Swing Shift

Jimmy Kimmel occasionally does a person-on-the-street segment where LA pedestrians are asked polling questions like “Did you vote for X in today’s election?” when there was no election or even X running as candidate. The people who say they voted for X often seem friendly, charming, and completely self-confident—folks you wouldn’t mind sitting next to on a plane.

What’s disturbing is not that these individuals lie about a democratic responsibility, but that even after being called out, they go ahead and sign the release form. The desire to have their face on television is stronger than the desire for civic integrity. The Kimmel cohort might not be chronic low-information voters, but they are at least temporary affiliates. If they do vote at all, they are likely to be the swing voters who decide on our government. Although this disparate chunk is not unified, it is nevertheless a front and can hold the nation hostage.

The problem with too much democracy is that it shows us who we are—people who are not democratic. Greater participation doesn’t mean better government. The Founders understood the capriciousness of public opinion and that the public should not be directly involved in government’s day-to-day operations. That’s why they made our representative democracy once removed from the people.

“I don’t see any political space for making a principled argument against more participation,” the historian Francis Fukuyama recently said. “This comes up in primaries. There’s no question in my mind that the move toward popular primaries abetted the rise of extremism, particularly on the right. I think we were better off with professional politicians in smoke-filled rooms nominating candidates. But try to make that argument today and you’ll get your head handed to you.”

The Republican Party has spent generations gaming and hacking the system for minority rule, removing firewalls that prevent selfish voters from titling elections that will damage the collective. The Senate’s design has long disadvantaged Democrats, and added to this you have educational polarization and the decline in ticket splitting giving Republicans a tyrannical hold. In order to achieve even the slightest majority, Democrats need to win all the swing voters on the board.

Before the 2020 presidential election, Barack Obama held out hope that he could reach these fence-sitters. He extended them the courtesy of assuming they were turned off from voting because democracy didn’t contain a place for them, that they didn’t like “the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and conspiracy theories.” But the candidate who blatantly failed a nation with his pandemic response did surprisingly well in that election because he gave people money. By signing the Cares Act, Donald Trump distributed more than half a trillion dollars in stimulus checks to more than 150 million Americans. If even regular voters are not fired up about President Biden’s infrastructure package that’s on the ropes, we have to assume that swing voters will remain completely ignorant of the bill’s intentions unless something silently appears in their checking accounts as a direct deposit.

Ezra Klein recently devoted a lengthy column to the dire warnings of Democratic data-modeler David Shor. Basically, if during the next year the Democrats fail to pass critical voting reforms, Biden’s massive hard and soft infrastructure package that locks us into climate change mitigation, and referendums for statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., then Shor thinks we’ll never get another chance in many people’s lifetimes.

He’s been arguing that Democrats desperately need to do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views swing voters in Republican-leaning states like and don’t like, holding up the lesson the Obama team took from focus groups in 2012: don’t talk about immigration.

Reading this detailed account of warring Democratic election strategies gave me a headache. Focus groups of white suburban voters pretty much decided the 1996 presidential election. The million-dollar question in 2021: Was Bill Clinton’s policy shift to a quasi-Republican platform to win reelection worth it? People talk about his second term as some kind of golden days, but what about the generational damage of job insecurity and declining working-class incomes as Democrats sat out the dance for four years?

The Empire State Building recently lit up red, white, and blue to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fox News. This toxic propaganda machine was born exactly as Clinton signed away welfare. One move did not offset the other. All the 1996 election meant was that Clinton could continue horsing around with Helmut Kohl in public and with White House interns in private.

How much swing-voter denialism can we stick on a platform? The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a frightening report in August, saying that human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. And yet that news failed to even register with voters in battleground states, according to sampling from two Engagious/Schlesinger focus groups.

Aren’t we tired of even suggesting this Trojan Horse strategy? We will sneak in our commandos disguised as moderates and then we will spring. Yeah, well we’ve done that now with two branches of government. The problem with this scenario is that the commandos never want to jeopardize their jobs. Year after year, personal preservation trumps legislation action.

People keep saying that America has become a disaster movie from the seventies, so that means we need people in Congress to start acting like Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters. I doubt Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have enough integrity to hold their breath for a second, but others need to forfeit political futures for the Big One. Even the current James Bond knows when it’s time to end one’s tenure for the good of the order. It’s 2021 and we’re inside the gates. Spring without remorse. §