COMMENTARY

Why are Democrats afraid to use their power? American democracy depends on it

Biden and the Democrats face a fast-closing window to salvage democracy. They must act forcefully — and act now

By Chauncey DeVega

Published October 22, 2021 5:45AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee in the Oval Office at the White House on April 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden, Harris and members of the caucus discussed the recent spike in anti-Asian violence, including the shooting deaths of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta last month. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Executive Committee in the Oval Office at the White House on April 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden, Harris and members of the caucus discussed the recent spike in anti-Asian violence, including the shooting deaths of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta last month. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

There is no point in having political power if you don't use it. This is one of the first lessons of realpolitik.

Donald Trump is a political gangster who has learned this lesson well.

Under his command, the Republican Party is a de facto political crime family. They too understand power and how to use it.

Some time ago, Democrats understood this lesson as well. Now they appear to have unlearned it, at least as it applies to resisting the rise of the Republicans' neofascist movement. To be fair, Democratic leaders have maintained a keen understanding of power when it comes to suppressing progressives and others who are not beholden to corporate power.

To watch the Democrats be consistently outmaneuvered and defeated by the Republican-fascist movement is a pitiful thing to see. The Democratic Party's leaders can certainly do better; they choose not to.

Last week, Donald Trump executed a classic gangster move, strong-arming the Republican Party to remain fully loyal to him — even if that might cause them to lose the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Last Wednesday, Trump sent a fundraising email to his followers telling them: "If we don't solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in '22 or '24. It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do."

On Friday, the twice-impeached ex-president continued with his threats. This time he focused on Arizona, where a fake audit by his own followers once again confirmed his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. Entirely ignoring that result, Trump decreed that the Arizona vote should somehow be undone: "Either a new election should immediately take place or the past election should be decertified and the Republican candidate declared a winner …"

The mainstream news media, with its professional centrists, hope peddlers, stenographers and guardians of approved public discourse responded with a common theme: This was supposedly further proof that the Republican Party is in disarray, and even devouring itself. It was widely seen as "bad politics" for Republicans to follow Trump's edicts about the Big Lie, and likely to lead to internal chaos. 

RELATED: Why is Biden failing? His tightly controlled relationship to the media might be worse than Trump's

These conclusions are wildly incorrect. Like other fascist and authoritarian political movements, today's Republican Party is purging itself of dissenters and those others not fully committed to Donald Trump. This is not a sign of disorder or weakness. If anything, it's a sign that the Republicans are becoming even more ideologically cohesive — and their sole ideology is unquestioned loyalty to their leader.

Republican elected officials and others in Trump World clearly understand they must follow Trump's lead. Indeed, they effectively have no choice. Public opinion polls and other evidence has consistently shown that Republican voters and right-wing independents are dedicated to Donald Trump. Indeed, their devotion to Trump is greater than their loyalty to the Republican Party. This includes a large percentage of Republicans — tens of millions of Americans — who are willing to endorse or condone political violence in order to seize and hold power. A majority of Republicans in so-called red states even express willingness to secede from the Union, presumably to create a 21st-century version of the Confederacy.

According to recent polls, 80 percent of Republican voters want Trump to be the party's presidential nominee in 2024. Senate Republicans have noticed. This week they demonstrated their commitment to Trump's war on American democracy by killing the Freedom to Vote Act — a "compromise" bill that Democratic "moderates" believed might attract bipartisan support — before it could even be properly debated.

As a practical matter, this means that Trump and his Republican fascists intend to steal the 2022 midterms, and then the 2024 presidential elections, using the same tactics as they did in 2020 — but more effectively.

In response to this escalating crisis, today's Democratic Party — as has been true for several decades — does not appear to grasp the power and importance of clear and consistent messaging that mobilizes its voters and demobilizes the opposition.


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Democratic leaders and other messengers do not consistently use moral appeals, emotional language and calls to action in order to motivate their base and potential voters.

As documented by legal scholar Ian Haney López and others, the Democrats do not consistently use a narrative frame that effectively combines messaging about both race and class inequality, and how they overlap and reinforce one another. Democrats lack a simple, straightforward narrative — a big story to tell voters about what their party represents.

By comparison, the Republicans have a far more effective propaganda machine. They have branded themselves as "patriots" who love America and are "defending" it against those others — sometimes specifically named and identified, and sometimes not — who are not "real" Americans and are said to hate the country and its so-called traditions.

Because the Republicans and larger fascist movement have a brand that is clearly tied to whiteness, racial resentment, anti-intellectualism, misogyny, patriarchy, guns, Christian nationalism and other meaningful social identities, the specifics of their policies barely matter.  

In fact, Democratic policies across a range of issues, from the economy to health care to defending democracy itself, are far more popular than those offered by the Republicans.

