To say that 2021 was a disappointing year has become such a commonplace observation that it doesn’t really bear repeating. Between the January 6 uprising, the anti-vax drift of the Republican Party, the unending Covid epidemic, and the return of inflation, there has been little in these past few months to cheer about. Joe Biden, who was supposed to be a consensus President who would get the country back to some semblance of normal after the Trump years, has seen his poll numbers and popular support drop precipitously since mid-2021.
Some of these events, like the emergence of the Delta and Omicron Covid variants and supply chain problems, were externally driven and unavoidable. Others, however, were the result of bad choices. Biden was elected as a center-left leader in a deliberate rejection, during the Democratic primaries, of Bernie Sanders-style progressivism. Instead, the new President took on a transformative social agenda of a scale comparable to the New Deal or Great Society. But FDR and Lyndon Johnson launched their programs with powerful mandates and Democratic supermajorities in Congress. Biden, by contrast, has the narrowest of margins, with a 50-50 Senate and an eight-seat majority in the House. It is perhaps impressive, as David Frum has suggested, that he nonetheless succeeded in passing the Covid relief and infrastructure bills. But there is scant evidence that the Democrats’ progressive agenda is popular: the state and local elections in November 2021 that brought conservative Democrat Eric Adams and Republican Glenn Youngkin to power saw voters reject progressive candidates and initiatives almost everywhere, including in left-leaning cities like Seattle.
So what will 2022 look like? It could turn out to be the promising year that we expected 2021 to be. Omicron may be, as Yascha Mounk has suggested, the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with subsequent variants becoming more contagious but significantly less deadly. Today’s apparently uncontrolled spread of Omicron may actually get us to something like herd immunity, where Covid eventually evolves into a seasonal flu. Supply chain disruptions appear on their way to being worked out, and global demand continues to be strong. The Fed could get lucky and manage to moderate inflation while not triggering a recession.
A return to a normality of this sort may not, unfortunately, be enough to prevent the return of a MAGA-fied Republican Party in the 2022 midterms, nor will it end the polarization that is America’s greatest source of geopolitical weakness. Donald Trump remains relentlessly fixated on re-litigating the November 2020 election, and the rest of the Republican Party, accepting his premise that it was stolen, has reframed itself around policies that would allow them to prevail should a similar contest occur in the future. They are doing this by passing state-level laws that will restrict voter access, changing the rules on election certification, and by putting their own loyalists in key positions in state-level electoral administration. Poll data suggest that no amount of new evidence coming out of the January 6 House commission will change people’s minds on this.
This poses a great challenge for the Democrats. The Republican Party has turned itself into a clear and present danger to American democracy. In the larger scale of things, protecting the electoral process against future manipulation should be the Democrats’ highest priority, higher than Build Back Better or any other part of their social agenda. They ought to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and revise the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to clarify how future electoral slates will be decided.
The problem is that what appears to a political scientist to be a clear threat to democracy does not appear that way to average voters, who remain focused on the issues that affect their daily lives—Covid restrictions, shortages, rising gas prices and inflation more generally, and crime. The Democrats are unlikely to win elections centered on a program of preventing future election fraud. So while we may be, as Bob Kagan has suggested, already in the midst of the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War, everyone continues to act (and vote) as if it’s politics as usual. And in that respect, the Democrats have a lot of work to do.
Down-ballot Republicans did a lot better than Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The Democrats have to recognize that what is driving a lot of people outside the MAGA core to vote Republican today is not the intrinsic appeal of Republican ideas, and certainly not a desire to manipulate future elections. It is, rather, dislike of important aspects of the Democrats’ own agenda, and in particular its progressive cultural components. “Defund the Police” has to be the stupidest slogan ever devised by an advocacy group, either as a statement of policy or as a means of attracting voters. Walgreens and CVS have closed dozens of stores in San Francisco because the police effectively stopped enforcing shoplifting laws. This has of course hurt precisely the minority communities that “defund the police” was supposed to protect. The surge of crime in the city has recently led London Breed, the city’s deep-blue mayor, to announce a crime crackdown while stating that she was “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
Republicans have succeeded in generating a moral panic over “critical race theory,” but underneath their contrived complaints is a core problem: many progressives have explicitly abandoned the liberal ideal of a color-blind society where advancement is based upon individual merit, in favor of a system that distributes preferences according to identity categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Their demand for social justice trumps other liberal values like freedom of speech or due process. This conflict played itself out over the past two years in Loudon County, Virginia—the next county over from the one I lived in for twenty years. As detailed by Matt Taibbi, this culture war was far more complicated than the “Fox viewers defending white privilege” spin it was given in much of the mainstream press, and played a big role in Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in last November’s gubernatorial race.
2022 will therefore be a perilous year. Not just policies, but American democracy itself is at stake. In order to protect American democracy, however, the Democrats have to prevent a MAGA-fied Republican Party from returning to power. They can only do that by winning elections, and they can win elections only if they reclaim the true center of American politics. They have to remember that control of Congress and the presidency will not be determined by New York and San Francisco, but by swing states where voters have not been inspired, to this point, by the Biden presidency. At the same time that they play the politics-as-usual game, they have to keep in mind that American democracy itself is at stake this time. It is not too late to turn things around, but time is getting short for the adjustment to happen.
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