The Unfinished Election of 2020
With hindsight, did we miss a chance to cement public opinion against the Right? Plus, my winter book recs and some good civic tech news.
Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!
Building on last week’s newsletter on Barton Gellman’s “January 6th Was Practice” cover story in the Atlantic, some thoughts on what we left undone from a that period.
Exactly a year ago, as Donald Trump’s post-election scramble to hold to power became ever more slapdash and desperate, with The Former Guy placing last-minute calls to the Republican governors of Georgia and Pennsylvania begging them to overturn their states’ results, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton unsuccessfully asking--with the support of 17 other Republican state attorneys general and 126 House Republicans--the Supreme Court to invalidate Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania’s results; and local electors of the Electoral College meeting in state capitols to formalize Joe Biden’s victory, defenders of democracy in America had reason to start to relax.
Every vote had been counted, the voters decided and it was time to go forward together. These were the messages tested and promoted by a broad coalition of center-left organizations. (If you want to do a deep dive on this work, this planning document from Choose Democracy, the Everyone Counts Project, and Hold the Line is a great starting point). Back then public opinion suggested that these messages were working. A majority of the country—about six in ten—believed Biden to be the legitimate winner. While a majority of Trump voters were not convinced, a quarter of them said they disapproved with how he was handling the post-election transition.
One note was conspicuously missing from our side’s messaging during this tumultuous period, and that was also by design. We were deliberately avoiding talking about the seriousness of Trump’s threat to democracy. As leading progressive messaging gurvi Anat Schenker-Osorio recalls on her excellent “Words That Win” podcast episode on protecting the election results, we weren’t talking about Trump’s attempted coup as such because that language polled poorly. Suggesting that Trump was a “strongman” aimed at stealing the election tended to move wavering Republicans towards him (after all, they liked to believe in his supposed strengths as an unconventional leader) and tended to scare base Democrats into quiescence rather than activism. So we were urged to go with the positive vanilla of “the voters decided” and not the red flag of “save democracy.”
As a result, I think we stopped short of cementing the victory. Instead of putting intense pressure on Republican politicians to affirm the Electoral College results, we held back and hoped other civic actors and norms would do that work for us. Some did, like the editorial board of the Orlando Sentinel, which publicly rescinded its endorsement of Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) after he joined in the Texas lawsuit that December. But for the most part, there was no penalty imposed on GOPers for flagrantly opposing the people’s will. While our side held back, the digital brownshirts of the right did not. For example, that December, after 64 Republican members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly signed a letter calling on its state’s congressional delegation to reject Biden’s electoral votes, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania senate said that if she had declared opposition to that letter, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”
After January 6th, there was a brief period where even hard-core Republicans reeled from the scene of the MAGA faction assaulting Capitol police and hunting to hang Vice President Mike Pence. Democrats moved swiftly to seek Trump’s re-impeachment, imagining, I suppose, that after years of blatantly putting party ahead of country, the GOP would for once do the right thing. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, was this another missed opportunity? Could we have done more to marginalize the MAGA faction among Republican electeds by not impeaching Trump along partisan lines? Back then I was all for impeachment, mainly because I wanted Democrats to go further and bar the Orange Cheeto from ever running for office again. Now I wonder if some other strategy would have made more sense.
Unfortunately, after a short burst of democratic house-cleaning, the 147 Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election are just as welcome in civil society now as before. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) lost a cushy gig as an adviser to Harvard’s Institute of Politics after January 6th, but she continues to serve as a member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, despite some efforts to boot her. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) is still on the honorary board of the Fulbright Association. The US Chamber of Commerce gave 2021 Bipartisanship and Leadership Awards to Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), both of whom voted against certifying the election. Twenty-one Republican House members even voted against giving Congressional Gold Medals to police officers who defended the capitol, and while you may recognize Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar’s names in that group, the others just merrily go on their way.
Now, maybe MSNBC columnist Michael Cohen is right, and fears about Trump or some other Republican stealing the 2024 election are overblown. Read his opinion piece from yesterday as a useful counterpoint. In essence, he says the system held in 2020 and it will likely hold again, because “the same obstacles that thwarted Trump’s efforts in 2020 will be in place three years from now…. Unless 2024 comes down to one or two states, with a compliant Republican governor and secretary of state, a GOP-controlled legislature and perhaps dozens of county election board officials, Trump (if he’s the Republican nominee) will face the same nearly insurmountable hurdles.”
I don’t think we can simply hope Cohen is right. As many have been pointing out, the right is using 2020 as a trial run, enacting tough new restrictions on voting (including not giving people water or food while they wait on line to vote). Several states, including Georgia, have made it illegal for private philanthropists to support election administration, which means a mega-donation from someone like Marc Zuckerberg to help shore up local registrars won’t be possible in 2024. As Gellman pointed out,tThe Stop the Steal movement now has a mass base, including millions of people who at least theoretically say they are prepared to use violence to assure that 2020 isn’t repeated. And, unless Democrats manage to hold the House next year, the side overseeing the certification of the electoral votes will be led by an emboldened Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). So like it or not, we have to talk about the dangers ahead and use language that inspires people to fight for free and fair elections as hard as the right is moving to end them.
