Americans believe that our democracy is under threat. But are they willing to do the hard work to protect it?
Last Tuesday, The New York Times’ lead story headline was “Most Voters Say U.S. Democracy is Under Threat.” Bad enough… but then came the killer sub-head, “But Few Feel Urgency.”
My heart sank, and not only for the obvious reason. Sure, it is a depressing headline, but it happened that I was well along on a BTRTN essay on the exact same subject. It is an occupational hazard of blogging: you think of a topic for a post, do your research, think you’ve got an interesting angle, write your story, and then – boom! – you find The New York Times has the exact same story idea in their lead, front page, right column.
However, the angle of the Times piece was different from the question I wanted to understand. The Times was focused on the attitudes that had been revealed in a recent proprietary Times/Siena College poll. That is: their primary measure of the “lack of urgency” was the high number of respondents who rated other problems as more urgent: “Seventy-one percent of all voters said democracy was at risk, but just 7% identified that as the most important problem facing the country.”
The article had startling revelations about the voter mindset, most notably the number of people open to voting for candidates who were “election deniers,” (71% of Republicans, 37% of Independents, and a very surprising 12% of Democrats).
There was a particularly striking quote from a man who appeared unconcerned about whether candidates claimed past elections were fraudulent, noting “I’m far more concerned about their stance on policies that actually matter.” (Italics mine). His implication: claims of election fraud don’t “actually matter.”
Terrifying: this fellow failed to grasp that if we no longer have free and fair elections, he won’t have the opportunity to vote on the policies that "actually matter." Indeed, the right to free and fair elections is the bedrock freedom that enables all others. Good luck disagreeing with Donald Trump about his policies after he has declared himself the Kim Jong-un of Pennsylvania Avenue, Imperial Majesty of the United States.
Still, though, the essential measure of voter apathy in the Times piece was about the perilous state of our democracy was attitudinal. I was curious about actual behaviors. I’d rather understand what people do, not what they say. We do indeed face a very real, sizeable, and near-term threat from authoritarian extremists who are determined to negate the will of the voters, and I wanted to understand the most simple and obvious manifestation of political action: how many Americans are working on behalf of candidates who are determined to preserve democracy?
Across the United States, there are crucial elections that are too close to call… races that will decide whether Republicans or Democrats control Congress, State Houses, incredibly important races for Governors and State Attorneys General who will have extraordinary control over future elections, and countless local elections that will determine what textbooks will be used in our schools, whether coaches can lead athletes in prayer, and who can use what bathroom.
Across the nation, authoritarian Trump wanna-bees are claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Republicans are running for office on claims that our voting systems are flawed and rigged. Their objective is crystal clear: to delegitimize future elections, and to put legislation in place that allows state legislatures to overturn the outcome of free and fair elections.
On October 7, The Brookings Institute reported that “well over 300 candidates across a variety of races this fall are perpetuating former President Trump’s assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and that American elections are deeply flawed.”
Laws already exist in Georgia that create the opportunity for the legislature to reach into local precincts and replace election officials. Republican candidates for Attorney General and Governor in Arizona parrot Donald Trump’s view of the 2020 election. If such efforts to overrule the popular vote were in place in 2020 in these two states and, say, Wisconsin, it could have triggered a Constitutional crisis on a scale our country has not witnessed. Had the election been decided by the Supreme Court, it could have led to Donald Trump remaining in office. And we are left to imagine the outpouring of outrage and civil unrest that would have followed such a decision.
It doesn’t take much to figure out what’s behind the decision of 300 candidates to support an utterly baseless, completely unproven and unsupportable claim of a stolen election. Many Republican candidates have simply accepted that cow-towing to Trump’s claims of a stolen election is the cost-of-entry in the modern Republican Party. So, too, is the abdication of any sense of principle or integrity. To be a modern Republican is to outsource one’s beliefs to one of the most prodigious liars in human history.
There is, of course, a second reason Republicans feel the need to sabotage American confidence in our elections. Estimates range about the true size of the Trump “hard core base,” but most polls and pundits put that number in the mid-30% range of the nation. It is a minority. It can win in one of two ways: (1) by moderating views to attract independents -- exceedingly unlikely in a party increasingly dominated by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kari Lake -- or (2) by disenfranchising Democratic voters and figuring out how to negate the votes they do cast.
