Democrats are facing asymmetrical warfare. It’s time to wake up and fight back | Ben Davis

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The Guardian

The New York Times recently published a poll that marks an exclamation point on months of bad news for the rapidly faltering Biden presidency. Biden’s meager 33% approval rating is in line with other polls, but the shocking and worrying number for the White House is that fully 64% of Democrats believe he should not run for another term in 2024. That number rises to an absurd 94% among Democrats under 30.

While younger voters have consistently given Biden lower marks than other cohorts this year, that number now stands at a miserable 19%. Young voters are not a group that can be ignored as flighty non-voters: they are the backbone of the Democratic party’s recent wins. In 2020, the youth vote surged to record numbers, and young voters gave Biden a 24-point margin. Without both high turnout and high margins from young voters, Biden would have easily lost every swing state. Increased turnout among the young also provided much of the margin for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.

Biden’s low approvals, especially among the young, have caused a crisis in confidence not seen in a sitting president’s party since at least Jimmy Carter. Should Biden step down in 2024? Unless the administration and the Democratic party radically change posture, he may need to retire to prevent the election of a man who only last year attempted a coup. Most importantly, though, he has within his power the chance to turn his presidency around.

It’s clear to Americans of all political stripes that we are in a crisis. Many of the basic rights and principles of our democracy have been completely overruled by a party that hasn’t won the popular vote in a presidential election in 18 years. There is a massive disconnect between the will of the people and the actions of the state. This is a situation unprecedented since the Civil Rights Era or potentially even Reconstruction, but the president has not treated it as such. Fundamentally, people, especially young people, want to feel like the president is fighting for them.

The Biden administration and the leadership of the federal Democratic party seem dedicated to broken and undemocratic institutions. Given the power these institutions are wielding, this feels hopelessly out of touch. The primary solution offered by the Administration has been to show up to vote in the midterms to potentially codify Roe, or more likely, stave off a federal abortion ban by the Republican party. None of the solutions proposed even come close to addressing the situation.

This is asymmetrical warfare, with the Democrats playing by an entirely different set of rules. While the Democrats remain dedicated to antiquated institutions and procedures, the Republican party has remade the state in its image without even commanding a majority of voters. The Republican party has long wanted to undermine many of America’s institutions: numerous serious presidential candidates, sitting senators, and sitting judges have proposed repealing the 14th amendment (the foundation of modern American law), the 16th amendment creating the income tax, the 17th amendment directly electing Senators, and more. Democrats have not seriously countered at all. They are dedicated to playing by the rules of a game everyone has long since stopped playing.

The primary response to the rollback of several fundamental rights has been “vote and donate”. Voting is of course necessary, and so are donations and all sorts of political activism. That doesn’t make it less insulting. People have voted. The last two elections have seen record turnout for Democrats. The party has unified control of government, despite all the caveats. The problem is, in the current system, voting will not work, and people know that.

It would take decades of uninterrupted Democratic control of the presidency to flip the US supreme court. With the current coalitions and political structure, it’s effectively impossible for Democrats to ever win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Even a simple governing majority requires a clear Democratic wave in the popular vote, and that majority would almost certainly require more red-state Democrats like Sinema and Manchin who would block legislation.

In short, “just vote” and using the current institutions is impossible, and voters recognize that. It is not possible to win back the right to abortion, basic environmental protection, schools free of religious indoctrination, basic regulation on guns, protect rights to contraception, marriage equality, and personal sexual activity without radical changes to the basic structure of American governance.

Winning elections doesn’t hurt anything, but it is not enough in an anti-democratic system that has been gamed to truly absurd extents. There’s no winning in this system, and that is apparent to most Americans, and to the vast majority of young Americans who disapprove of Biden. To rescue his presidency, and mobilize a real force at the midterms and in the future, Biden needs to boldly champion radical democratic reforms, use his power and dare the supreme court and the Senate to stop him.

While in other times, disempowering institutions and taking unilateral action as a president may be unpopular, Americans recognize that our system is utterly broken. The supreme court has approval of only 25% of the populace, by far the lowest measured. This is an institution that can exercise power only so long as it has buy-in from the people. Supermajorities support serious reforms to the supreme court.

Young Americans in particular see their future collapsing before their eyes and understand the stakes. They know Biden can’t unilaterally pack the court, or make any significant reforms to the legislative or judiciary. That’s beside the point, however; he needs to put this on the agenda. He has been faced with a crisis of legitimacy, where the vast majority of the people vocally oppose the order being imposed on them. He has to stand with the people and lead the charge for their rights. There’s no way through these rigged institutions. Only around. To save his presidency, this needs to be at the very forefront of his agenda.

Biden needs to reverse course and show aggression as soon as possible to counter the lackluster response to Dobbs that has damaged his standing among Democrats and the young. Americans know the president doesn’t have this unilateral power, though they know he can do more. Most of all they want a fight. They want to know that the president recognizes the gravity of the crisis . We’ve seen the most serious rollback in rights for American citizens since Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. The majority of Americans are under attack by a minority, and they need a president who recognizes this and will respond in kind.

Biden has the opportunity to change course and be a two-term president who righted the country in a crisis of democracy. If Biden can’t do this, he will need to be replaced. Not only because it’s necessary, but because it’s the only way to recover his popularity and win reelection.

The Democratic party must reorient itself around radical democratic reforms and disempowering the supreme court, the Senate, and state governments. This is both necessary and inevitable. If Biden doesn’t do it, the next Democrat will need to. If they don’t, it will be impossible to exercise power of any sort, no matter the opinions of citizens.

Anti-democratic government institutions are fundamentally reshaping society and people have no recourse without a radical change. As a smaller and smaller minority exert more and more power, something has to come to a head. A state cannot operate so unmoored from popular sovereignty without a real rupture. Modern governments rely on at least some degree of consent of the governed.

There is no future where the Democratic party doesn’t embrace serious reforms to the current constitutional order, because radical resistance to the anti-democratic onslaught is required for their continued existence as a party. If Biden wants to lead the country, he must take the lead. Without an aggressive and radical reposturing, he will be unable to recover his standing. Nearly all Americans understand the country is in a crisis that requires a radical reshaping of our institutions. The Republicans are leading it. Biden is a man out of step with the world around him unless he recognizes this and acts decisively.

July 15, 2022 at 04:12PM Ben Davis

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