Democrats Should Campaign as the ‘Party of Effective Government—and Democracy’

·10 min read
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

In his first address to Congress back in April 2021, President Joe Biden declared, “We have to prove democracy still works—that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.” Recent successes, from gun control to alleviating student debt to the passage of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, give the Democrats a record of delivering—and a promise for what more can be done.

Democrats’ recent accomplishments—with few, if any, Republican votes—also include passing bills investing in semiconductor and other domestic manufacturing industries, scientific and space research, and care for veterans exposed to toxins during service.

And they are popular.

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The Inflation Reduction Act, for example, is supported not just by nearly all Democratic voters, but a majority of independents and even Republicans, according to a Data for Progress poll. The law will combat climate change, expand access to health care and medications, raise revenue from corporations, and seek to limit inflation. Democratic leaders and pollsters feel that this major legislative achievement, alongside other developments including voter concerns such as protecting access to abortion, have raised the chances that the party could hold onto control of Congress in the November election.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>President Joe Biden signs into law H.R. 5376, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in the State Dining Room of the White House on Aug. 16, 2022.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty</div>

President Joe Biden signs into law H.R. 5376, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in the State Dining Room of the White House on Aug. 16, 2022.

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty

Until recently, the upcoming election looked like a looming catastrophe for the party, due to the tenacity and economic effects of the pandemic, pessimism stoked around high inflation, the initial response to our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the continuing impacts of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. There’s also been some Democratic (some might say Sinemanchian) fumbling of the narrative. Yet President Biden’s skillful persistence and Democrats’ ability to pull together, despite a zero margin in the Senate, have now given them another bite at the apple of rebuilding trust in effective democratic governance.

In fact, the current moment may give Democrats two new bites: momentum and a message heading into the midterms, and a renewed opportunity to build the long-term campaign needed to promote the idea that government can be and do good.

The notion that government is a tool for good, and that its collective power can and should be used to make life better for everyday Americans, has long been a key part of the Democratic brand.

Franklin Roosevelt called government the “greatest single instrument of cooperative self-help” and “an indispensable instrument” in the daily lives of our people since the earliest days of the republic. “FDR... understood that digging America out of the Depression was less a matter of getting every New Deal policy exactly right than of projecting confidence in the overall endeavor, impressing upon the public that the government had a handle on the situation,” President Barack Obama explained nearly a century later. “Just as he’d known that in a crisis people needed a story that made sense of their hardships and spoke to their emotions—a morality tale with clear good guys and bad guys and a plot they could easily follow,” the 44th president added.

Moreover, belief that government should act for the good, although now under attack by the far right and Trump’s GOP, has, at times, been embraced by Republicans as well.

“I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable,” stated Republican President Teddy Roosevelt more than a century ago during familiar battles against wealth and power grabs by a Gilded Age elite exploiting tensions in an increasingly diverse nation.

Indeed, notwithstanding the barrage of Republican talking points constantly demonizing government, a majority of all Americans say they want government to play a major role to solve our country’s biggest problems.

And while the parties have often disagreed over the scope and aims of government, Americans by and large once had faith in a common set of political aspirations even across party lines: majority rule, minority rights, equal opportunity, belief in the truth, and free and fair elections with full acceptance of their results. In other words, they shared a commitment to democratic governance.

Yet despite this common national heritage, the Republican Party is currently so extreme that not only is it incapable of advocating for a vision of what government should do (the GOP didn’t even adopt a platform in 2020), it has abandoned a commitment to American democracy itself. Indeed, elected Republicans now pose the clearest and most present danger to democracy in our lifetime.

Thus, preserving, let alone reinvigorating, our nation’s liberal democracy now entirely hinges on the Democrats’ ability to eke out a governing majority in the approaching election. That, in turn, requires delivering on—and touting—effective government action that improves people’s lives, just as President Biden said.

More than ever, bold government action and the fate of democratic governance itself now depend on one another.

The first bite at the apple, then, is that heading into November, Democrats can campaign with a message of what they have done in the face of Republican obstruction, and, even more important, what they will do if Americans keep them in power or expand their thin majorities. This includes reforming the filibuster, ensuring the economy works for all Americans, protecting access to abortion nationwide, passing stronger gun safety measures, safeguarding the rights of LGBTQ Americans, strengthening protections for workers and racial minorities, expanding child credit and family assistance programs, securing voting rights and America’s elections, and continue combating climate change.

“Give us two more seats in the Senate and a stronger margin in the House,” the Democrats can pledge, “and then hold us accountable if we do not pass what we’ve promised.”

