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The chorus of Republican voices echoing manufactured claims of mass election fraud hasn’t petered out yet. So, is it:
- A grift to raise cash for Donald Trump?
- A ploy to goose aggrieved Republican turnout in Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoffs?
- An elaborate scheme to flatter a nuclear-armed narcissist into gradually accepting the reality that he is what he most fears: a loser?
- An attempt to preemptively drain the Biden-Harris administration of perceived legitimacy, in an effort to clip its wings and then use its ineffectiveness to secure big Republican wins in the midterms?
- An actual, thought-through, coordinated plot for Republican-controlled state legislatures to use the pretext of public concerns over voter fraud — concerns methodically manufactured out of thin air through sheer force of repetition by Trump and his minions — to claim a constitutional “duty” to override their states’ certified election results and instead directly appoint Republican presidential electors? In short, is what we are witnessing the prelude to an Electoral College coup? As David Sirota first reported, a harrowing paper by Ohio State constitutional law expert Edward Foley warned about this precise scenario last year, explaining how state legislatures could attempt to claim this kind of constitutional cover in order to override certified election results.
My take? A through D are definitely happening, while the risk of E being a real threat is very slim. But slim isn’t nil and given the stakes, that’s makes it enough to deserve some attention.
To be clear, the reason a tin-pot coup attempt remains highly unlikely has nothing to do with the laughable idea that Republican lawmakers have too much respect for core democratic principles to engage is such a brazen power grab. These are people who owe their holds on state power, and in many cases their entire careers, to openly anti-democratic redistricting schemes and other wily tools of suppressing, at all costs, the terrifying prospect of majority rule. They keep finding new ways to tell us that they don’t actually believe in representative democracy, and we should believe them.
Moreover, the tactic of taking minor voting irregularities and outlandishly inflating them to the level of election-stealing, thereby justifying a very real coup d’etat, has been the go-to tactic in countless U.S.-backed “regime-change” operations around the world — schemes supported, it must be said, by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Do not tell yourself they are above bringing the tactic home. If the Republican Party refrains, and I believe it will, it won’t be out of fealty to democracy but rather out of loyalty to market and empire. If multiple state governments were to openly override the express will of their electorates, the result would be massive protest and unrest, as well it should be. In the face of this kind of uncertainty in the world’s largest economy, markets would crash and U.S. global power would further erode. That’s why Rupert Murdoch and other corporate titans are rumored to be trying to talk Trump off the cliff.
Democrats should be out there forcefully defending the integrity of the votes and condemning coup-plotting for what it is.
Still, given the kind of profitable chaos Republicans and their donors have grown accustomed to under Trump, nothing can be ruled out. And as Sirota reported, these are not abstract fears: “Most ominously of all, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona are already insinuating that the results may be fraudulent, even though they haven’t produced any evidence of widespread fraud.”
Given this reality, Joe Biden’s “Come on, man” approach of brushing off Republican election denialism as an “embarrassment,” rather than a serious threat, is probably a poor one. The Republican strategy, if they do go down this road, relies on state legislators appealing to a perception — not a reality — that the public has lost faith in the election results. That’s a lot easier to claim if the only people screaming outside your offices and bombarding you with phone calls and emails are Trump supporters shouting conspiracy theories about voter fraud, while the people who would see a challenge to certified results as a straight-up coup have already moved on, convinced that Republicans wouldn’t dare cross yet another democratic red line so they aren’t even bothering to make the point.
To be absolutely clear: The point shouldn’t have to be made. There is zero evidence of widespread fraud, and ratifying certified results should be a formality. But if there is one core lesson to take from the Republican victory in Florida in 2000, when the Bush campaign staged astroturf riots and the Gore campaign told supporters to stay home and trust the process, it is that partisan decision-makers are swayed by street-level messaging wars. If Republican state lawmakers are inclined toward flagrantly overriding the will of the people, the ability to claim that the overwhelming majority of the people they are hearing from have lost faith in the elections may be excuse enough. Remember: they would not be looking for the truth, which they obviously already know, but rather a marginally plausible cover story. One-sided protests could provide that.
It is in this context that Democrats should be out there forcefully defending the integrity of the votes and condemning coup-plotting for what it is. That means not waving it away as “embarrassing,” but, as Sen. Bernie Sanders had done, denouncing it as “an outrage” that is “delegitimizing our electoral process and American democracy.” The public should not wait for Democratic leaders to tell them it’s time to fight back. Anyone who still kind of likes the idea of votes counting for something — regardless of who they voted for or even if they voted this election — should consider taking some time to make their voices heard to legislators in those Republican-controlled houses.
This is an organizing challenge, and for understandable reasons. Many of the progressive organizations that ran massive voter education and mobilization campaigns during the election have closely studied the lessons of Bush v. Gore and were prepared to stay mobilized to defend the vote if it ended up being close enough to steal. In truth, the election is much closer than it should have been given Trump’s murderous reign (a subject as I have discussed elsewhere), but it’s hardly a nail-biter coming down to a few hanging chads. For this reason, most organizers have concluded that, this time around, they don’t need to focus their energies on avoiding a repeat of the Bush v. Gore-style Democratic Party dumpster fire.
Instead, most progressive organizations are working hard to avoid a repeat of a different variety of Democratic Party debacle: the one that unfolded in 2008-2009, in the months between Barrack Obama’s euphoric election win in November and his inauguration in January. That’s when Obama surrounded himself with a team of hardcore neoliberal economists and Wall Street bankers. And so, despite campaign promises to “rebuild Main Street,” address structural market failures, and arrest the climate crisis, they spent the transition mapping out a maddeningly inadequate response to the raging financing crisis, one that grossly failed working people and the planet.
