We’re in an Emergency—Act Like It!

The New York Review of Books

Amid the blaring, pulsating hype of American culture, every election is routinely proclaimed the most important in our lifetime. Now the flood of heart-stopping news this summer—the Uvalde school massacre, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the January 6 revelations—has brought us face to face with an exceptional problem: What if this one really is? What if this time, like the boy who cried wolf, we find ourselves screaming that the emergency is real—and no one pays attention?

The 2022 election will be the first held in the shadow of an attempted coup d’étata nearly successful and still-unpunished crime against the state. It will be the first held after a Supreme Court decision that not only uprooted a half-century-old established right but that threatens the rescinding of other rights as well. And it will be the first in which it is clear that, from Republican legislators’ relentless efforts to change who counts the votes, the very character of American governance is on the ballot.

American voters have not confronted so grave a choice since 1860. Now as then, two dramatically different futures are on offer. By undermining the right to privacy, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision not only allows government to force women to carry pregnancies to term—as more than half the states will likely soon do—but foreshadows a country in which a state or the federal government can deny people contraception or indeed the right to love or marry whom they choose. By limiting the regulation of firearms, the Bruen decision ensures that increasing numbers of Americans, including children in classrooms, worshipers in churches, and marchers on the Fourth of July, will die in shootings. By calling into question how votes are counted—or whether they should matter at all—the January 6 coup and the persistent “Big Lie” behind it augur a country where the candidate fewer Americans voted for not only can become president (as he did in 2000 and 2016) but can be awarded the electoral votes of a state not as the choice of its people but as a diktat of its legislature.

This America of the future will be an ever more authoritarian place where government maintains the right to intervene in personal decisions, even the most intimate—except when it comes to firearms, in which case anyone, young or old, sane or unbalanced, can go about as heavily armed as a combat soldier. The coming election can either accelerate the country’s move toward this kind of authoritarianism or begin to slow it down. If any election cried out to be nationalized—to be fought not only on the kitchen-table issues of inflation and unemployment but on the defining principles of what the country is and what it should be—it is this November’s.

It is no accident that the last time an election was fought this way was also the last time the party holding the White House gained congressional seats in the midterms. Following the September 11 attacks George W. Bush’s Republicans made ruthless use of nationalism and, above all, fear. “Americans trust the Republicans,” Karl Rove told his colleagues, to keep “our families safe.” Though terrorists had killed thousands of Americans on their watch, the Republicans turned around and denounced Democrats as soft on terror. To vote for Democrats—even for heroic veterans like Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who had lost three limbs in Vietnam—was to vote for Osama bin Laden. The argument was shameless, savage, deeply unfair. It was anything but subtle. And it worked.

Two decades later the United States is again at risk, not from foreign terrorists but from domestic extremists who are working to insert government power between Americans and their most private decisions and who would fundamentally alter the way they choose their leaders. Justice Clarence Thomas in his Dobbs concurrence was forthright enough to state the implications of that decision for the right to contraception, same-sex relations, and marriage equality. The January 6 committee in its well-orchestrated hearings has begun to bring home to Americans the danger posed by the Big Lie for the next presidential election. Still, despite these clear signs of a darker future, for many voters the danger remains unfocused and distant.

Under the threat of this darkness, Democrats have a duty to make crystal clear to voters what is at stake in November. In midterm elections especially, Americans must be given a persuasive reason to vote—a task that is much harder for a party that won the White House only two years before. This year voters are apprehensive about inflation and other lingering effects of the pandemic and demoralized that Democrats, with their narrow majorities, have failed to achieve much of what they promised.

But the January 6 committee, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the Uvalde school shooting have put stark and frightening issues prominently before the public, and if presented clearly and persistently they have a strong potential to drive voters to the polls—especially younger voters, who were so vital to the Democrats’ midterm gains in 2018, and who now, after Democrats failed to pass their climate agenda, desperately need a reason to turn out. This election must be about safeguarding the country they know and the freedoms and rights they cherish. Democrats from President Biden on down need to present these issues clearly and unapologetically:

If you don’t want a government that can force you to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term—vote!

If you don’t want a government that can deny you contraceptives—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that can tell you with whom you can make love and whom you can marry—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that will do nothing to protect your child from a troubled teenager with an assault rifle—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that can ignore the people’s voice at the polling place—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that will do nothing about rising temperatures and the danger they pose to all of us—vote!

