A headline in the New York Times today tells us that “Embattled Democrats Hope Jan 6 Hearings Will Motivate Voters.” The Times reports that “House Democrats plan to use a landmark set of investigative hearings beginning this week to try to refocus voters on Jan. 6,” using “made-for-television moments and a carefully choreographed rollout of revelations.” Since “polls show that voters’ attention is focused elsewhere, including on inflation, rising coronavirus cases, and record-high gas prices,” these Congressional Democrats want to shift these voters’ attention to an issue that they think is a winner for them: the event seventeen months ago when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building. Recognizing that the midterms have “high political stakes” and realizing that polls show the Biden administration is extremely unpopular, these congressional Democrats have “retained an experienced television executive” to ensure that their January 6 hearings “will give them a platform for making a broader case about why they deserve to stay in power.” They have even “organized scores of watch parties across the country in hopes of generating interest.”
Reading this, I can only come to the conclusion that congressional Democrats must be actively trying to sabotage their own reelection prospects. It is hard to come up with any other explanation for why they would choose an issue that is of practically zero direct material consequence for the lives of the average voter and try to build their re-election message around it. If they are not deliberately trying to put Republicans in power, it must be the case that none of these Democrats has ever met a single actual voter and has never bothered to ask any of their constituents what would motivate them to vote for Democrats.
Look, I found the storming of the Capitol alarming myself. On Jan. 7, 2021, I wrote an article arguing that it deserved to be compared with the Beer Hall Putsch, a similarly farcical and failed takeover attempt that was nevertheless a portend of far darker things to come. It was an alarming spectacle. But there have already been aggressive prosecutions of the perpetrators, with hundreds of people charged with crimes. The infamous guy in horns, despite being obviously mentally ill (he believes he is an alien), has been sent to prison for three years. As a skeptic of prisons, I actually think the eagerness to hit people with stiff sentences is concerning, and worry that there could be a bad precedent set for the next time leftist protesters illegally storm a government building. We should be careful about measures that could accidentally end up harshly criminalizing the kind of rowdy dissent that we ourselves believe in.
But as I say, the Jan. 6 events were indeed a menace to democracy, since the protesters wanted to overturn the election result.1 At the same time, I think Democrats are showing how absolutely reckless and out of touch they are by putting together a big televised spectacle about Jan. 6 right now. What happened that day was most unpleasant for members of Congress, and these hearings show that members of Congress care much more about the things that happen to them than the things that happen to average voters.
Let us look at what voters’ top priorities were in a Pew poll taken earlier this year:
Now, maybe “accountability for the events of Jan. 6” was left off the questionnaire and would have been selected as the overwhelming priority for voters. But the Times article says Democrats know that getting voters to care about Jan. 6 will be an “uphill battle,” because polls reveal their attention is “focused elsewhere.” Democrats are responding to this not by addressing the issues voters are focused on, but by hiring a television executive in an attempt to refocus voters on the issue they think should matter most to those voters rather than the issues that do matter most to them.
I really struggle to find words to describe how stupid and suicidal this strategy is. Republicans are about to overturn abortion rights, with the Supreme Court getting rid of a fundamental constitutional protection. We have just seen children massacred by the score because Republicans take the despicable position that massacres are an acceptable price to pay for the right of teenagers to own weapons of war. Gun violence and the stripping of abortion rights affect people directly. The public doesn’t want Roe v. Wade overturned and doesn’t want weapons of war on the street. Why not hold primetime hearings on gun violence? If you’re going to hire a TV executive and organize watch parties, why not try to show the country the human consequences of Republican policies, with testimony from victims’ families? But on abortion, for example, Congressional Democrats have declined to take the kind of aggressive stand necessary to meaningfully affect the issue. Politico reports that “state-level Democratic officials and abortion-rights advocates are discouraged by how little their allies in Congress and the White House have done since a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade became public.” Nancy Pelosi even (appallingly) helped an anti-abortion Democratic congressman beat his progressive challenger. (He is currently ahead by under 200 votes, meaning that Pelosi almost certainly made the difference.) When Democrats in Congress do nothing about the issues that matter to voters, why should voters turn out for them?