Selling the Democratic brand this way has not always been straightforward because while majorities of Americans agree with Democratic policy goals significant groups of voters, often for cultural reasons, lack trust in the party. Campaigning on recent accomplishments (particularly in contrast to Republicans’ dangerous enabling of Trumpian nihilism and sedition) could go far toward showing Americans that the Democratic Party truly is focused on making government work for them, and has begun to deliver on that promise.

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But thinking beyond the next election, and even beyond the party, is just as important, as this is a moment where not just progressive policies but the basic architecture of liberal democracy— rule by the people through free and fair elections—is on the line. The second bite at the apple, then, is to convince more Americans, of any or no party, that for now and the foreseeable future, Democrats are the only ones who will try to salvage democratic governance from the jaws of rising domestic authoritarianism and oligarchic greed.

Conservatives have long done a better job than liberals of creating the multi-decade infrastructure needed to persuade Americans in elections. It’s crucial to realize that this didn’t happen organically. Starting in the 1970s, the right, long aligned with business interests, began creating think tanks, litigation shops, communications campaigns, student groups, and even media networks with the specific goal of figuring out how to get voters to back what was otherwise an unpopular agenda that put the narrow interests of business elites and—eventually—the religious right above those of the broad American populace.

In 1971, for instance, the Chamber of Commerce enlisted future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell to pen a memo calling for corporate interests to launch a massive publicity campaign designed to demonize government as an instrument of collective good, and to spend “an indefinite period of years” venerating the free market, crippling labor unions, and vilifying liberals and collective action meant to serve the common good. Powell’s memo urged not only the filling of courts with corporate-friendly judges, but an effort to marshal “the wisdom, ingenuity and resources of American business… against” liberal foes. You could say this was an early version of “owning the libs.”

In electing Trump and ruthlessly seizing control of the Supreme Court—which has dutifully gone about decimating individual freedoms like abortion and protections for labor unions, and is poised to continue eroding the requisites of a free government like fair elections and campaign finance limits—this decades-long, ongoing effort is showering its patrons with dividends, and trampling the elements of democracy the rest of us depend on to truly be free.

From the Powell memo to the Federalist Society to the formation of Fox News as a forum for Republican talking points, conservatives have patiently invested in creating an intellectual and political engine for right-wing power—embodied by anti-government thinking, a deceptive mythology about self-reliance, and increasingly, a cultish authoritarianism. Trump has ridden their power and wealth grabs to the brink of calamity—what history warns is the consequence of massive inequality and collapsing faith in institutions and government.

Progressives and all who believe in effective government as a tool for liberal democracy need their own—democratic and reality-based—persuasion and mobilization campaign.

The LGBTQ movement, in which we both occupied differing leadership positions, offers a model. After a period of fervent activism that saw real gains but limited organization and resources, a critical mass of the movement coalesced around several major goals with campaign approaches that allowed us to share a clear and compelling story with the American people as a key prong in the strategy for transformation.

With focused funding from both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ donors, increasingly sophisticated organizations and methods were deployed to learn what works and what doesn’t work in gaining support from those who were moveable but not yet on our side. The Palm Center—where one of us (Nathaniel) spent two decades as a researcher—conducted and publicized scholarship showing that military service by openly LGBTQ Americans strengthened, instead of undermined, national security. These efforts helped build both intellectual grounding and public support for repealing anti-LGBTQ service bans once Democrats held power.

Freedom to Marry, which Evan founded and led beginning in 2001, became a nerve center for strategy, opinion research, and communications tactics that would tell Americans the stories of same-sex couples wanting to spend their lives together, advancing both public support and good law, state-by-state and federally as well. In the space of little more than two decades, public support for marriage equality shot up from around a quarter to nearly three-quarters today (including a whopping 55 percent of Republicans), and marriage equality became the law of the land.

The movement to preserve liberal democracy needs a similar sustained campaign and strategic nerve center.

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It could begin operations in several swing states, which might then become laboratories for research on what works and doesn’t work to attract and hold voters. It should be unconnected to any single candidate or campaign. It should research and deploy communications tactics that attract support for office-holders and candidates committed to free and fair elections, majority rule and minority rights, the peaceful transfer of power, a more equal society, and a government safety net. Right now, that means Democrats.

But Democrats must do more than just tell voters they will rescue our democratic republic.

They need to show Americans they can be trusted to truly deliver on the promise of representing the people’s interests. This has been a tough needle to thread when their power to get things done has rested on such small and precarious margins. But the fate of democracy, as Joe Biden rightly said, depends on people believing that democratic government can deliver. And delivering, in turn, depends on successfully engaging the public, removing the structural barriers that impede effective governance, reducing inequality and siloization, and defeating authoritarian and oligarchic forces.

This cannot all be done overnight, or in one election. But in the midterms and then over the long haul, America’s future as a democracy depends on the Democrats getting it right.

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