National Affairs Forum, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It” Highlights
PLUS, Post Election Comments From Forum Speakers
“America confronts a crisis,” said FCDC National Affairs Committee Chair Sandra J. Klassen in her opening remarks at the committee’s September 22 Forum “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
By attempting to prevent the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, the Republican Party “has openly demonstrated that it does not believe in democracy or the core ideals on which this country was founded,” she said, adding that “if we don’t fight and keep fighting, and bring our political allies with us, the forces that want to dismantle democracy will continue to win, state by state, bill by bill, court ruling by court ruling.”
To shed light on the nature of the threat and what can be done to combat it, the Forum brought together Dr. Drew Weston, John P. Flannery II, and David Pepper, each bringing unique perspectives based on their experience and expertise.
Weston, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and author of numerous works, most notably The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, began the conference by challenging the notion that our democracy is intact.
In the wake of January 6, “A lot of people say that we came close but that our democratic institutions held,” he said, but the truth is more dire, “They held momentarily. We put our finger in the dike.”
The lack of a fast and firm response to the attack has compounded the problem, and from that perspective, “the institutions of our democracy did not hold,” he said, because we did not immediately arrest those trying to overthrow the government, and the leaders who incited them.
“We should certainly have never let the people who had breached the Capitol leave the Capitol,” Weston said, adding that you can’t send the message that that’s okay in a democracy. “You have to brand seditionists as seditionists immediately after they commit their acts. You simply can’t let them go back out onto the street. You’re endangering the country.”
While agencies within the government, such as the Department of Justice, might counter that they have been collecting evidence, Weston noted that meanwhile the other side has been collecting followers by spreading their false narrative of a stolen election. Some of those election-deniers are now candidates for elected office in swing states where they could play a decisive role in determining the outcome of future elections, Weston pointed out.
The second speaker, Flannery, a litigator, former federal prosecutor, Hill counsel, and regular guest commentator, agreed with Weston that swift action should have been taken following what was “an undeniable effort to overthrow our government.” At the very least, he noted, “I would have called the principals into the Grand Jury and locked in their story the day afterwards,” adding, “It’s obvious what you would do. This is not complicated.”
Flannery also advised casting a wide net, because what might look like many small disparate crimes is, in fact, a single conspiracy to overthrow the government.
It might make sense to form a strike force consisting of law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels to tie all of these actions together, Flannery suggested. Meanwhile, each jurisdiction should prosecute its strongest cases, such as the Georgia case—where they have Trump on tape attempting to strong-arm the Secretary of State into changing the outcome of that state’s election.
Flannery expressed some optimism regarding recent actions. The FBI retrieving documents from Mar-a-Lago, for example, suggests “that somebody is finally looking at a very serious crime that involves our national security,” he said.
While that’s encouraging, the battle for democracy is “not just about Donald Trump and it’s not just about January 6. It’s deeper. It’s in every state,” said the last speaker, Pepper, an attorney, election and voting rights law teacher, former Ohio Democratic Party chair, and author of Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wakeup Call From Behind the Lines. “If Trump is locked up tomorrow, they are not going to stop attacking democracy through the states,” he said.
The problem, noted Pepper, is that Democrats have focused their money and attention narrowly on swing states in federal election years. By contrast, the far right has been fighting a broader war in all 50 states. The benefits of that strategy are clear: States write the election rules. “They can basically suppress democracy by locking incumbents in no matter what they do,” Pepper stated.
To illustrate the point, Pepper showed how uncompetitive elections had become thanks to extreme gerrymandering. For example, even when 54% of Wisconsin voters chose a Democrat on the ticket, only 36% of the districts went to the Democrats.
That means Republicans in many states face little to no competition in the general election. And when candidates know that the only electoral challenge will come in the primary, that creates “an enormous incentive to be an extremist,” said Pepper. That might create an opportunity for Democrats, however, because those extremist positions are not popular and cannot be defended if attacked the right way, he said.
To turn the tide, Democrats must stop playing defense in a few swing states and go on offense in every state and every election. It’s a long game. “It’s not just about the next cycle,” said Pepper. “We have to scale it up in every way.”
Democrats must also better connect with voters on an emotional level. Republicans go for the gut. “Democrats are great at turning something really close to people’s hearts into something as distant, abstract, acronymized, and academic as we can possibly make it,” said Weston. They take something personal, like “the freedom to decide whether, when, and who to have a kid with,” and they turn that into “body autonomy,” he noted. Instead, a candidate should simply say something like, “My opponent believes that every rapist has the right to choose the mother of his child. I believe that every woman has the right to choose the father of hers.”
Flannery noted that Democrats also often shy away from calling Republican rhetoric out for what it is, such as discriminatory or racist. They let themselves be intimidated. Similarly, he said, many Republicans have towed Trump’s line, because they fear he will go after them the way he went after those Republicans who voted for impeachment.
People fail to understand bully dynamics, agreed Weston. They don’t know when they need to take a firm stand.
Democrats also get bullied into thinking we’re in the minority on many issues that we’re not,” said Pepper. “Book banning is really unpopular. Roe. v. Wade is very popular…. That’s why they gerrymander. That’s why they suppress.”