As the new cabinet was being assembled and its agenda set in stone, anyone who raised concerns about where this train was obviously headed was promptly told to pipe down and “Give the guy a chance” — the mantra of those fateful months. Months that were wasted with fantastical narratives about the president’s imagined long game, stories that cast Obama as a progressive hero who was only temporarily appeasing the hungry gods of the market in order to buy time for his transformational popular agenda that was always just around the corner.
Since Election Day, the reigning attitude toward Biden among groups organizing for racial, economic, and climate justice has been “this guy gets zero chances.”
It never came. The political window (and Federal Reserve faucet) opened up by Wall Street’s collapse eventually closed, and the logic of austerity soon bore down once again. The racial wealth gap widened. The planet burned. The architects of these crimes faced no consequences. Not until a new wave of far more independent and confrontational movements rose up in Obama’s second term — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matters, the Dreamers, fossil fuel divestment, No Keystone XL, Standing Rock — did we start to see some actual progress. But nothing that administration did matched the scale of the crises it faced, and which have only deepened since.
I take heart in the fact that the militant movements born in Obama’s second term, and which deepened during the Trump years, have clearly learned from the mistakes made in the 2008-2009 transition period. Since Election Day, the reigning attitude toward Biden among groups organizing for racial, economic, and climate justice has been “this guy gets zero chances.” Organizations that have worked relentlessly for months to turn out the vote for Biden did not even take a weekend off to celebrate. Instead, they immediately unveiled detailed plans outlining all the executive actions a Biden-Harris administration could take within its first 100 days: from immediate student debt relief, to generous “people’s bailouts” as part of its Covid-19 response, to the highly detailed “Frontlines Climate Justice Executive Action Platform,” backed by a coalition of powerful groups and published by the think tank Demos.
Most ambitious has been a campaign just launched by the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, which focusses not only on what the new administration can do, but also who should be appointed to do it. Quoting the president-elect’s accurate assertion that voters had “given us a mandate for action on Covid, the economy, on climate change, on systemic racism,” the groups laid out their own vision of what it would mean for Biden to actually live up to this high-stakes mandate and solve these overlapping crises.
It begins, they argue, with creating a new “White House Office of Climate Mobilization,” modeled after the society-wide mobilizations of World War II. The person leading this office would have broad powers to put the entire administration on emergency footing and coordinate action across the different agencies so that every part of the government — from housing to health care — was advancing rapid, justice-based decarbonization. Rather than treating climate action as the narrow purview of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, “the Office of Climate Mobilization will deeply embed this mission into all of our spending, regulations, policies, and actions.”
Seeking to avoid Obama-era setbacks, they also call for the Cabinet to be made up of a diverse group of fighters, with “no ties to fossil fuel companies or corporate lobbyists.” They even released their picks for a dream Biden Cabinet, complete with a slick video imagining their favorite candidates being sworn in. The full list is here but highlights include: Sanders for labor secretary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren for Treasury secretary, Rep. Barbara Lee as secretary of state, Rep. Deb Haaland for interior secretary, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for Justice Department, Rep. Rashida Tlaib for Housing and Urban Development, Rep. Pramila Jayapal for Health and Human Services, and economist Joseph Stiglitz for director of the National Economic Council.
On one level, the whole exercise is a heartbreak — a tortuous glimpse of the government we could have had under a Sanders presidency. In a best-case scenario, maybe two of these movement picks stand a chance of making it through the Beltway gatekeepers running the Biden-Harris transition — and even that is highly unlikely.
But that doesn’t make this aggressive attempt to move the benchmarks a waste of time. The fact that Sunrise and Justice Democrats were so quick to capitalize on record youth turn out in the elections and go on the offense with their vision for a transformational administration speaks to just how different this moment is from 2008. The groups that mobilized to defeat Trump have every intention of staying mobilized and pushing Biden at every stage.
That’s a very good thing. And though it won’t give us Bernie’s would-be Cabinet, it is already yielding some modest results. Every Cabinet-level appointment will be heavily scrutinized for their industry ties, which is already happening to Biden’s transition teams and was far from the case for Obama. And though Biden will likely never use the term “Green New Deal,” there are clear indications that the vision of a holistic, government-wide approach to the climate crisis is already shaping the outlines of the new administration.
Tackling our era of overlapping crises demands this kind of focus, one that aligns every part of the government in the urgent mission of simultaneously bending the curve on Covid-19 cases and on greenhouse gas emissions, all while systematically closing racial and gender inequalities and creating millions of family-supporting low-carbon jobs. An added bonus: a government that can give people that kind of soaring common purpose, one that is expansive enough to have a meaningful role for everyone who wants it, is also best positioned to begin to heal the political ruptures that are ripping apart the country. Joining people in life-saving, job-creating common cause might even be more effective, I would argue, than the various suggestions that we all go out and engage in active listening with a pissed-off Trump voter.
But what of the persistent rumblings of seamless transition to a “second Trump term,” most recently from top trade adviser Peter Navarro? Unfortunately, we cannot pretend it’s not happening. After posting about the need for Biden to be pushed by both the growing Squad inside Congress and by movements on the outside, Will Dana, former managing editor of Rolling Stone, pointed to the ongoing (and escalating) attempts to delegalize the election itself and responded: “Let’s focus on making sure we have a President Biden to be disappointed in.”
The truth, as usual, is we have to do it all: Stop the Republicans from stealing an election they lost and stop the Democrats from blowing a mandate they won.