Let's Honor MLK's Birthday By Being Impotent and Embarrassing
So reads the memo I assume went out to progressive activists
What do people find annoying about Democrats? There’s not enough time to run through all the stuff — and I don’t mean “not enough time right now”, I mean “not enough time in the universe” — so let me list what I think are the top three things:
We’re overly-influenced by an activist class that practices a weird, fundamentalist religion that’s obsessed with race;
We’re out of touch;
We soak our pants over absolutely everything.
Activists just managed to reinforce all three perceptions in a tidy little episode about voting rights that produced a hot pile of nothing. So, happy birthday, Martin Luther King: We got you jack shit!
To be clear: I wanted voting rights legislation to pass. I also don’t think that better strategy would have changed the outcome; we will solve dark energy before we figure out how to influence Kyrstyn Synyma.1 And, for what it’s worth, I’ve wanted to get rid of the filibuster since Mitch McConnell was a much younger old man. I want the same thing that the activists I criticize in this article want; my complaint is with their rhetoric and strategy.
Last year, I wrote a three-part series about how what matters most in politics is a party’s brand, and that the Democratic brand is increasingly associated with a type of lefty activist that most Americans hate. This association drags Democrats down, which harms progressive goals. I think that recent events surrounding voting rights have put that dynamic on display again, which provides another opportunity to ask: Democrats…what the fuck are we doing here?
Let’s briefly review what happened: In the past year, Republicans in 19 states have passed laws that make it harder to vote. These laws have sometimes targeted Democratic constituencies, especially Black people. You probably already know this if you’ve watched MSNBC at any point in the past few months. You might also know it if you know someone who watches MSNBC, or if you’ve driven past an electronics store where the TVs were tuned to MSNBC. In fact, I’m fairly sure that if you stand near a TV that had recently played MSNBC, you’ll absorb this information through osmosis.
In response, Congressional Democrats drafted bills creating minimum standards for voting laws across the country. These bills would enshrine a number of things that make voting easier, like early voting, mail-in voting, and same-day registration. Reducing gerrymandering was another goal. On Friday, the House passed a bill that did a lot of things, including reconstituting the preclearance requirement in the Voting Rights Act and making voting day a national holiday. This bill is DOA in the Senate because of the filibuster — it will probably officially die tomorrow. I think that’s a shame; I think that voting should be easy, and I like days off. I feel that on a fundamental level, every person’s greatest ambition is to lay around with their thumb up their ass, and this bill would have been a small step towards achieving that beautiful dream.
Personally, I think that “we’re making it easier to vote” is a winning message. Voting is a hassle. You have to either get up early on a Tuesday in November (a total non-starter as far as I’m concerned) or ask your boss for time off. Your boss might respond by saying: “Yes! You may go and not be paid for the time that you’re gone.” Voting usually takes place in an elementary school cafeteria, the very place where you became skeptical of the concept of society to begin with. Any sense of grandeur or awe that you might get from participating in the democratic process is undercut by the unmistakable smell of tater tots and overcooked vegetables. I feel like people would be glad to be told: “You can skip that. Vote early, vote by mail, drop it in a drop box — the Democratic Party wants to reduce the duration and intensity of the pain in your ass.”
Unfortunately, that message was, at best, a secondary message in this fight. The message we chose to go with was basically: “This is exactly the same as Jim Crow and nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake.” To call this argument “overwrought” would be a massive understatement — calling our rhetoric “overwrought” would be like calling Baywatch “a little horny.” Yeah…ya fuckin’ think so?
The first problem with our argument is that it’s needlessly exclusionary. Instead of talking about voting access as something that affects everyone — which it does — we portrayed it as something that mostly affects Black people. That’s not really accurate; while some provisions (especially in Georgia) appeared to target Black voters, most of the laws states passed sought to decrease turnout by making it harder to vote. These laws affect everyone, not just Black people. For God’s sake: Alaska was one of the states that made voting harder; do people really think that lawmakers were trying to suppress the Black vote in Alaska? If their goal was to keep Black Alaskans away from the polls, they could have just passed the Kevin Is Not Allowed To Vote act and been done with it.
My second problem with our argument is that we overstated the danger by a factor of about a billion. Instead of making the case for common-sense measures to increase voting access, we acted as though this was the most crucial moment for the republic since Pickett’s Charge. This amounted to a rookie debating mistake: If your argument is sound, don’t overreach and give your opponent something to quibble with. If you’re trying to convince people that Hitler was bad, don’t say that Hitler broke up The Beatles; that just throws your opponent a lifeline. Plus, you look like an idiot to anyone who knows that The Beatles were broken up by Lee Harvey Oswald.
My honest feeling — and here comes some of the sweet, succulent heresy that makes a Substack newsletter hum — is that the stakes here are not very high. Personally, I think Republican voter suppression tactics are shitty, but not very effective. As I’ve mentioned before, the evidence that low turnout helps Republicans is increasingly thin. I also think that voter ID laws are less effective than they used to be; most folks are wise to this gambit, and people who try to measure these laws’ effects typically find nothing or close to nothing. I’m sure that Republicans would like to tilt the playing field in their favor; they’re clearly trying to cheat. But people can try anything; you can try to teach your dog Rachmaninoff, you can try to build a time machine out of graham crackers and mud. Democrats can support ballot access without reacting to every dumb Republican trick like it’s zero hour for democracy.
