There was so much to say about Senator Ted Cruz after his bizarre line of questions at the Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson last week. Many, for good reason, focused on how the episode showed that Cruz has transitioned from an "unctuous asshole" to an aggressively deranged demagogue. As Ed Kilgore pointed out in The Intelligencer, during the hearings Cruz outdid himself "with the most disgraceful display of thuggish senatorial behavior I've personally seen in my many years of watching the upper chamber."
Cruz shouted, asked inane questions, seemed to search Twitter for himself, and even went after his fellow senators. It was such a grotesque performance that it was hard not to want to comment on the spectacle. But after we finish being distracted by the confirmation hearing car wreck, Cruz's behavior opens up a door to a far more significant takeaway — one that offers Democrats a strong strategy for midterm victory, if they pay attention.
To fully appreciate the gift Cruz handed his opposition, consider that the same week that Cruz was using his time to question Judge Jackson by ranting about children's books, we also received a pivotal opinion from Federal Judge David Carter. Carter had been asked to rule on whether or not the House committee investigating the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, could obtain emails from Donald Trump's lawyer and political advisor John Eastman. In his opinion, Carter remarked that Trump and Eastman "launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history."
The anti-democratic nature and civics stupidity of the GOP has been gaining momentum.
The evidence has been in plain sight for some time. From Mitch McConnell blocking Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee in 2016 to GOP efforts to suppress votes to a party base that hates Democrats more than they love their country, the anti-democratic nature and civics stupidity of the GOP has been gaining momentum.
Thus far, Democrats have not capitalized on that fact and have instead tended to focus on the GOP's racism, misogyny, xenophobia and extremism. Think of it this way: As debates have raged over the question of critical race theory (CRT) in K-12 education, Democrats have alternately pointed out that the GOP doesn't understand CRT, that it isn't taught in K-12 schools and that those critical of CRT are racist.
All true. But it's the wrong approach.
What Democrats should be doing is saying that it is a national embarrassment that our citizens have such low civics knowledge, with the latest poll from Annenberg Public Policy showing that only 56 percent of U.S. adults can correctly name all three branches of government—made more astonishing by the fact that that number is the highest the poll has recorded since 2006. Even worse, 61 percent of Americans incorrectly said that Facebook "is required to permit all Americans to express themselves freely on Facebook under the First Amendment." We have a country that can't tell the difference between freedom from government censorship and the operating policies of a private business.
"It is a sad commentary on the public's civic literacy that half of the public considers an effort to disrupt the certification of an election an exercise of a First Amendment right."
This lack of knowledge becomes even more acute when Americans are asked about the Capitol riot. Half of those polled confused rioting with a constitutionally protected right to petition the government. According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, "It is a sad commentary on the public's civic literacy that half of the public considers an effort to disrupt the certification of an election an exercise of a First Amendment right."
For years it's been clear that we are terrible at teaching our kids how our democracy works and that we have been reluctant to invest in a robust and effective civics education program, despite efforts to pass legislation to support it. Those kids grow up and vote. Yet, as we can see, they still don't understand even the most basic civics concepts.
The problem isn't just that average citizens don't understand our democracy; it is that our elected officials and their advisors don't either. Or, perhaps worse, they do understand it, but refuse to uphold it.
In this way Cruz, aided and abetted by the release of Eastman's emails, handed Democrats the key strategy they need to win the 2022 midterms: Hammer home, again and again, that Republicans don't understand democracy, won't defend democracy and are woefully in need of a basic civics lesson.
When Cruz chose to barrage Judge Jackson with questions about a children's book called "Antiracist Baby," he offered the public a dress rehearsal for the sorts of arguments we can expect GOP candidates to make in the upcoming election. But Judge Jackson's response also offered a clear counter-platform.
Recall that she consistently prefaced any reply to Cruz, by referring to him as "Senator" as if to remind him of his actual reason for being there. She then went on "I have not reviewed any of those books. They don't come up in my work as a judge, which I'm, respectfully, here to address." In one graceful line Judge Jackson schooled Cruz on how he was not fulfilling his duty as a senator and pointed out that he seemed to be confused about what a Supreme Court justice actually does.
She was graceful and poised as befitted the moment.
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To win in November, though, Democrats need to come after the democratic failures and civics blind spots of the GOP relentlessly. Rather than deal with the GOP painting Democrats as the party of CRT, they need to turn the tables and paint the GOP as the party that doesn't even understand the government they want to lead. Democrats need to portray GOP candidates as entirely unqualified to work in our government and whenever they get the chance they need to grill their opponents on basic facts related to the constitution, the branches of government and the core principles of a democracy.
For too long it has been expected that the GOP will offer media spectacle in the form of a civics dumpster fire.
For too long Democrats have let the GOP set the terms of debate and have let them frame the political narrative, leaving Democrats in the unappealing position of always running political defense. For too long it has been expected that the GOP will offer media spectacle in the form of a civics dumpster fire. Yet, rather than focus on their horrendous failure to earn their paychecks, we have become too accustomed to covering the show.
But what would it look like if, rather than express outrage at the antics of the GOP, we just kept asking them to explain how our democracy works? That plan offers a positive counter-offense and would allow Democrats to set the terms of debate. Even better, rather than offer an endless platform for the GOP circus, the media would be forced to point out that these jokers have no idea what they are doing.
When Senators ask stupid questions like, "What is a woman?" or "Can I be Asian?" imagine what would happen if they were swiftly countered with, "What is a Supreme Court justice?" and "Can you be a senator?"
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