Democrats and Republicans Agree on One Thing: Democracy Is in Danger

Democrats and Republicans Agree on One Thing: Democracy Is in Danger |

Sept. 2, 2022, 8:19 p.m. ETSept. 2, 2022, 8:19 p.m. ET

Peter Baker and Blake Hounshell

Democrats and Republicans Agree on One Thing: Democracy Is in Danger |

President Biden’s speech in Philadelphia called on Americans to resist threats to democracy.

WASHINGTON — The good news is that deeply divided Americans agree on at least one thing. The bad news is they share the view that their nearly two-and-a-half-century-old democracy is in danger — and disagree drastically about who is threatening it.

In a remarkable consensus, a new Quinnipiac University poll found that 69 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans say that democracy is “in danger of collapse.” But one side blames former President Donald J. Trump and his “MAGA Republicans” while the other fingers President Biden and the “socialist Democrats.”

So when the president delivers a warning about the fate of democracy as he did on Thursday night, the public hears two vastly different messages, underscoring deep rifts in American society that make it an almost ungovernable moment in the nation’s history. Not only do Americans diverge sharply over important issues like abortion, immigration and the economy, they see the world in fundamentally different and incompatible ways.

“Sadly, we have gotten away from a common understanding that democracy is a process and does not necessarily guarantee the results your side wants, that even if your team loses an election, you can fight for your policies another day,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a group that promotes democracy globally and recently has expressed concern for it at home as well. “That’s a huge challenge for the president, but also for all politicians.”

The chasm between these two Americas makes Mr. Biden’s task all the more pronounced. While he once aspired to bridge that divide after he evicted Mr. Trump from the Oval Office, Mr. Biden has been surprised, according to advisers, at just how enduring his predecessor’s grip on the Republican Party has been.

And so, instead of bringing Americans together, the president’s goal has essentially evolved into making sure that the majority of the country that opposes Mr. Trump is fully alert to the threat that the former president still poses — and energized or scared enough to do something about it, most immediately in the upcoming midterm elections.

That calculation meant that Mr. Biden knew he would be hit for abandoning his stance as the president who would unite the country. With the legislative season basically over pending the election, he no longer needed to worry about offending Republican members of Congress he might need to pass bipartisan bills. Instead, he has communicated with voters much as he did in 2020, reaching out especially to suburban women and other key groups in swing states like Pennsylvania.

The Republicans’ reaction to Mr. Biden’s speech was remarkable. For years, they stood quietly by as Mr. Trump vilified and demonized anyone who disagreed with him — encouraging supporters to beat up protesters; demanding that his rivals be arrested; accusing critics of treason and even murder; calling opponents “fascists”; and retweeting a supporter saying “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” But they rose up as one on Thursday night and Friday to complain that Mr. Biden was the one being divisive.

“It’s unthinkable that a president would speak about half of Americans that way,” said Nikki Haley, who was Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Leaders protect the Constitution,” added Mike Pompeo, who was Mr. Trump’s secretary of state. “They don’t declare half of America to be enemies of the state like Joe Biden did last night.”

Aided by an eerie red speech backdrop, Republicans described Mr. Biden in dictatorial terms, as “if Mussolini and Hitler got together,” as Donald Trump Jr. put it.

When it comes to democracy in America, there is no real equivalence, of course. The elder Mr. Trump sought to use the power of his office to overturn a democratic election, pressuring state and local officials, the Justice Department, members of Congress and his own vice president to disregard the will of the people to keep him in office. When that did not work, he riled up a crowd that stormed the Capitol, disrupting the counting of Electoral College votes and threatening to execute those standing in Mr. Trump’s way.

ImageFormer President Donald J. Trump has frequently used rallies to disparage his critics.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Since leaving office, Mr. Trump has continued to demand that the election be reversed and even suggested that he be reinstated as president, all based on lies he tells his supporters about what happened in 2020. He has forced Republican officeholders and candidates to embrace his false claims and sought to install election deniers in state positions where they can influence future vote counts.