The president is in the strongest position to define this choice, and then to do it again, and again, and again. After the way his predecessor dominated the news cycle, President Biden often seems a vanishingly small figure on the national scene. If Democrats are going to succeed in nationalizing the election, he must become the proud and ubiquitous champion of women and their personal freedom, of the right of all Americans to love and marry whom they choose and to raise children in safety, of their right to vote and see their votes counted. It is not enough for Democrats to pray that the former president will declare his candidacy before November and thereby scare their voters to the polls. President Biden and other leading Democrats need to persuade voters of the threat they face and paint a convincing and forceful picture of how Democrats are going to meet it.

Delivering the message is only the beginning. Democrats must recognize that they have a grave credibility problem. Despite significant accomplishments, they made promises in 2020 that they have not kept. They need to face squarely the fact that for many voters, especially younger ones, Biden’s term—the disorganized flight from Afghanistan to the interminable negotiations over his signature “Build Back Better” bill—has been little more than a debacle. Voters who were drawn to the polls by his promises of dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse gases, to raise taxes on rich corporations and the very well-to-do, and to provide universal child care and two free years of junior college have seen little more than endless talk. One can natter on about the filibuster, but the fact is when it came to many of their domestic priorities, the Democrats could not deliver the support of even the fifty senators their voters gave them. In those cases, the system didn’t fail; the politicians did. Given this record, why should Democrats turn out and vote?

It is not enough to respond to this question by drumming up fear about what could happen if they don’t. Having disappointed their voters on so many of their promises, the Democrats must state clearly and specifically not only what they will actually do if they are returned to power but how they will do it. The model for this is Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, which was critical to the Republicans’ historic capture of both houses of Congress in 1994. Democrats need to make an explicit commitment that if they retain control of the House and gain at least two additional willing senators, they will effect a “carve out” of the filibuster that allows their Senate majority to pass bills inscribing in federal law the right to choose to end a pregnancy, to purchase contraception, and to marry whom one chooses. This vow should be announced by the president and repeated by candidates across the country. Democrats should proclaim their intention to cast these as their first votes when the new Congress convenes.

It is not difficult to think of other elements that might be added to a Democratic Contract with America: gun safety legislation that closes background check loopholes and sets a minimum age of twenty-one for buying firearms, bills that expand and safeguard voting rights, and of course legislation that confronts climate change and that ensures that every American pays a fair share of taxes.

Democrats have never been short of ideas. What they lack now is credibility. Passing even the stripped-down reconciliation bill addressing climate change, prescription drugs, and taxes would have helped enormously in persuading voters to turn out by proving that votes for Democrats really do lead to a more equitable society that confronts existential threats. That in the present emergency and in the shadow of the midterms they could not muster fifty votes to raise taxes on corporations and the very wealthy—a wildly popular measure vital to the entire Democratic program—casts embarrassing doubt on their legitimacy as a working- and middle-class party. It risks hurting turnout among those voters in the Democratic coalition whom they have been struggling the most to attract—the very working-class voters, polls suggest, more concerned with inflation and jobs than the threat to abortion and voting rights.

As I write, it seems that only the prescription drug part of the reconciliation bill is likely to pass. Reducing the costs of prescription drugs, if they accomplish it, will allow Democrats to argue that at least they are beginning to confront the rising cost of living. At the same time they must swallow hard and point to their failures to pass measures on climate change and taxes, immensely frustrating as they are, to reinforce the larger point: to pass their programs and to safeguard Americans’ rights, Democrats need to retain control of the House and to elect more senators. If they do manage to pass other vital legislation before the election—for example, parts of the China competitiveness bill that invest in producing semiconductors here and reforms to protect American democracy that emerge from the January 6 committee—this will reaffirm that Democrats are determined both to produce and protect American jobs and to safeguard a system under threat.

Democratic voters must not only fear what might happen if they don’t vote. They must believe that their leaders, once elected, can and will protect the country and its institutions. In the meantime President Biden badly needs to take specific executive actions on climate that show voters genuine urgency and creativity. He also needs to work harder to remind Americans of the jobs his infrastructure bill is creating. In 2020 he campaigned on the promise to make government work. Now he must convince voters again that, if given the tools, he can.

During the past months the specter of an increasingly autocratic America has raised its head. Voters who cast their ballots for Democrats must be in no doubt about what they are voting for: the freedom to love and marry whom they wish, the freedom to decide when they want to bear children and to keep those children safe from gun violence—and the certainty that they will go on having a real voice in choosing who leads them. They must be reminded that these rights and freedoms are at risk, that a very different future looms. The most important election of our lifetime is coming. The emergency is upon us. If we are truly to meet it, we must first make bold to say so.

July 21, 2022