While the ultimate threat is to our democracy, the focus should be on how Republican policies impact voters’ everyday lives, their schools, their jobs, their roads, Pepper emphasized. Candidates have to show that “It’s not because of someone at the border that our states are failing, it’s because of the right-wing policies coming right out of your statehouse.”
Among the other issues discussed during the Q&A was the importance of passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act. Those proposals “aren’t just about some voting rights, they are, like the battle in the statehouses, about democracy itself,” said Pepper. The Democratic leadership in Congress should have been tougher in pushing for their passage with holdouts like Senator Joe Manchin, saying “you want infrastructure, we need voting rights,” he said. They should also not let the filibuster prevent them from protecting democracy. “They’ve got to be bolder,” he concluded, because “If this window closes, the lack of those voting bills, we will regret for the rest of our lives.”
You can listen to the full Forum presentation on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yb4iqHaNUC0
Post Election Comments
Fortunately, we did not drown in a highly touted red wave. But we now have far more Redcoats and turncoats in every branch of our government, at every level of government, than we ever could have sustained at the founding of our country or any point since. We did nothing to hold accountable the more than 140 members of Congress, who voted against inaugurating the duly elected President of the United States, and as a result, the enemies within our state were emboldened, and their number grew on November 8.
On the other hand, we kept the most dangerous seditionists – those who could have ended our democracy the day after this election – out of office, namely, the election deniers hand-picked by Trump and selected primarily to run for posts such as governor, secretary of state, and attorney general in the key swing states. They were most dangerous because they could and would have refused to send electors for any Democrat to the Electoral College in 2024.
We can only hope that Republican politicians finally decide that cowering before a little man is not in their interest, even if they are morally incapable of recognizing that it was, and remains, the wrong thing to do. We cannot, however, rely on hope, certainly not in the redemption of a morally bankrupt GOP. We need to learn to stop cowering in the corner ourselves or collecting affidavits while the other side collects AR-15s. We dodged a bullet this time, but the other side remains armed, and the high ground is a dangerous place to stand if your only strategy is to scatter and search for cover, if the other side starts firing.
Personally, I would like to thank one person who deserves our profound gratitude. About a year from now, I suspect President Biden’s approval ratings will reflect what historians will someday write about him, that he not only achieved the most consequential legislative agenda of any president in his first two years since at least LBJ over a half century ago, but that he also played an historic role in preserving American democracy at its time of greatest threat since 1861. He showed what a steady hand and a vision for the future looks like. He said out loud what a President of the United States – not a President of one party or another, except to the extent that one still believed in democracy while the other did not – needed to say: that his predecessor, and those who continue to carry Trump’s tarnished orange torch alongside their pocket copies of Mein Kampf, present a clear and present danger. So for that, President Biden, your country owes you a debt of gratitude. You were the right person for the times.
While the federal results were so much better than expected, when we spoke last month, I made the case that states and gerrymandered statehouses are the most important institutions in the attack on democracy.
These state legislatures are the far right’s front line—the instigator of gerrymandered congressional districts, voter suppression and so many of the extremist laws that are turning America upside down. So focusing on these institutions is key in the battle for democracy.
And on this level, Tuesday brought historic gains—in fact, I’d say the best pro-democracy progress in years. So from a state-level democracy standpoint, it was a historic night. But we cannot get complacent. We need to double down for 2023 and 2024 right away.
Let me share some critical lessons learned.
Authentic candidates and strong campaigns matter. Especially at the top of the ticket.
Messaging instincts matter. The candidates who never stopped talking about Dobbs and women’s freedom and abortion access—Gretchen Whitmer, John Fetterman, etc.—had big nights. The Lesson: don’t let the other side or the media or even a poll or two bully you out of a winning frame, where you know you are on the people’s side. Remember: They are the extremists, but don’t want you talking about that. With its horrible ramifications playing out in real time, Dobbs provided a tragic example of that. So, like Whitmer, TALK ABOUT IT. Keep it front and center, and connect it to everyday lives. And don’t stop.
Reaching young voters matters. Partly because of messaging, young voters showed up more than in a typical mid-term, and the decisive margins in their voting may have just saved the day. We must build on that everywhere, every year.
Direct democracy matters. Especially in gerrymandered states, going right to the people, via ballot initiatives on core issues such as freedom, core rights such as abortion access, and pro-democracy reforms remains a promising path, as we saw Tuesday. The extreme legislatures know this, so Democrats must be prepared to fight continued efforts to make direct democracy more difficult.
Organizations and institutional focus really matter. Democrats should scale them up. Once you realize that the battle for democracy starts at the state level, you realize that the work of these groups is core-mission work. We must treat them, expand them and support them accordingly.
Running everywhere matters. Running in every district, every year, means you’re knocking on doors in every district. Communicating to voters in every district. Holding extremism accountable in every district. Giving voters in every district a choice, a local face, and another reason to show up. Studies back all this up. Funded candidates in every district lifts turnout. We must create an infrastructure that values running everywhere. And values the candidates who run everywhere.
Strong, professional state parties matter. The ideal modern party is a highly professional non-profit, whose core mission is winning elections at all levels and supporting public servants in doing great public service once in office (also at all levels).