The 2023 election was a relief not a triumph

Posted on November 15, 2023

We ought to feel good about the 2023 elections results. But, at the same time, we must be realistic. Democrats narrowly won. It’s a relief but not the breakthrough that we need.

In the most telling set of contests, in Virginia, Democrats retained the Senate 21-to-19 and regained the House 51-to-49. It was awfully close and the difference was probably voter enthusiasm to protect abortion rights. In New Jersey, Democrats swept a handful of competitive legislative elections, probably due to a consolidation of the progressive base. Kentucky Democratic Governor Andy Beshear won reelection, probably based on his personal governing style. Voters in several states rejected right-wing Moms for Liberty candidates, instead favoring normal people who oppose book bans and curriculum restrictions. And Ohio voters approved abortion rights by a margin of 57-to-43.

These are all good harbingers of the future. Fights over abortion rights, book bans and other so-called “cultural” issues will continue to help Democrats win some persuadable voters. The 2023 elections, including several special elections, suggest that (with hard work and luck) we probably will, once again, barely win in 2024.

But that’s not good enough. Persuadable voters saw their choices in 2023 as between historically-normal Democrats and Republicans. That is disappointing. Persuadable voters don’t get it. They don’t understand that most Republicans, and their nominees and elected officials, are okay with ultra-extremism.

As you probably know, last Saturday, Donald Trump announced:

We pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country, lie steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy American, and the American Dream. The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave, than the threat from within. Despite the hatred and anger of the Radical Left Lunatics who want to destroy our Country, we will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!

First, Trump is manifestly off his rocker. Second, nobody from either party or among the media is the least bit surprised that he said this. Third, dear friends, he is talking about us. We are the “vermin.” And do you know what is done with vermin? They are exterminated. Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is the most serious threat to America in its history.

Voters on the right either believe this plainly fascist propaganda or they wave it off as the new normal, no big deal. MAGA supporters (now the overwhelming majority of Republicans) are living in an alternate political reality of TV, radio, websites and social media content constructed by ultra right-wing megadonors. As a result, they are entirely convinced of the “facts” behind their truly preposterous beliefs and conspiracy theories.

They believe the dangers of climate change and COVID are essentially lies. They believe that racial, religious and gender minorities are persecuting them. They believe the 2020 election was rigged. They believe the economy (which is unusually strong) is in tatters. Half of them believe that a conspiracy of Satan-worshipping pedophiles run the world. They welcome these monstrous spoon-fed lies because they want to fit into their social group, their in-group. To them, being part of the group is more important than critical thinking, by far. So, it is easy for them to be swept up in confirmation bias, and they are. These people are not persuadable.

Nevertheless, there remains a small slice of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents who are still living in a reality-based political world. They are not MAGA acolytes because they understand something about facts and critical thinking. They tend to be college educated, although not necessarily. If we persuade this narrow band of voters, we can defeat the authoritarian racists by 55-to-45 or even 60-to-40 margins.

And we have to do it. Because if the right wingers win a single national election – as Donald Trump has made crystal clear – our democracy is over.