Democrats Need to Flex

In his first column for Truth and Consequences, Jeremy Rosner argues that only way Democrats can unite the country is by using the political power that voters have given them

This is the inaugural column from Jeremy Rosner, managing partner at the consulting firm GQR and an expert on political polling in the US and globally.

Looming over the start of 2021 is a singular political question: how can our country move forward when tens of millions of people are rejecting the electoral legitimacy of a new president? The Trump mob’s Capitol rampage on January 6 highlights the problem and the stakes.

In late November, in anEconomist/YouGov poll, 85% of Trump voters said President-elect Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. Their zealous denial of reality is not abating. A month later, the December 21 Economist/YouGov poll found that about the same share, 83% of Trump voters, believe there was “a lot” of fraud in the election, despite a complete lack of evidence and scores of court decisions to the contrary. Nearly three-quarters of Trump voters, 73%, now say Trump should not concede. That’s more than 50 million Americans.

All this leaves many rightly worried about the country’s prospects. Only 31% of those surveyed in the December Economist/YouGov poll are optimistic that Americans of differing political views can come together and work out their differences.

It’s possible these numbers will improve after the Democratic Senate victories in Georgia and  Biden’s swearing-in. But the immovability of the Trump base – through scandal, impeachment, Trump’s COVIDiocy, recession, and now armed insurrection – suggests otherwise.

Various writers have suggested ideas about how we might emerge from this pandemic of denial and the toxic tribalism it represents.

Some have suggested breaking the country into like-minded mini-countries or federations, but that is a long-term prospect, if not utterly fanciful.

Others say Biden backers need to listen more carefully to Trump voters, and understand how their resentment of elite condescension and distrust of civic institutions fed their belief in Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud. This is akin to the “Hillbilly Elegy” phase after the 2016 election, when many Democrats tried to understand the frustrations of non-college-educated white voters who cast their lot with Trump. There is no evidence those efforts did anything to cure the fever of division of which Trump has been both symptom and super-spreader.

Still others have called on Biden voters to show empathy to Trump backers, who may simply be stunned by a defeat they did not expect, just as Hillary Clinton’s voters were four years ago.

Most of the near-term prescriptions presume many Trump voters will “come around” if the rest of America talks with them the right way. This is a fool’s errand. As Anne Applebaum and others convincingly argue, Trump’s denial of the election outcome is a deliberate, long-term strategy to fuel the anger of his followers, further his political and financial interests, and feed his personal narcissism.

The healing that is needed with Trump voters is less likely to come from reasoned discourse than from the blunt and persuasive use  of political power. Now that Democrats will control both Congress and the White House, if Biden and his allies use the levers that will soon be in their hands, they can ensure greater recognition of their legitimacy and marginalize the deniers.

A lot of this is about Democrats becoming more comfortable with the exercise of raw political power. A friend correctly notes that Republicans play power politics too often, while Democrats play it too rarely.

Thucydides, the ancient historian of the Peloponnesian war, said in his “Melian Dialogue” that in global politics, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Republicans always seem ready to play the part of the strong, willing to trample on institutional norms when it suits them. Democrats, by contrast, too often act as if they are the weak party, even when they hold winning cards, willing to tie their own hands with custom and good political manners.  

If Democrats want to bring the country back together, they need to exercise political power to do it. With Democrats controlling the Senate, the options for flexing power are now sizable. Democrats can start by changing Senate rules (which only requires a mere majority) to eliminate the body’s legislative filibuster, which has long given conservative and rural interests a veto over progressive nominees and ideas that command majority popular support.

With the filibuster gone, a simple majority of the House and Senate could add the District of Columbia as a state, which not only reliably yield two more Democratic senators, but provide the nearly 700,000 Americans who live in Washington actual voting representation in Congress.

Democrats could also, with a mere congressional majority, expand the number of Supreme Court justices, to balance the court-packing Republicans achieved with their unprecedented blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination during the Obama administration, and rushing through Amy Coney Barrett’s ascendancy to the high court in the Senate’s closing days last year.

Even apart from their new control of the Senate, there is much Democrats can do to exercise power in ways that undermine the reality deniers and unite the country.

Biden could start by only inviting to White House and other executive branch events members of Congress who have publicly recognized his election victory, and only issuing White House visitor passes to those members’ offices. The same would go for answering congressional mail sent to any executive department. If a member of Congress refuses to recognize Biden as their legitimate president, then their letters - asking for follow-up on a constituent’s Social Security check, or suggesting a new road in their district - should go unread.  

There are Democrats who object to this kind of approach. Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) and others have objected to eliminating the filibuster, for example. But their views may change as it becomes clear that the deniers are an immovable obstacle to getting important things done, and that adherence to the filibuster needlessly hands Senator Mitch McConnell a continuing veto over the Democratic agenda. 

Some will object that such power plays only deepen the partisan divide, and perhaps increase the likelihood of a Republican surge in the 2022 congressional midterm elections. Based on historical averages the prospects for Republicans capturing the House in 2022 are real. But better to use power when Democrats have it than to unilaterally disarm in the face of a Republican party that will only further stack the deck as soon as they have the chance.

As a pollster, I at times worry some Democrats have become too focused on trying to change public attitudes using things that can be tested in polls, like message frames, and not enough on things that may have much greater persuasive power, like legislative victories. Consider the Affordable Care Act: polls showed split opinion on it for years, but over time people came to see how the ACA improved their lives, and now a solid majority supports it. If the Democrats’ challenge is to heal America’s post-Trump divisions, I suspect they will get further by flexing their power and bringing material changes, and that attitudes will catch up as the positive results from progressive governance become clear.

This year’s elections underscore that Republicans are a minority party, and their only path to national power at this point is protecting rules and institutions that enable minority rule – from the legislative filibuster, to census manipulation, to voter suppression. Democrats are America’s majority party, having won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. If they use their political muscle to reshape the field of political battle, they can ensure they have the ability to craft enduring laws, rules, and institutions. Those are ultimately stronger fulcrums for persuasion and unification than mere words.