The surest way to lose a battle is to not fight. Despite this fairly obvious logic, President Joe Biden and too many Democrats seem to have adopted a political strategy for the midterm elections of avoiding as many fights as possible. This path-of-least-resistance approach has resulted in plummeting presidential approval numbers and will further plunge the party off the cliff in the midterms if Democrats do not quickly reverse course. To turn things around, Biden should leap into the fundamental fights over what are called “culture wars” – and he should do so with gusto.
It is unmistakably clear that we are engaged in an existential battle over the very identity of this nation. Is the United States of America primarily a straight, white, cisgender, male, Christian country, or is it a multiracial and multicultural democracy? The adherents of the former view are waging war with glee and abandon. From rightwing state legislatures to the supreme court, they are holding nothing back in attacking voting by people of color, the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, multicultural education, reproductive freedom and commonsense public health protections during a global pandemic, to name just a few fronts in this fight.
With the heartening exception of the attempts to defend Roe v Wade, Democrats, for their part, are shying away from almost all of these fights beyond tepid words of disapproval, hand-wringing, and low-profile and lethargic counter-measures such as lawsuits and investigations. The result is a sharp decline in enthusiasm among the people who put the White House and Congress in Democratic hands, contributing significantly to the drop in polling approval numbers. Support among people of color has dropped 24% from its highs of last year. At this pace, Democrats will in fact lose the midterm elections, but it does not need to be so, and they can absolutely turn things around if they engage the fight.
The misguided strategy that got us here results from bad math and electoral myopia by Democratic strategists and advisers. Despite an avalanche of empirical data, Democrats still do not believe that the majority of people are on their side. Yet with one exception (in 2004), the Democratic nominee has won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992. The progressive trend is only accelerating as more and more young people – the majority of whom are people of color or white progressives – turn 18 every day. Every eight seconds, someone turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote.
Democrats are so obsessed with wooing conservative white working-class voters that they fail to see the ever-increasing ranks of people of color who can strengthen their political hand. I call this phenomenon being “blinded by the white”. Fear of alienating an elusive white constituency has paralyzed a party in desperate need of decisive and bold action.
The very fact that Democrats control the executive and legislative branches is proof that the worldview that America is and should be a multiracial nation enjoys majority support. In high-turnout elections such as presidential races, the majority usually supports the Democrat. The question for the midterms is how much of that majority will be sufficiently motivated to come back out and vote. The reason that the party that controls the White House typically fares poorly in midterm elections is that that party’s supporters tend to get complacent and do not see the urgent need to turn out and vote again. That is why it’s essential to engage in the fight. The failure to fight is dispiriting to one’s supporters and a significant contributor to falling polling numbers.
Biden’s advisers believe that engaging in fights will harm their popularity, but the painful reality is that there is not much popularity left to harm. By throwing himself into the raging battles with gusto, he can reverse his polling descent and save Democratic control of Congress. Here are four examples of how he can send a strong signal to the electorate and inspire his supporters to mobilize to vote this fall.
Reproductive freedom summit: The White House should host a strategy summit with leaders in the reproductive rights movement and women’s healthcare field to discuss ways to fight back on restrictive legislation and expand access to healthcare for all women.
Say gay conference: Biden should organize a presidential “We Say Gay” conference in Florida as an in-your-face rebuttal to the homophobic legislation by Florida’s governor and legislature. In fact, he could hold the conference in Disneyworld, which is the target of punitive measures by the state government for its gay-friendly policies. That would have the added advantage of engaging the business community in the fight for equality.
Read banned books: Biden should go to Texas, where nearly 1 million eligible African Americans didn’t vote in 2020, and hold an event at a school where he reads to students from Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, a book about Black identity. Multiple school districts in Texas have banned Morrison’s books, and Biden would send a strong signal by reading from the book and even bringing copies to hand out to students.
Go door-to-door with voter registration groups: In the face of all of the voter suppression legislation sweeping the south and south-west, Biden should show his solidarity with groups working to expand democracy and encourage Americans to register to vote. He can go to Phoenix, where the Arizona legislature is trying to make it harder to vote, and go precinct-walking with members of a Latino-led, community-based organization such as Lucha. He could couple that with a speech at a local high school where he encourages senior-year students to come forward and register on the spot.
These are just a few examples of how Biden could use his bully pulpit to lead the fight to make America the multiracial democracy that the majority of people want it to be. Such high-profile and, yes, controversial initiatives are both the right thing to do and the smart strategic step. They will inspire and mobilize the base, redefine the nature of the fight so that Democrats are on the offensive, and solidify Biden’s role as a strong and resolute leader. If he can find the courage to take such steps, Biden will reshape the political debate and put the Democrats on the path to victory in the midterms.