Originally published by Brookings.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats are going to lose the midterm elections, especially if they were held today. Given current rates of inflation, the seemingly never-ending pandemic, and the level of partisan hostility that has poisoned our politics, it’s an understandable concern. Those problems don’t lend themselves to quick fixes, raising the specter of a Republican sweep and a Trump return in 2024 that some suggest might be the end of democracy as we know it.
But the future of democracy goes well beyond the fortunes of a single political party. For the next three years, Democrats need to reach out to independents and non-Trump acolytes in the Republican party with a simple pro-democracy message—preserve the principle and practice that votes must determine the winners and losers of our elections, not party preference or ideology. Potential allies in this campaign should include less partisan, but equally concerned, organizations such as the Business Roundtable and the League of Women Voters, whose members are just as dedicated to preserving democracy in America.Read more
Democracy has been under increasing assault in the U.S. over the course of this century. Sixty percent of white working class Americans agreed with the statement that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.” Although only 40% of all Americans felt that way in 2017, almost 47% of them voted in 2020 to support a candidate for president who exhibited blatant authoritarian behavior. For the first time since the 1930’s, the competition between democracy and autocracy to determine how we will be governed in the future is in doubt.
The view that this authoritarian threat can be defused by converting those who would abandon the Constitution “to get things done” through persuasion and empathy is contradicted by both social science and electoral fact. Study after study has documented that efforts to change political opinions through rational argument and the deployment of fact changes few minds and often hardens opinions instead. Nearly one hundred court rulings and the certification of the 2020 election results by all 50 states still leaves 77% of Republicans questioning the legitimacy of President Biden’s election based on supposed voter fraud. If there are words, facts, or empathy that can change those views, no credible evidence to support the strategy has been presented.
A more hopeful strategy can be found in the contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union after World War II. In his now famous “X article” in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, U.S. diplomat George Kennan publicly proposed defending democracy using a strategy of “containment.” Rather than aggressively pushing to overthrow the Soviet Union or believing that the Stalinist regime could be “charmed or talked out of existence,” Kennan argued that an authoritarian Soviet Union “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” The foundation of his proposal was the belief that the contradictions inherent in Soviet party rule would ultimately lead to collapse of the system or at least its considerable mellowing if denied opportunities for expansion.
Employing containment rather than conversion as a strategy for preventing the development of authoritarian governance here at home offers a series of powerful advantages:
- Those proposing autocracy over democracy remain a minority. Over sixty percent of Americans believe the 2020 presidential election was fair. Containment does not rely on changing the political opinions of millions of Americans, a proposition which ought to be pursued, but for which no credible action plan exists. Defense of democracy doesn’t require converts, only holding the line.
- In the present day, the foundation that supports a domestic containment strategy is more concrete than Kennan’s speculative assertion that the Soviet Union would inevitably collapse under its own contradictions. It rests on the existing political and cultural views of the rising electoral generations of Millennials (Gen Y), born in the last two decades of the 20th century and Plurals (Gen Z), born in the first two decades of this century.
Demographics are not an “invisible hand” insuring the victory of liberal democracy over autocracy. However, on the research-based assumption that current cultural and civic generational views are usually an indicator of a generation’s future outlook, the polled opinions of our two newest generations provide some long-term optimism.
We start with the view that fears of white displacement and of new cultural values that are undermining the perceived essence of “Americanism,” not economics, are the major drivers of those most willing to work outside inherited constitutional rules and norms. Anxiety and anger over the coming loss of a white majority are reflected in opinions about racial diversity that vary widely by generation. Sixty-two percent of Plurals and 61% of Millennials think that increasing racial and ethnic diversity is good for America, compared to 48% of Boomers and 41% of the even older Silent generation. Plural Republicans are also much more likely than their older GOP counterparts to agree with this statement.
Similar generational gaps exist on the issue of whether immigrants are a benefit or burden to the country with 75% of Millennials saying they are a benefit compared to 52% of Boomers and 44% of Silents. A majority (53%) of both younger generations believe that “people of different races marrying each other” is a good thing as opposed to 30% of Boomers and 20% of Silents—further evidence that the ascending electorate is hardly afraid of the pollution of white culture and blood by “others.”
While it is not always true that as the generational “twig is bent, the tree’s inclined”, the attitudes towards race of America’s two youngest generations offer hope that time may be on our side in pursuing a containment strategy.
A containment action agenda
A domestic containment strategy offers a number of actions that those who want to defend democracy can take now, without having to wait for demographics to defeat domestic authoritarianism.
On the defensive front:
- While respecting everyone’s constitutional rights, the minority must not be allowed to overrule the expressed will of the majority. Securing majority governance and blocking authoritarian minorities from taking federal power requires minimizing gerrymandering; eliminating voter suppression; reforming, if not eliminating, the Senate’s filibuster rule; and making campaign financing as transparent as possible.
- Social media algorithms need to be reshaped or at least accompanied by “middleware” as part of reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This will help social media consumers assess the reliability of the source of what they are seeing and encourage exposure to differing points of view. Further experiments with independent governance structures for determining the acceptability of political content on social media platforms, similar to the one Facebook has deployed, should also be encouraged.
- A clear line must be drawn between violence and peaceful protests. Law enforcement must deal vigorously and visibly with the threat of violence from that element of the authoritarian minority that is prepared to use force to pursue its political objectives. As profiles of some of those charged with insurrection on January 6 reveal, nearly ninety percent were not tied to extremist groups and were difficult to distinguish from your next-door neighbor. Prosecution and imprisonment of those who would turn to violence, whether a Proud Boy or the pharmacist down the street, will be critical to deterring attempts at political change outside the rules of democratic governance.
