semi random thoughts on political engagement
This is my last column for 2023. It could have been a 2023 retrospective, but I prefer to look forward. Because 2024’s elections will be the most important in my lifetime.
I know, I know, we say that every time. And for years now, it’s been true every time – the stakes have continued to grow.
What is the right political frame of mind for this time? Should we be thinking positively, as suggested by Simon Rosenberg’s Hopium? Or should we be panicked, given the possibility of democracy’s end?
Perhaps neither, perhaps both.
Let’s start with the threats to democracy.
Buried in most news reports was a ruling by a 3-judge appeals panel. They decided that only the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would have standing to file lawsuits about racial gerrymandering, that is, about violations of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In fact, nearly all such lawsuits are filed by other parties, such as the NAACP or the ACLU. And if Trump wins the election next year, the DOJ will be gutted.
The VRA was one of the two crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement. Before its enactment, we were even farther from the ideal of a real democracy than we are today. And the pro-Trump forces in our society want to take us back there.
And of course, that’s only part of the problems with a right-wing win next year. There are serious plans to fundamentally transform not only the DOJ, but all the other departments and independent commissions in the Federal system. What the right views as the “Deep State” largely consists of serious professionals who keep the system running. Should they be replaced with political appointments, there will be nothing to prevent a complete reversal from the progress we’ve made in the last 60 years. And all of this is part of a project from Trump and his allies called Project 2025.
I could go on, but I think the readers of this column certainly recognize the dangers in the coming year. But what about the “hopium?”
While polls have been concerning, Rosenberg and his TargetSmart friend Tom Bonier have pointed out that local elections in the off-year have consistently shown a preference for Democrats and their issues, particularly on abortion rights. And in the end the only important poll is the one provided by all the voters in actual elections.
I have trouble imagining that a voter who would approve a ballot measure protecting abortion rights, and also electing local sane Democrats (over election deniers) would also vote for Trump. Democratic voters may kvetch about Biden’s age and the price of eggs, argue with one another about the Middle East, or dream about different candidates. But I think that if we are faced with a Biden vs Trump decision, a majority of voters will make the prudent choice to keep our democracy. Given the Electoral College, we particularly need that to happen in Arizona.
But how can we reconcile the dismal prospects with the positive ones? A pass at Russian Roulette has only a 1 in 6 chance of you getting killed, but the outcome would be so bad that (hopefully) you’d choose not to play. Even if the likelihood of a Trump win is only 40%, 40% of a cataclysmic outcome is … pretty cataclysmic.
For this reason, even though I do think the 2024 Presidential election is better for Biden than 50-50, having a Trump win be any more likely than 0% should be frightening to anyone who wants to keep our democracy. But we can and must react. And the way that we can most effectively do that is through local action. Promote and fight for our local progressive candidates – remind less-politically-minded potential voters of the stakes, particularly on abortion rights. The more they are activated, and the more they understand the importance of electing good candidates, the more likely it is that they will preserve the democracy.
That must be our mission for next year. And for now, however you celebrate (or don’t), may this last month of 2023 be good for you all, peaceful and filled with love from friends and family.
Nelson Morgan, (Morgan) an Emeritus Professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former director of the International Computer Science Institute, is the author of “We Can Fix It: How to disrupt the Impact of Big Money on politics”, with a foreword by George Lakoff. He lives in Phoenix, and currently volunteers for both Indivisible and the Democratic Party, with a particular interest in redistricting (2030 is closer than you think)