When Mr. Trump’s supporters express fear for democracy with pollsters, it is not about those actions but about what Mr. Trump has told them about election integrity, even if what he says is wrong. They also see Mr. Biden’s administration as far too liberal, expanding government to the point that it will invariably restrain their own freedoms.

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“There is a real difference in how the parties define democracy,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Vanderbilt University and author of “Partisans,” a newly published history of the rise of conservative movement figures in the 1990s and their transformation of American politics.

“The Republican Party at the moment subscribes to a much narrower definition, as is evident in their support for everything from voter suppression to extensive gerrymandering to the right of Republican officials to overturn voter preferences in the certification process,” she added. “The Democratic Party favors not only a more inclusive voting system but more robust systems to support majoritarian politics.”

In crafting his speech to be delivered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia for a national audience, Mr. Biden struggled with the question of how to denounce those he deemed unconstitutional actors without disparaging everyone who disagreed with him, advisers said.

He stressed in the speech that he did not view all Republicans as “MAGA Republicans,” his term for Mr. Trump’s supporters. He tried to straddle that line again on Friday in response to a Fox News reporter who asked if he considered all of Mr. Trump’s supporters to be a threat to the country.

“I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country,” Mr. Biden replied. “I do think anyone who calls for the use of violence, fails to condemn violence when it’s used, refuses to acknowledge when an election has been won, insists upon changing the way in which we rule and count votes — that is a threat to democracy.”

But it was not clear if Mr. Biden would follow up his tough speech with any particular policy proposals. A day after the address, he hosted a round table with civil rights leaders at the White House to discuss issues related to democracy, including voting rights restrictions.

“We need a democracy that does not condone or allow or facilitate attacks on its own people, whether that be through voter suppression, whether that be what we saw during the Jan. 6 insurrection, whether that be through police-state violence or whether it be through white supremacy,” Damon Hewitt, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said afterward.

Democratic strategists have spent months quietly amassing research on how to brand the Republican Party as extremist during an election cycle when Mr. Trump is not on the ballot.

The project was the brainchild of Navin Nayak, the president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the research arm of a Democratic-aligned think tank. Working with John D. Podesta, a former aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who was appointed Friday as a senior adviser to Mr. Biden, Mr. Nayak began with a key insight.

Republicans, the two men concluded, had been remarkably successful in defining the Democratic Party by its leftward-most pole. In recent years, that has been represented by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who helpfully for Republicans calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

Republican strategists seized on the word “socialist,” spending millions of dollars in television advertisements in places like Miami to appeal to Hispanic voters whose families had long and painful memories of leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela. In the 2020 election, Republicans picked off enough Hispanics to put Florida out of reach for Mr. Biden.

This year, Democratic strategists aim to use the research Mr. Nayak commissioned from liberal polling firms and from SKDK, a public relations group known for its campaign work for Democratic clients, to define “MAGA Republicans” as the core of the Republican brand.

“It allows us to have a consistent story about Republicans no matter what the topic is,” Mr. Nayak said in an interview.

Anita Dunn, a founding partner at SKDK who is now on leave from the firm to serve as a senior adviser in the Biden White House, was a paid consultant on the project. Ms. Dunn and her staff developed mock 30-second television ads using Mr. Nayak’s research and tested them with voters. She did not respond to messages seeking comment on Friday.

With Mr. Trump driving daily headlines, Democratic strategists said they had an opportunity to link “MAGA Republicans” to a former president whose unpopularity has driven down the ratings of the overall party, giving them a chance to hold onto Congress and governorships in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“What we have is people who are directly linked to Jan. 6, and therefore using Jan. 6 in the campaign is yet another way to link them to extremism,” said Jefrey Pollock, the founding partner and the president of Global Strategy Group, one of two polling firms that conducted some of the research.

That is not a message, as the Quinnipiac poll indicated, that will resonate with everyone. The question is whether it will resonate with enough Americans to make a difference.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.


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