Republicans aren’t moderating views. They hard at work doing what they can do: strangling access to the vote and creating mechanisms to overrule the vote.
Indeed, the most recent Republican President demanded that one Secretary of State “find 11,780 votes.” He entertained notions of seizing voting machines, mused about declaring martial law, and incited a violent attempted coup of the Federal Government. Republicans remain in lock-step behind this traitor, calling January 6 “legitimate political discourse.”
It is necessary to pause and reflect on the fact that Republicans say that democracy is under attack, too. For wildly different reasons. Polling data varies slightly, but generally confirms that a sickening 70% percent of Republicans have bought into Donald Trump’s psychotic fantasy that he won the election.
Do Americans generally believe that there is a clear and present threat to our democracy? In addition to The New York Times/Sienna College data, a recent CBS/YouGov poll provided additional insight into that question: Yes, most Americans do. Overwhelmingly.
The poll, conducted among 2,085 U.S. adults between August 29 and September 31, 2022, found that 72% of Americans believe that democracy and the rule of law are “somewhat threatened (38%)” or “very threatened (34%).” Asked to rank the major threats to democracy, 86% cited the influence of money in politics, 69% said the potential for political violence, and 67% thought that “people trying to overturn or change elections” constituted a major threat.
Predictably, the reasons behind the perceived threat varied by party and ideology. 79% of Trump voters thought that “people voting or casting ballot illegally” was a major threat, but only 9% of Biden voters shared that view. Not surprisingly, a full 86% of Biden voters felt that “people trying to overturn or change elections” was a major threat, but the number of Trump voters who felt the same way was also quite high at 56%.
And just when you thought we were polarized on every possible issue, here is the topic that you can safely bring up at the cocktail party: 88% of Biden voters and 89% of Trump voters believe that “the influence of money is politics” is a major threat to democracy and the rule of law.
Well, that’s resounding: an overwhelming percentage of Americans believe that democracy and the rule of law are under serious threat in the United States.
Which brings us to the difficult question of the day: Do Americans really care enough about their democracy to do something about it?
Let’s start with one action that is available to every adult U.S. citizen: the right to vote. How many do? In the Presidential election of 2020, only 66% of adult U.S. citizens even bothered to vote. That number, by the way, was the high-water mark for voting in the 21st century.
Traditionally, the mid-terms have lower turn-out than Presidential elections. The organization FairVote notes that Presidential elections in the United States “generally hover at 60% and midterms at 40%.” In fact, there was a surge of voter turn-out in the 2018 mid-terms, reaching 50%.
On October 20, 2022, CNN ran an article entitled “Why Very High Turnout is Likely This Midterm,” citing polls that showing that 66% of Americans believe “voting this midterm is more important than past midterms.”
So there’s good news and bad news: let’s say that mid-term voting in 2022 actually equals the same percentage as the 2020 Presidential election of 66% -- which would be a shocking, unprecedented level for mid-term voter turn-out. Even in this best-case scenario, one out of every three eligible voters in the United States doesn’t show up to vote.
Said another way: 72% (CBS) of Americans think that “democracy is at risk,” but the highest turn-out ever recorded for a Presidential election brought out only 66% of voters.
Voting, of course, is not the only action American adults can take. People can of course support candidates by donating money, advocating in private conversations, or by posting online.
But there is a difference between supporting candidates and actively working for candidates – volunteering for the tough, grimy work of getting a candidate elected.
Political operatives know that in a radically polarized electorate, the single most important thing a candidate can do is “get out the vote.” There is far more leverage in spending time to get the voters in your party to the polls than in trying to convince independents or – crazier still – members of the other party -- to vote for your candidate. Don’t waste time trying to persuade the unpersuadable, and don’t even spend that much time trying to persuade the persuadable. The smart money is figuring out how to get the “already-persuaded” into a car and usher them to the polling place.
Fighting for democracy in 2022 is hand-to-hand combat. Stuffing envelopes. Writing post-cards. Cold-calling voters. Walking door-to-door and asking for votes. This is the hard, gritty, smelly, sometimes very unpleasant work of democracy. In close races, it is what makes the difference.
There is no current data measure the number of people who are currently actively volunteering to help political campaigns during these mid-terms. However, a very good measure of the “order of magnitude” of volunteering can be found in a 2020 study of “political engagement” conducted by the Pew Research Center. In this study, Pew reported on the extent of involvement in six different political activities over the past six months, including contributing money to candidates, attending political rallies or events, or working for campaigns.