The Democratic Party's messaging failures about President Biden's Build Back Better plan — whose individual elements are remarkably popular, and not exclusively among Democrats or liberals — offer the most recent and glaring example.

Veteran White House correspondent Brian Karem recently offered these insights in his weekly column for Salon, writing that the Biden "honeymoon is indeed over":

Press pundits and analysts are all talking about how badly Biden is doing. This is in large part because he doesn't connect with people — because the White House staff doesn't let him. His communications team strictly limits his appearances, and therefore the administration comes off as arrogant, elitist and controlling. The photo I tweeted and the responses to it show, without a doubt, that a lot of people want to respond to Joe Biden favorably.

A wrangler told me they don't want me near the president. I responded that he always answers my questions when I am — and was told that's exactly why they don't want me there. The staff is afraid of what some of us will ask him, and what his responses will be. One byproduct of this that's invisible from the outside is that by making the press pool and a few others feel special by their proximity and access, the Biden administration has been far more successful in stifling free speech than Trump ever was with his bullying….

In a recent conversation with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, political scientist Brian Klaas discussed the Democrats' messaging failures relative to America's democracy crisis and the global fascist tide, saying he was "encouraged" to hear Rep. Adam Schiff say that Republicans had "basically built an autocratic culture around a single individual":

That was one of the first times that I've seen it stated so clearly by someone so senior. I think the problem is that a traditional strength of American democracy was this idea of the Senate as elder statesmen of the country. They were all friends. That had its problems, but they smoked together across party lines.

And I think a lot of the people who were socialized politically in that world don't realize that the people they extend the olive branch to now have become authoritarian. Holding out an olive branch to someone who disagrees with you about tax policy is fundamentally different than doing so to someone who wants to burn down the system of government and install authoritarianism. I think people just haven't made that shift yet.

This is a different level of battle than every other battle that exists. Because if you lose the battle for democracy, you don't get to have another battle for taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, or any of the policies that change lives. In places I've studied where democracy has died, it's still dead pretty much everywhere. And if it's resurrected it is a kind of cookie cutout of democracy with rigged elections and deeply flawed institutions and so on.

I think the window is closing to fix this. If we don't fix it in the next two to four years, I don't think it's going to get fixed. The problem with that message is that it's not uplifting. One of the corollaries between authoritarian politics debates and climate change is that you're trying to galvanize people to preserve the status quo. You're saying, if you work really, really hard, you can have what you've always had. From a political messaging point of view, that's difficult. You're saying that we'll go back to having the same old political divides we used to have. Our system will be just as broken. And that's the really big rub the Democrats are grappling with.

Perhaps most critical of all, today's Democratic Party is not effectively using its power to protect democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law. Indeed, it appears afraid to do so. There are many examples.

The Democratic leadership, especially President Biden, has not used its full power to compel "centrists" like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to support the popular and necessary legislation in Biden's Build Back Better package or the even more critical voting-rights legislation.

Perhaps the leadership fears that Sinema and Manchin will be pushed farther toward the Republicans. But in reality they are already de facto Republicans who are holding the Biden administration, the Democratic Party and the American people hostage.

Biden and the Democratic leadership can use their power to force through many key initiatives, either by bypassing Congress or by dumping the Senate filibuster.

They could also use their power to ensure that Donald Trump, his confederates and other agents and allies are prosecuted to the full extent of the law for their role in the insurrection and attempted coup on and around Jan. 6.

At the moment, Attorney General Merrick Garland appears to be protecting Trump and his allies from prosecution for their many and obvious crimes against democracy. As president of the United States and chief law enforcement officer, Biden could set the tone and insist on bringing Donald Trump and the other Jan. 6 criminals to justice.

Pro-democracy Americans and other real patriots must use their power while they still have it.

They must publicly pressure Biden and the Democrats to do what is necessary to defend American democracy. They must be willing to engage in massive acts of collective action to protect their democracy and society. There is power and strength in numbers. Democratic voters and other pro-democracy Americans outnumber the Republicans and their neofascist foot soldiers and must use that leverage to maximum advantage.

At every event where Republican fascists and other right-wing operatives gather and attempt to influence public policy — such as at school board meetings — pro-democracy Americans and other real patriots should stage counter-protests and exert as much pressure as possible. There is strength in visibility.

Biden and the Democrats appear to be treating political power as something to be saved and conserved for the future, but in reality their power is finite and time-dependent. If and when the Republicans take control of the House in 2022, and perhaps the presidency in 2024, the power that the Democrats believed they were hoarding will be worthless.

Power not used ultimately becomes power wasted, and this is even more true in a moment of dire crisis. If American democracy is to be saved, the Democrats must embrace their power — and use it.

More Salon coverage of the crisis of democracy — and the flailing Democratic Party:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Authoritarianism Build Back Better Commentary Democracy Democrats Fascism Joe Biden Voting Rights