another doom-and-gloomer."  He then points to a pundit on the right who has been similarly ridiculing The Atlantic for its unwavering pessimism.  But what matters, of course, is whether he (or anyone) can make the case that pessimism is uncalled for.

What is Noah's case?  In the main, it boils down to the tritest of all responses: Trump tried and failed, so the system works.  I will leave the response to that argument to The Post's brilliant satirist Alexandra Petri, who just this morning published: "Relax, the coup people weren’t very good at it and won’t try again until 2024."
 
Surely, however, there must be something to this optimistic position beyond a mere assertion that past failures are proof that there can never be a future success.  What is it?  That is, what substantively allows Noah to smirk through sentences like these?
But this fetish for crêpe-hanging, of which The Atlantic is the most notable but hardly the sole practitioner, is overwrought, unhelpful, and all too typical of liberalism. I’m a dedicated liberal myself, but let’s face it.  We get this way from time to time. 
Why be such a jerk?  After running through the Trump-tried-but-failed litany, he then concedes that Trump and the Republicans are still doing bad things.  But here is where he finally has his big reveal, explaining why it will all be fine: Liberals can donate money and vote!

But all these assaults against democracy are a sign of Republican weakness, not Republican strength, and they’re mostly being waged in inhospitable venues: the courts and the ballot box. Rather than wring your hands about democracy’s imminent demise, I advise you to write a check to the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, which raised a record $4.5 million last year and is looking to raise at least $15 million this year. Here’s the web page for donations. While you’re at it, consider donating to the Brennan Center, which does excellent work to fight voter restrictions. Here’s the relevant web page for Brennan.

I’ll wait.

There. Doesn’t that feel better than keening and whingeing? It wouldn’t kill you, either, to go door to door for some Democratic candidates for state legislature, especially if you live in one of the 30 states where Republicans have legislative majorities. That’s way too many.

I imagine that Noah would not forgive me, but I hope readers will be do me the kindness of understanding why I am still unconvinced.  Why do I think we should continue to keen and whinge, even in the face of Noah's brilliant analysis?  He says that voting-rights compromises are available, so "if Democrats don’t accept one, it will be because they have more to gain from campaigning in November against Republican intransigence on this issue."  So Democrats will win by winning.
 
He then asserts that voter suppression efforts do not always work, quoting "[a] 2021 study [that] showed that between 2008 and 2018, voter ID laws had 'no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.'"
 
Other than selectively citing a tendentious, one-off empirical analysis, however, Noah's argument here is just a tarted-up version of his other argument: Voter suppression efforts haven't worked in the past (again, I am dubious, but go with it), so they will not succeed now.  But Republicans' efforts have never been this intense, and they have never occurred in the context of a very partisan court system and a background of growing voter intimidation.  Texas, for example, is already rejecting unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballot requests.  And even as people will be denied the opportunity to vote by mail, those states are making it ever more difficult to register or to vote in person.

As the old financial disclaimer goes: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."
 
And Noah has nothing useful to say (or anything at all) about the problem of Republicans' attacks on the administration of elections.  He contents himself by saying that Trump's popularity is slipping, but as I noted above, this phenomenon is Republican-driven, not Trump-driven.  If Trump were to go away tomorrow, does anyone think that Georgia, Texas, Florida, and all the rest would repeal their new laws?
 
Noah closes by conceding that "[n]one of this argues for complacency."  He admits that Republicans will try again in 2024, but he is absolutely certain that "they won’t win, because we aren’t going to let them. So stop hanging crêpe, liberals, and show you’ve got some fight in you. As ever, democracy’s fate lies in democracy’s hands."  Viewed most generously, then, this exercise in extreme snark could be viewed as merely another version of a don't-give-up-now statement.
 
But there is no reason to be generous.  If this is the strongest argument available -- that democracy will not die because, gosh darn it, the people will not allow that to happen -- then we are in even worse shape than it seemed.  That argument might, in fact, run the opposite risk, lulling people into believing that "all is well."  At the very least, we need to know how we will be able to overcome the new ways in which non-Republicans will be prevented from voting, and how to prevent partisan vote-counting moves by Republicans from bearing fruit.  Saying that we shall overcome is good, but it is not a strategy, and it in no way responds to the content of the doom-and-gloom analysis.
 
Facing these unprecedented changes in voting laws and vote counting, it is not enough to rely on precedent, doing what we tell ourselves to do every election -- organize, donate, vote -- which is fine advice but simply does not cut it in a changed world.  Two things can be true: (1) people should participate in their democracy, but (2) even if they do, it might still end very, very badly.  Mockery and ridicule have their place, but they have to be backed up by evidence and logic.  TNR's sneering piece provides neither.