Dig into the Pew data, and you find that the number of people who actually work on political campaigns is miniscule. Tiny. Only five percent of those surveyed worked for a political campaign, but the survey was limited to voters – 66% of the population at large – so the real the percentage of American adults who are doing the hard, gritty work of democracy was about 3% in 2020.
It would be lovely to believe that this number has risen dramatically as a result of the “Big Lie,” the cacophony from election deniers, and the January 6 Committee’s work to expose Donald Trump’s overt efforts to end democracy in America.
All we know is this: 72% of Americans believe that our democracy is under threat. And in the most recent Presidential election, only three percent of our population was actually taking the most important action to do something about it.
Not since Churchill defined the impact of the Royal Air Force has it been more true: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Between the findings of The New York Times/Siena College poll, the CBS/Gov poll, and the Pew data, we are forced to accept one of two unsavory conclusions about our citizens:
--Either Americans say that they believe our democracy is under threat, but do not really believe that threat is real, imminent, and could result in America becoming an authoritarian state run by despots…
--Or, they are keenly aware of the reality and imminence of that threat, but can’t be moved to take real action to defend it.
Maybe – we can hope -- there is a third option: that citizens may simply not understand that the most important thing we can be doing now to save our democracy is to get the vote out this November. That citizens have never been fully educated about how they can best defend their democracy. That there is urgent work to be done by all able-bodied citizens.
The most effective way ordinary citizens can protect our democracy is to volunteer to work for a candidate who believes in our democracy, and whose victory will keep the election deniers, the liars, and the authoritarians out of power.
The same Tuesday night that The New York Times appeared to have scooped my story, I attended a fund-raiser for a Congressional candidate. One of the event’s organizers was an amazing woman, a charming veteran of many a political campaign.
I had the opportunity to ask her about her long involvement in political campaigns, and she cheerfully reflected on years of piling into station wagons in caravan formation with like-minded friends, driving to distant states where important races were being decided. She, and her friends, showed up. They were directed to banks of rotary phones. They were assigned addresses to knock on doors, and they drove people to polling places.
She told me that late in those evenings, the days’ work of campaigning finally done, the volunteers would come together over cold sandwiches, potato chips, and – if they were lucky -- a bottle of wine, and they would swap stories about the days’ adventures. They would laugh, joke, and make lasting friendships.
Her overarching memory was not the hardship or sacrifice or exhaustion. It was the thrill of shared purpose, idealism, and it was – in her words -- an enormous amount of fun.
Fighting for democracy was a labor of love.
And now, on this past Tuesday night, she was still at it, as organizer of a very serious, inspirational, and very successful fundraiser.
She is doing the hard work of democracy. For her candidate, her vision of America, and so that the next generation of Americans would have the opportunity to vote for their vision of America.
My generation of Americans, I fear, is a whiny bunch, more talk than action, appropriately labeled “The Me Generation” fifty years ago and ever more the indictment today. We hold our hands over our hearts when they play “The Star Spangled Banner” before the kick-off. We solemnly mourn on Memorial Day. Most of us claim to “love our country.”
But the hard work of defending it in its hour of need?
Working to defend its bedrock right must be the labor of love of every citizen.
In articles like this, it is normative for the author to “minimize the friction” between reading and acting by providing links to zillions of campaign organizations that need help, or simply provide the ActBlue URL to make it easy to donate money. Indeed, the site you are reading right now – Born To Run The Numbers – provides constant updates on the closest races and the ones that are most crucial for preserving Democratic majorities. (And, yes, here is an invaluable link to the most recent such post: http://www.borntorunthenumbers.com/2022/10/btrtn-midterms-snapshot-where-should.html.)
But, in some ways, to conclude by offering a broad list of candidate websites to make it even easier for readers to act is undermine the finding of the article. It’s not that hard to find the work if you really want to do it.
Google John Fetterman. Rafael Warnock. Mark Kelly. Tim Ryan. Catherine Cortez Masto. Maggie Hassan. Mandela Barnes. Val Demings. Google your local school board candidates.
If you really see the threat to our democracy, you’ll see how many candidates, organizations, and causes are eager to sign you up.
We must do the hard, messy work of democracy.
And consider it a labor of love.
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