Democracy First

The Greek god Atlas holding up the weight of the Democratic Agenda featuring climate change, child tax credits, economic stimulus, COVID-19 response, immigration reform, and student loans

Here is a disturbing fact: Republicans care more about undermining elections than Democrats care to protect them. A recent poll shows that 71% of Republicans believe that “American democracy is under a major threat,” compared to only 35% of Democrats. And, in a CNN poll, more Republicans than Democrats said that “in the next few years, some elected officials will successfully overturn the results of an election in the United States because their party did not win.” CNN did not ask Republicans whether this would be a positive or a negative outcome.

Despite the growing evidence that Republicans are preparing to subvert the results of future elections, too many Democrats remain focused on other things. While Republicans are united on a forward-looking strategy to attack democracy, Democrats’ attention is scattered across a range of issues.

While Democrats want policy solutions for the economy, climate change, COVID-19, infrastructure, criminal justice reform, abortion and health care, Republican voters want to hear about one issue — undermining free and fair elections in 2022 and 2024. Republican voters can forgive the seven House Republicans with failing grades from the National Rifle Association so long as none voted for the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Republican legislators in 49 states introduced voter suppression legislation. In nearly every state where Republicans control the process, these laws were enacted. In Republican-controlled state legislatures, nothing unites the right like voter suppression.

In contrast, Democrats in blue states largely treat new pro-democracy measures as less urgent than other issues. What else can explain the dismal voting laws in New York or the unnecessarily limited options for voting in Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut? States like Colorado, Oregon and Washington with progressive vote-by-mail laws have largely ignored the opportunity to improve their ballot verification systems and reduce ballot rejection rates.

The New York Times recently summarized the problem this way: “Throughout, there is a stark asymmetry of enthusiasm: Where Mr. Trump’s partisans see the issue of election system control as a matter of life and death, polling suggests Democratic voters broadly do not.”

Democratic officials do highlight one issue they correctly see as life and death — COVID-19. While Democratic state officials hold regular press briefings on COVID-19 and largely ignore democracy, Republicans ignore the pandemic and focus nearly exclusively on undermining democracy. For the public health community, this may seem like the right balance, but as citizens, it is surely not. We need to protect the civic health of our democracy every bit as much as the physical health of its citizens.

At the federal level, President Biden announced an all-of-government approach to promote voting rights. Yet, few Democrats in the states have made similar pronouncements or commitments. We know that there is power in the words of our elected officials. It may seem unnecessary for a government official in a reliably blue state to announce an effort to promote confidence and participation in elections, but it is important to the overall cause. The more frequently Democratic leaders tell voters that this is a vital issue of concern, the more voters will demand Republicans act accordingly.

To be clear, it is not just our elected officials who are failing to prioritize this issue. Democrats in all walks of life are not using their rhetorical opportunities to highlight the need for expanding and protecting democracy. Yes, promoting democracy should be a part of every member of Congress’ town hall, but it should also be raised in every town hall by Democratic voters and progressive interest groups. Every progressive organization should incorporate pro-democracy arguments into their work and every leader of a  progressive movement or organization has an obligation to make promoting democracy part of their job every single day.

Philanthropy has a vital role to play as well. By publicly making democracy a funding priority, philanthropy can signal to all grantees this is an area of importance to the larger progressive community. On a more practical level, progressive philanthropic donors must recognize and close the yawning gap between groups working to protect and expand democracy in America and the growing list of anti-voting, pro-Trump organizations.

Finally, Democrats must demand more of the media. Too much of the media’s coverage of democracy follows the horse-race model of its political coverage. Too often, reporters covering voting rights frame their stories in terms of who is winning or losing rather than who is right and wrong. And while the cable networks fill hours of reruns, and even infomercials, none has a single show dedicated solely to the issue of democracy in America.

While the mainstream and center-left media struggle to present the fight for democracy in nuanced terms, right-wing media is engaged in an all-out attack on our elections — past and future. They openly question whether qualified citizens should even be able to vote and seek an army of voter suppression zealots to infiltrate our election systems for 2022 and 2024. And, they are succeeding in part because there is no comparable progressive media ecosystem.

Considering the imbalance in effort and attention, it is no surprise that the party focused on a multitude of policy ideas is at risk of losing the issue of democracy to the party only focused on operationalizing the Big Lie. Put simply, to save democracy, Democrats must focus on protecting free and fair elections with at least as much intensity as the Republicans who are plotting to undermine them.

Unfortunately, there is not much time left. The imbalance in partisan concern over election subversion did not originate overnight. It is the product of more than a year of relentless lies by Trump and the GOP. It will not be easy and not be fixed overnight. It will take months to even out and years to make positive progress. During that time, new issues will come to the forefront and new crises will emerge. But if we want to preserve and expand free and fair elections, then we must not lose sight of the fact that the fight for democracy is the fight of our time, no matter what.