Democrats Are Gaining Ground Again by Doing Nothing

The art of letting a movement create momentum.

Biden, seen from the side, gestures with both hands while speaking from a lectern decorated with a red, white, and blue Biden for President sign.
Joe Biden at Philadelphia City Hall on Tuesday. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Doing nothing keeps working for the Democratic Party. It worked in early 2017, when women’s marches led by activists and local grassroots groups rather than elected officials prefigured a 2018 wave election highlighted by first-time female candidates. It worked for Joe Biden during the most intense weeks of the coronavirus crisis, when he made limited, online-only public appearances but gained in polls against Donald Trump anyway as the president demonstrated daily that he couldn’t understand or manage the threat of COVID-19 and speculated about the merits of injecting oneself with disinfectant. Now it is working again during the mass protests that have flowered from the pavement where police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Monday, on Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer announced new police-reform legislation, an unveiling that underscored how irrelevant the party’s top figures had previously been to the movement that has surged since Floyd’s death on May 25. The House hasn’t held hearings on his killing or on the subject of police brutality more generally, while many Democratic mayors and governors have actively put themselves at odds with protesters by issuing curfews and allowing police crackdowns. Biden has made appearances here and there to signal his solidarity with protesters but has not attempted to portray himself as a leader of the movement. Protesters, unburdened by professional political concerns about being perceived as too radical or too permissive of the looting that has taken place concurrently with some marches, have seized the news cycle day after day and kept its focus directly on police misconduct.

Donald Trump and police officers themselves have reflexively cooperated with this goal by encouraging and perpetrating more misconduct. Unprovoked beatings, tear-gassings, and rubber-bullet attacks have been documented in viral footage, some of it taken directly outside the White House, and this spectacle of the indefensible has drawn increasing numbers of marchers out of their homes. Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr, and police chiefs across the country have meanwhile pursued the factually meritless theory, born more or less from right-wing email chains, that the protests have been infiltrated and manipulated by a coordinated, professional, national network of “antifa” anarchists. (“Black bloc” anti-fascist activists who believe in situational violence do exist, but are not nationally organized and have been less visible at the protests since Floyd’s death than they were at those that have taken place at other times during Trump’s presidency.)

But it’s hard to spin this as violent, subversive extremism:

Over the weekend, concern began to bubble up that broad but forceful protester slogans about abolishing or defunding police departments would boomerang against the Democrats in November. This is a concern that is easy to understand on a hypothetical level—police are, in the abstract, still popular—but it is also one that only currently exists hypothetically. A CNN poll released Monday found Biden leading Donald Trump among registered voters by an almost unbelievable 14-point margin; while that result is an outlier, RealClearPolitics’ polling average still puts the ex-VP ahead of the incumbent by 8, ahead of where any Democrat has been at this point in a presidential race this century. Biden also reiterated in a Monday statement that he does not support “defunding” police in any sense of the term, and the legislation that Pelosi introduced does not call for it either.

At the same time, polls are showing that the position mainstream elected Democrats and activists do agree on—that Floyd’s death illustrates a systemic racial bias against black Americans, rather than being the work of a “bad apple” officer—has majority support.

“Defund the police” activists will criticize the congressional Democratic plan released today as insufficient, and there will be many similar fights ahead in Congress and in statehouses. But consider where the party was three months ago, with its presumptive nominee facing an almost total lack of enthusiasm among under-40 Americans in what was shaping up as a tight race against Trump. Now it still has a nominee who is trusted by older voters, but also a younger base that has found its cause.

In 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency on a platform of law-and-order stability. But he also gave less reactionary voters signs he shared their interests, by proposing ending the military draft and presenting himself, vis-à-vis third-party segregationist George Wallace, as a supporter of incremental civil rights advancement. (He would go on to set back the cause of school integration but also to sign voting rights legislation and enact affirmative action policies.) Nixon, of course, was a creature of pure evil whose very face was gnarled by corruption and spite, and we condemn everything about him. We are merely pointing out that the exploding protest movement—and Trump’s unwillingness to suppress his own nasty impulses—has given Biden the chance to become a sort of reverse, non-terrible Nixon, restoring “order” and balancing the demands of centrists and his party’s base in a way that advances rather than undermines democracy. (After the 1968 election, centrist ex–Michigan Gov. George Romney agreed to join Nixon’s Cabinet as secretary of health and human services; today, his son Mitt is joining a BLM march in one of many signals that an aisle-crossing endorsement of Biden may be imminent.) We live in uniquely bad times, but figuring out how to accommodate the righteous ambitions of an idealistic youth movement into a party whose nominee is beating a white nationalist president by landslide margins is a relatively good problem to have.

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