It’s very clear that many high-level Democrats have absolutely no idea why they are unpopular. Former Obama communications director and Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer has a new article in Vanity Fair pondering why Democrats “suck at messaging,” the assumption being that while the party’s policies are good, they are simply bad at explaining how good they are, resulting in a mismatch between the quality of Democratic governance and the public’s perception of it. According to a recent NBC News report, Joe Biden believes “he just can’t catch a break” and “has vented to aides about not getting credit from Americans or the news media for actions he believes have helped the country, particularly on the economy.”
But perhaps the problem is not that Democrats are “bad at messaging” or “don’t get credit.” Perhaps they struggle with messaging because they have few accomplishments to message about, and don’t get credit because there is little to give them credit for. Biden’s signature Build Back Better plan has died. How are you going to get credit for a plan that didn’t pass? Democrats let the increased child tax credit lapse, plunging millions of children into poverty. How are you going to “message” your way around that? Joe Biden has once again kicked the can down the road on his promise to cancel student debt, with centrists making a silly fuss about how forgiveness would benefit the “privileged”—even as news articles report on the human costs of crushing debt burdens. If you canceled the debt, you could tell the stories of all those whose lives are better thanks to the relief granted. If you don’t cancel it, you have nothing to say.
The excuse Democrats tend to make is that their hands are tied by the ability of Republicans and centrists to stymie progressive legislation. Now, regardless of whether this is true, “We did nothing but it was Joe Manchin’s fault” is not a winning message. But it’s also false. Student debt relief, for instance, is completely up to Joe Biden. So is the administration’s failure to push for a diplomatic end to the war in Ukraine, and to focus instead on shipping deadly weapons, which threatens to prolong the conflict and destabilize the global economy. When you examine the areas in which Democrats make clear choices—as Luke Savage and I did in evaluating Barack Obama—it becomes clear that while sometimes their hands are tied, at other times their hands are not tied and they still pursue the same unpopular, ineffectual course. Joe Biden did not have to increase Medicare premiums and escalate privatization. He chose to. Nancy Pelosi did not have to push for the re-election of an anti-abortion Democrat. She chose to. Democrats did not have to put Jan. 6 at the top of their agenda. They chose to. They could have had hearings on climate change instead, something that requires far more urgent action. Pro-choice advocates have explained specifically what they want on abortion from the adminstration, including “new FDA guidance preventing states from restricting access to abortion pills, stronger HIPAA protections to shield the medical information of abortion patients and stronger enforcement of Obamacare’s contraception mandate.” They have gotten nothing. The problem here is not messaging; it’s the priorities themselves.
I am someone who believes that no matter how bad the Democrats are, it is always necessary to vote for them in general elections, because the Republicans are an outright fascist party. While I understand the argument that if you do not threaten to withhold your vote, the party will have no incentive to do better, I do not think it can be ethical to threaten to take a step that will put planet-destroying fascists in power. However, I also think it is the case that if Democrats lose in November, it will clearly be their own fault, rather than the fault of voters failing to appreciate Biden’s governance. There is a bit of conventional wisdom in politics that the party holding the presidency is destined to lose the next midterm election. I think that rule is an excuse. Democrats are going to lose in November not because it was inevitable, but because they have made it very clear that they care more about Jan. 6 than the bread-and-butter issues that Americans are practically begging the party to show they care about. I think if the Democratic party had a clear popular agenda to end poverty, control housing costs, combat climate change, protect abortion rights, ban assault weapons, forgive student debt, unionize every industry, end the war in Ukraine, provide a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, legalize marijuana, give Medicare to everyone, and protect democracy from the Republican war on it, and if the party showed Americans that it was doing everything within its limited power to achieve those goals, even if it fell short, it could be given a mandate from the people to continue its work. The problem is that Americans can tell people like Nancy Pelosi are more disturbed by the Trump mob that invaded their offices last year than they are about homelessness. If Democrats want to win, the solution is to take actions that help people, such as forgiving their student debt, giving them a child allowance, lowering rather than raising their Medicare costs, and keeping their children safe from assault weapons. Then you’ll have a “message” to run on, and you won’t have to hire TV executives to “refocus” voters on an issue they clearly don’t care about.
It should be noted, though, that from their point of view they were defending democracy since the president had lied to them and told them the election was stolen. I do think Trump, rather than the people who foolishly listen to him, is the real criminal here. ↩