Winter Vacation is For Books
Looking back on the books I’ve read this past year, here are several I recommend:
How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, by Andreas Malm: Like Kim Stanley Robinson's work of didactic climate fiction, The Ministry for the Future, Malm will leave you thinking: At what point does the global movement to avert climate disaster start using sabotage and vandalism against property? Particularly against luxury emitters and the worst sources of greenhouse emissions? Personally, I worry that in America acts of property damage will quickly backfire against the climate movement. But Malm does a good job of questioning the received wisdom about nonviolent movements, rooted in the work of scholars like Erica Chenoweth, that movements that embrace violence fail far more often than they succeed.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake: If you were paying close attention to the Ted Lasso show, you might remember the episode where Coach Beard is seen reading this book and then blurts out something about how our whole paradigm for thinking about forests is wrong. “We used to believe that trees competed with each other for light. Suzanne Simard’s fieldwork challenged that perception, and we now realize that the forest is a socialist community. Trees work in harmony to share the sunlight,” he says. Sheldrake is a wizard with words and will remake your understanding of the natural world. We are long past the time where “going viral” could be seen as something good (things that grow exponentially are cancers) and instead it’s time we start thinking about how we “go fungal.”
The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, by Alicia Garza: I read this brave and candid memoir by one of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement at a moment earlier this year when my own faith in the prospects of progressive organizing was at a low point. Garza’s honesty and soul-searching revived me. This is a rare book for a national political activist; she pulls no punches and doesn’t dance away from wrestling with hard problems, including internal ones.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee. I had the privilege of serving alongside Heather for a few years together on the Consumer Reports board so I’m personally biased. But, that said, this is a wonderful and optimistic book about a hard subject: how racism harms all of us and how we might move forward together.
Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, by Alec MacGillis: Even though MacGillis’ primary subject is Amazon’s sprawling business empire, he uses the company to paint a bigger canvas on what life under cowboy capitalism has become. As he illustrates in great detail, Amazon has made an art form of avoiding taxes, squeezing tax subsidies from local authorities (the department inside Amazon in charge of that is brazenly called “economic development”), using economic blackmail to crush local efforts to get it to pay back taxes, perfecting the use of tech to track employee performance down to the length of bathroom breaks, segmenting its workforce into “engineering and soft-ware developer towns…data-center towns and … warehouse towns,” rigging government RFPs in its favor, all while currying the favor of top politicians from Barack Obama on down and blithely ignoring the needs of the communities it has hollowed out. The best business book I read this year. (In second place on that list, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, by Max Chafkin, which mainly made me ask, why do people take this man seriously, and what is he still doing on Facebook’s board of directors?)
Democracy Without Journalism: Confronting the Misinformation Society, by Victor Pickard. If we only imagine the survival of journalism in business terms, we’ll never get to where we need to be, which is recognizing, indeed remembering, its critical role as democratic infrastructure. Pickard points out that there is a real correlation between a healthy local news ecosystem and levels of civic and voter engagement. After Seattle and Denver each lost one of their two major papers, the number of people getting involved with local civic groups or contacting their representatives declined significantly. A study of the 2010 midterm elections found that people living in districts without robust election coverage were less able to evaluate their congressional choices and thus less likely to vote. On the more positive side, reading newspapers can mobilize as many as 13% of nonvoters to vote. Pickard also notes that since “voters in news deserts tend to base their vote more on national than local news [they] thus follow ‘partisan heuristics’ that lead to increased polarization.” This is the one book you need to read to understand why the fight to revive independent local journalism is critical to strengthening democracy.
I’m heading off on vacation for the rest of the month (so no Connector til January), and one always has more books to read than there is time. But here’s what at the top of my pile. First, some fiction! Bewilderment, by Richard Powers; The Anomaly, by Herve le Tellier; and Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang. Then in non-fiction: Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa; Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman; and The First Days of Berlin, by Ulrich Gutmair. What’s on your winter reading list? Add a comment!
This is Civic Tech
—The Biden White House has issued an executive order directing that “federal agencies put people at the center of everything the Government does.” Yes, this is a big deal, and no, it wasn’t government policy to make sure services were easily accessible already!
—Civic techie Huge Ma, whose TurboVax website helped untold numbers of people in New York find COVID-19 vaccine appointments, is running for state assembly, Katie Honan reports for The City.
—Speaking of civic tech, it was great to see Jason DeParle’s front-page story in The New York Times on how Jimmy Chen and Propel, along with other groups like Code for America and Civilla, are modernizing access to SNAP benefit information. That said, I was somewhat startled to see that Propel now has a $100 million valuation and wonder how core investors like Andreessen Horowitz may push the company away from its social mission.
Odds and Ends
—Speaking of Peter Thiel, NoTechforICE has uncovered a disgusting video demoing a taser-armed drone targeting a migrant made by a protégé of his.
—“Amazon won’t let us leave.” That was warehouse worker Larry Virden’s last text to his girlfriend before a tornado destroyed his workplace killing him and five other coworkers Friday night. Will this be Amazon’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory moment?
—Higher Ground Labs just posted its 2022 “investment thesis,” and beyond continuing to focus on content creation, voter contact and data sharing, they’ve fallen for the siren song of Web3 and crypto. They write, “Whether accepting crypto as donations, using NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to reward donors and volunteers, or DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) for distributed organizing, we are eager to explore solutions that put progressive campaigns and organizations at the cutting edge of this quickly evolving form of engagement.” Ugh, no. We need decentralized collaborative networks, not DAOs, and no-further-texting, not NFTs.
—Black activists are dealing with much more serious security threats and police intimidation in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, Jamilah King reports for BuzzFeed.
—Republican politicians include misinformation in their emails far more often than Democrats, The New York Times’ Maggie Astor reports.
—Democracy may die but Facebook will still make sure you don’t find out anything about breasts.
As I keep droning on here, but without tasing anyone, I am now writing twice a week for Medium as part of their contributing author program. If you enjoy the mix of topics that I cover here, then please sign up to be a Medium member. Basically, if you want more Micah, you can get it from Medium for just $5 per month of $50 per year (and roughly half of that accrues back to me if you sign up through my partner link). Here’s a “friend link” to yesterday’s post on Medium, exploring Facebook’s first-ever global branding ad, and why the company isn’t really like chairs.