Containment also requires sustained and continuous push back against authoritarian views, just as Kennan argued in his memo on containing communism. While waiting for more democratically-inclined generations to seize the electoral stage:
- Lies and distortions of reality must be responded to vigorously and persistently. The election was not stolen, immigration advocates are not motivated by white replacement, whites are not subject to more discrimination than blacks. All those in the public eye, including commentators as well as elected officials, must be held to account whenever they spread such falsehoods.
- Institutions as effective as the National Democratic Institute has been in spreading the idea of democracy worldwide must be created to increase young Americans faith in democracy here at home. While most young people have no sympathy for authoritarian views, they are far from convinced that constitutional democracy is the best form of governance to make the societal changes they seek based on what they have experienced in their lifetime. Above all we must demonstrate democracy works, since gridlocked governing will undermine faith in our democratic system no matter what else we do.
Containment offers a realistic strategy for preventing an authoritarian minority from taking power electorally or extralegally. It buys time until those generations with stronger ties to democratic values assume majority power and protects our democracy until they do. Finally, it allows the champions of democracy—conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican–to act forcefully together without depending on changing the views of others to prevail. That the strategy worked to win the Cold War is no guarantee that it will work in our domestic struggle with authoritarianism. But it offers the most realistic option before us for winning this war.
by Michael Hais, Doug Ross, and Morley Winograd
A version of this blog was published by the Los Angeles Times on August 20, 2019.
Racism is increasingly unacceptable to most Americans. This is true among conservatives as well as liberals, college and non-college educated adults alike. But what’s behind the United States becoming a place where racist expression is more and more unpopular are the beliefs and behaviors of the generation born between 1982 and 2003, the Millennials.Read more
Final results from the 2018 midterm elections make it clear that Donald Trump’s presidency has accelerated a political dynamic likely to defeat him and his party in 2020. Five years ago, our book, Millennial Majority, identified a new majority coalition in American politics led by Millennials, minorities and women. This year’s midterm elections saw this coalition solidify its support of Democrats, particularly in U.S. House races, that caused many to conclude a “Blue Wave” had at least temporarily overwhelmed Republicans. But in fact, the changes in the political allegiance of major demographic groups evident in this year’s voting patterns represent a more permanent realignment of American politics. The size and national breadth of this realignment provides the Democrats a likely majority, not just of the popular vote, but, in 2020, of the Electoral College as well.Read more
This is a special time for baseball fans. Major league baseball is ready to begin another season, with spring training officially opening this week. With some exceptions, fans in most cities can at least dream of watching their team play in the postseason and maybe even compete for the World Series championship. For them, hope springs eternal.
Ditto for the Democratic Party. 2018 appears to be a “wave year,” with an opportunity to win control of the House of Representatives, maybe even the Senate, and then use those majorities to place a major constitutional check on a president almost all Democrats loathe. Once that victory is secured, Democrats dream of finding the perfect candidate to win back the presidency in 2020. Just who that might be is not clear yet, but Democrats are hopeful that it is only a matter of time before the next Messiah arrives to lead them to the promised land. Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy in baseball or politics.Read more
President Obama will be seen by historians as the first president to bring millennial values to the challenges of the Oval Office. He isn’t a millennial (in fact he has two millennial children), but his leadership style and beliefs reflect America’s largest and most diverse cohort. And while much of the rest of America is divided on how well he has performed as the nation’s 44th president, Obama has won overwhelming approval from the millennial generation, born 1982-2003.Read more
Not since the Vietnam War and the presidential primary campaigns of 1968 and 1972, has America seen as wide a gap in voting behavior between older and younger voters within a political party as the Democrats are experiencing this year. Healing that rift becomes the primary challenge for Hillary Clinton whose general election victory could very well depend on winning over millennials (born 1982-2003) to her side.
This year’s Super Tuesday primaries will give both parties a chance to decide which of their candidates offers the best policy prescriptions to address the nation’s challenges. Surprisingly for a campaign that is supposedly focused on America’s future, many of the ideas being proposed echo proposals from America’s past. It’s almost as if the ghosts of not just Ronald Reagan, but Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, and Norman Thomas have come back to haunt us, making this one of the scariest presidential campaign seasons in recent memory.
For GOP, it’s Reincarnation of Long vs. Descendant of Bryan vs. Children of Reagan.Read more
This February, America will crown its professional football champion, name the best of the previous year’s movies, and begin to set the direction of its presidential politics. In what might be a mixed metaphor, voters in both parties seem torn between the desire to overturn the system that gave us The Big Short or to throw a long pass in one last desperate attempt to win the game within the existing rules. In trying to sort through which of these strategies they want to pursue, voters are demonstrating, once again, the power of a dynamic that has animated American politics since the country’s founding.Read more
Despite record CNN audiences for its three hours of continuous political debate among the Republican presidential primary candidates last week, the GOP failed once again to engage the Millennial voters it will need to be successful in the 2016 general election. Instead, the whole thing was more likely to remind Millennials of the raucous 2000 version of the movie, “Meet the Parents.” Just as in that comic sendoff of what can go wrong when cultures and generations clash, the evening featured non-stop attacks on the Millennial generation’s heroes and its beliefs. Unfortunately, this version had no Hollywood style reconciliation or even glimmer of understanding at its conclusion.Read more