The past few weeks our country made it much more likely we’ll have another contested election. The president of the United States deployed aggressively misleading and divisive language this week and stated without evidence that a Georgia election law was akin to the Jim Crow era. He was joined not only in that reckless rhetoric by other Democrats, but many of those same Democrats decided to also presuppose the outcome of a criminal trial and set the stage for our next round of unrest. No word yet from Jack Dorsey of Twitter on whether he’ll be banning any of this discourse if our streets erupt in a second summer of discontent. Of course, all of this is on top of the primary messaging from the Democratic Party of the past few years: that something called “the system” is not only rigged, but “rigged against you.” That type of red meat is apparently not divisive, exploitative, or dangerous when utilized by our brethren on the other side of the aisle.
We may be on the verge of the necessary puncturing of a prominent political myth: that the 2020 election unrest was an aberration. Instead, we’ll soon recognize it as an event along a continuum of instability that 1) started at least as early as the 2018 midterms and 2) was not a symptom of Trump’s unique irresponsibility. This is unfortunately where we are.
As it relates to our evolving election laws, after a massive and historic change in how Americans vote in 2020, Democrats are taking a revanchist hard line: that all elections conducted before last November – like the ones that brought us Bill Clinton twice and Barack Obama as our first black president – were relics of a Jim Crow system. That conducting elections according to any rules other than our new COVID-emergency rules of 2020 is about an evil racism, not the natural push and pull of partisan overreach on issues we’ve been arguing about for decades. Also, that basic voting security restrictions of the type that existed in 2018, and 2016, and 2014, and 2012, oh and in so many state and local and special elections around the country – all of the rules in place then are now equivalent to, I’m sorry Joe “akin to,” the segregationist horrors of the Jim Crow era. And that’s so despite broad increases in voter participation percentages across minority populations, a trend that has continued even for midterm elections where underrepresentation is typically starker. That irresponsible narrative is why we would have likely seen political violence regardless of which candidate seemed on top the morning of November 4th.
What does all of this mean? As the next midterms approach, we seem committed as a country to repeat the patterns of November 2018, patterns that predictably metastasized in 2020 given the higher stakes. Just like our two past elections, we’re now seeding the conditions for a full return of the two competing election narratives of widespread voter fraud and racist voter suppression, facts be damned. We’ll again fail to recognize that the process fights and inability to cleanly transfer power is a symptom, not the cause of, a division we still struggle to grasp the literal nature of. The introduction of HR1 by Democrats is an attempt to formalize their narrative into law, and the death blow to federalism it entails in their minds is a happy side effect.
But for now, Democrats will revel in the messaging victories and, frankly, it is smart politics on their behalf. The consequences of their throwing this red meat to their base are alienation and bitter national division, but also maybe electoral victory 18 months from now. In fact, Stacey Abrams, their celebrated trailblazer and before Trump the most senior official to refuse to concede an election in a generation, continues to spread misinformation. This is dangerous because elections are settled not only as a function of the rules in place, but also by public perception of those rules, and the narrative develops in the lead-up to the vote. Put more simply, legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder.
So, we speed on towards our next contested election. The question is whether our next January 6 moment comes from an election like a few months ago, a coming verdict much like the one nearly thirty years ago in LA, or something new entirely.