Some people would ask: If suppression tactics aren’t effective, then why are Republicans trying them? My answer is simple: State legislators are morons. Any country-fried fuckwit with a pulse and a name can become State Senator. In my eyes, the job ranks beneath Little League Coach or Discount Stripper in terms of prestige. Many Republican state legislators believe Trump’s Stop the Steal horseshit, which is clearly the dumbest narrative since Greg Brady became a world-class surfer after picking up the sport on vacation. Democrats could have made Republicans look like a bunch of panicky idiots by laughing at their base-driven nonsense and then pursuing voting access in a measured way.
Instead, we matched their base-driven hyperventilating with some of our own. A major mistake was to conflate voter suppression — which is shitty but ineffective — with election subversion, which would spark a constitutional crisis. By matching the GOP’s delusion, we’ve instigated a Burn After Reading-style cat and mouse game in which all the players appear to be idiots and the stakes are non-existent. We’ve convinced ourselves that if Fulton Country has anything fewer than 38 drop boxes, then democracy is basically over. We talk as if being unable to hand out water to people in voting lines makes America indistinguishable from Stalin’s Russia. Very recently, election systems were the exclusive domain of political science nerds; bending someone’s ear about no-excuse absentee voting would have been about as welcome as explaining advanced quidditch strategy. Articles about changes in voter registration rules ran on page A12 of the local paper next to stories like “Library Hours Extended” and “Local Potato Looks Like Jay Leno”. But now, we’re making ridiculous claims about these laws being “Jim Crow on steroids” despite the fact that election systems across the country are a jumble of good and bad and even blue states like New York often have systems that people like me who want to make voting easy consider “bad”.
Which brings me to my third complaint about what we’re doing: We look like sanctimonious losers who are cosplaying the civil rights movement. I’ve written about this before: the civil rights era is so venerated in leftist discourse that some people — especially the remarkably bored — gin up civil rights narratives and place themselves at the center. They essentially play Civil Rights Hero the way a kindergartener might play Astronaut. And they imagine themselves to be respected and brave, but so does the kindergartner, even though the world can see that their “space suit” is made of tin foil and their “rocket” is a refrigerator box. This is basically what some people on the left do; we figuratively run around with a goldfish-bowl-space-helmet on our head zapping imaginary aliens with a banana, and then election season rolls around and we think: “Gee…why don’t people take us seriously?”
Activist groups are partly to blame for this. Activist fundraising requires that every event be treated as substantially more critical than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Each week, every group on K street needs “…JUST TEN MORE DOLLARS OR AN ACCURSED BEAST FROM DAYS OF YORE SHALL BE BORNE ANEW AND SWALLOW YOUR CHILDREN WHOLE, AND THEIR REMAINS SHALL BE SHAT OUT UPON THE FILTH-STREWN ROCKS OF THE BEAST’S WRECHED LAIR CAN WE COUNT ON YOUR SUPPORT???” Recently, Donald Trump has taken to adopting the tone of an emotionally manipulative mother who’s not mad, just disappointed:
Oh no! Trump will be so disappointed in us! It breaks my heart to imagine sad widdle Trump, sitting alone in a big, empty room in Mar-a-Lago, his bottom lip quivering, hitting “refresh” on his browser, utterly dismayed that the people he thought were his friends let him down. This is honestly just too sad — I’ve got a lump in my throat and I think I might cry. I’d better move on from the image of sad Trump (is he wearing a birthday hat in your imagination?) before doing comedy becomes impossible.
Activists demanded that Biden make a big, public push on voting rights. They did this despite the fact that Democrats clearly lack the votes to overcome the filibuster. An often-downplayed reality is that Manchin and Synyma aren’t the only Democratic Senators who aren’t ready to scrap the filibuster — at least three other Democrats still need persuading. I don’t blame activists for pushing for action, nor do I object to spending political capital on voting rights — I agree with both things! But once the handwriting was on the wall, they should have let the bill die a normal death. Instead, they continued with calls for undefined “action”, which led to a high-profile speech and a sure-to-fail vote scheduled for Martin Luther King’s birthday (pushed one day because of weather). They basically forced Senate Democrats to take a highly public loss in what has already been a Detroit Lions-esque season, and they coerced the president into starring in a prime-time special that could have been called Impotent Joe’s Extremely Public Sure-Fire Failure Extravaganza.
The good news is that legislation to make elections work better isn’t totally dead. A bill to overhaul the Electoral Count Act and maybe do a few other things is being written, and it might actually pass. In my opinion, reforming the Electoral Count Act should be a higher priority than most of the stuff in the House bill, because doing so reduces the chance of a stolen election. If the ECA gets reformed, I’ll move the Election Theft Austin Powers Steamroller back a few feet.
The other piece of good news is that by November, this episode will be mostly forgotten. After all: Who would have guessed that right now we’d be talking about inflation, Ukraine, and Novak Djokovic? Eleven months from now, the hot topics might be wombats, Namibian skateboarders, and lima beans. The voting rights failure won’t ultimately move the needle much. But Democrats did just make ourselves look like asses for no real gain, and I think we should ask ourselves why that keeps happening.
You know what would really help voting rights legislation? A few more Democrats in the Senate. And what would help that happen? Democrats spending less time looking like hyperventilating idiots who are in thrall to our activist base. Quixotic campaigns full of exaggerated rhetoric don’t further progressive causes; they fuel Fox News segments and make it harder for Democrats to win. It would have been nice if we could have delivered a bill on Martin Luther King Day that makes it easier to vote. But, failing that, we should have cut our losses and left ourselves in a better position to pass that bill at some point in the future.
This is an intentional misspelling of Kyrstyn Synyma’s name; I got tired of looking up the spelling and have decided to spell it Lynyrd Skynyrd-style in perpetuity.