For Republicans, 2020 Election is Political. Democrats Understand It is Existential.
It is clear — from the audacity of their actions, from the near-unanimity of their ranks — that the Republicans view the 2020 presidential election solely as political: that is, the absolute need, no matter the cost to institutions or norms, to retain governing power.
Their latest audacity and its cost? Ramming another conservative onto the Supreme Court (Amy Coney Barrett), at the cost of destroying the Court’s conservative-liberal balance, making it 6 to 3, and rewriting their own rules of blocking President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland. Audacity upon audacity, Republicans pronounce themselves shocked, shocked that Democrats, growing ever confident of winning both White House and Senate, should even consider “packing” the Court as they themselves are doing. Republicans can read polls as well as any pol, thus knowing a blue tsunami is heading their way, this particular audacity comes off as deeply cynical, a last “win” before their banishment to the political wilderness.
But Court-packing is only the latest Republican audacity. Others include: voter suppression, faux drop-off boxes for ballots, gerrymandering (and cutting short the 2020 census to favor future gerrymandering). But most egregious: standing by a President, Donald J. Trump, who not only destroys the institutions and norms integral to American democracy since our inception, but takes us into territory where we never, ever should be: into strongman rule, autocracy. Nearly zero is Republican pushback to Trump’s embrace of the world’s autocrats or to his own proto-autocratic acts: killing truth with lies, sliming the media as “the enemy of the American people,” pardoning accused war criminals, condoning white supremacists, equating protesters with domestic terrorists, and ominously, signaling armed militias to “stand back and stand by” as he refuses to say he will agree — as any small-d democrat would — to abide by this election’s results.
To all appearances, Republicans look at all this accrual of power, ill-gotten as it may be, and their complicity with a proto-autocrat and say: “Well-played.” Yes, there have been demurrals to Trump’s vandalism (senators Sasse, Romney, Murkowski, Collins), but they are few and, soon enough, they’re back in lockstep. Oddly for politicians, they seem not to know how to organize an insurrection. Instead, they purr: “Well-played.”
Meanwhile: Democrats look at Republican accrual of power, ill-gotten as it definitely is, and their former colleagues’ complicity with a proto-autocrat and say: “Oh. My. God.” (This, from the supposedly unchurched, vice the church-going Republican hypocrites.)
Like Hamlet, Democrats know a hawk from a handsaw: Where Republicans see legitimate plays for power, Democrats see the tarnishing of institutional guardrails, then the desecration of those guardrails knocked off altogether. For one: An Attorney General, putatively the chief arbiter of Justice and the people’s tribune, changed out for a wax figure who himself molds Justice to suit his client’s antidemocratic demands. For another: The U.S. military co-opted into appearing ready to take action against its own citizens assembled in peaceful protest (the George Floyd protest in Lafayette Square). The military immediately corrected that misimpression, but: Trump did not. There again, with Trump and his Republicans, “the readiness is all,” to quote Hamlet again.
The desecration goes on. As the party that believes in government’s capacity to do good, Democrats see Trump’s abject failure to organize the federal response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic — with the death toll now nearing 220,200 and the collapse of the American economy, whose price-tag experts now peg at $16 trillion — as abject executive malpractice, a crime against American humanity. (Modern-day Republicans have never believed in government and, despite these ruinous numbers, still don’t.)
As the party that believes in the liberal world order, with its rules-based organization and alliances, Democrats look at the damage Trump has inflicted on that order and our allies as an unconscionable and irresponsible exercise of the superpower’s power. (Once upon a time, the Republicans believed in America’s leadership role in the world.)
As the party of human rights, Democrats are appalled at our government’s silence at foreign powers’ abuse of those rights — Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and China’s brutal clampdown of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, the incarceration of its Muslim Uighur population in concentration camps, its surveillance state. But then, Trump can’t discomfit his autocrat pals.
All this desecration on the part of Trump and Republicans of our foundational institutions and norms of American democracy — and the resacralization, as it were, of this patrimony on the Democrats’ part — raises the question: Who really are the conservatives here? The Democrats are now liberal and the true conservative both.
Republicans see this desecration and conclude it is bearable, the cost of doing (political) business. But Democrats — both leadership and grassroots — see the desecration and understand the cost is not acceptable, not to be borne. Democrats see the existential — that is, life-and-death — stakes of this election: It is, in sum, to rescue our democracy.
Democrats understand we cannot have a democracy — government of, by, and for the people, the demos; in a word, self-government — that does not abide by Truth and Justice, that countenances violence and corruption, that blatantly abuses power for mere political gain and at the expense of, indeed destruction of, the Republic. (And Republicans arguing America is not a democracy but a republic is no defense.)
Democrats understand something else existential: With so much of American life in flux — racial unrest at injustice, women calling out discrimination, the income gap growing even starker due to the pandemic — Democrats see the opportunity to take these crises and make of them a better day. We are talking not only of rescue, but reform, Renaissance.
That is why we are seeing massive early voting going on, with long, socially-distanced lines of voters willing to wait for five, even ten hours in order to make their voice heard with their vote. That is why we see Democrats, who in this pandemic have been shown far more observant of masking and other official guidance than Republicans, abandoning their shelters and braving the aerosolized coronavirus to personally ensure their vote gets cast, sidestepping the U.S. Postal Service that Trump scurrilously tried to disable. And, excitingly, that is why this election is on track to see the biggest voter turnout in modern history: Democrats “get” the life-and-death stakes of this 2020 election.
And Democrats get that a landslide for Joe Biden is the best weapon against Trump’s armed militias.
If the once-Exceptional Nation can turn existential peril into Renaissance, we will be exceptional again. We get there via one path and one path only: Vote.