David Brooks: Why Democrats are so bad at defending democracy

Democrats try to fix election problems from the top down, while the problems are at the local level.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A voter submits a ballot at the Salt Lake County Government Center, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

When it comes to elections, the Republican Party operates within a carapace of lies. So we rely on the Democrats to preserve our system of government.

The problem is that Democrats live within their own insular echo chamber. Within that bubble, convenient falsehoods spread, go unchallenged and make it harder to focus on the real crisis. So let’s clear away some of these myths that are distorting Democratic behavior:

The whole electoral system is in crisis. Elections have three phases: registering and casting votes, counting votes and certifying results. When it comes to the first two phases, the American system has its flaws but is not in crisis. As Yuval Levin noted in The New York Times a few days ago, it’s become much easier in most places to register and vote than it was years ago. We just had a 2020 election with remarkably high turnout. The votes were counted with essentially zero fraud.

The emergency is in the third phase — Republican efforts to overturn votes that have been counted. But Democratic voting bills — the For the People Act and its update, the Freedom to Vote Act — were not overhauled to address the threats that have been blindingly obvious since Jan. 6 last year. They are sprawling measures covering everything from mail-in ballots to campaign finance. They basically include every idea that’s been on activist agendas for years.

These bills are hard to explain and hard to pass. By catering to D.C. interest groups, Democrats have spent a year distracting themselves from the emergency right in front of us.

Voter suppression efforts are a major threat to democracy. Given the racial history of this country, efforts to limit voting, as some states have been implementing, are heinous. I get why Democrats want to repel them. But this, too, is not the major crisis facing us. That’s because tighter voting laws often don’t actually restrict voting all that much. Academics have studied this extensively. A recent well-researched study suggested that voter ID laws do not reduce turnout. States tighten or loosen their voting laws, often seemingly without a big effect on turnout. The general rule is that people who want to vote end up voting.

Just as many efforts to limit the electorate don’t have much of an effect, the Democratic bills to make it easier to vote might not have much impact on turnout or on which party wins. As my Times colleague Nate Cohn wrote last April, “Expanding voting options to make it more convenient hasn’t seemed to have a huge effect on turnout or electoral outcomes. That’s the finding of decades of political science research on advance, early and absentee voting.”

Higher turnout helps Democrats. This popular assumption is also false. Political scientists Daron R. Shaw and John R. Petrocik, authors of “The Turnout Myth,” looked at 70 years of election data and found “no evidence that turnout is correlated with partisan vote choice.”

The best way to address the crisis is top down. Democrats have focused their energies in Washington, trying to pass these big bills. The bills would override state laws and dictate a lot of election procedures from the national level.

Given how local Republicans are behaving, I understand why Democrats want to centralize things. But it’s a little weird to be arguing that in order to save democracy we have to take power away from local elected officials. Plus, if you tell local people they’re not fit to govern themselves, you’re going to further inflame the populist backlash.

But the real problem is that Democrats are not focusing on crucial state and local arenas. The Times’ Charles Homans had a fascinating report from Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump backers were running for local office, including judge of elections, while Democrats struggled to even find candidates. “I’m not sure what the Democratic Party was worried about, but it didn’t feel like they were worried about school board and judge of elections races — all of these little positions,” a failed Democratic candidate said.

Democrats do not seem to be fighting hard in key local races. They do not seem to be rallying the masses so that state legislators pay a price if they support democracy-weakening legislation.

Maybe some of the energy that has been spent over the past year analyzing and berating Joe Manchin could have been better spent grooming and supporting good state and local candidates. Maybe the best way to repulse a populist uprising is not by firing up all your allies in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.

The crisis of democracy is right in front of us. We have a massive populist mob that thinks the country is now controlled by a coastal progressive oligarchy that looks down on them. We’re caught in cycles of polarization that threaten to turn America into Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We have Republican hacks taking power away from the brave state officials who stood up to Trumpian bullying after the 2020 election.

Democrats have spent too much time on measures that they mistakenly think would give them an advantage. The right response would be: Do the unsexy work at the local level, where things are in flux. Pass the parts of the Freedom to Vote Act that are germane, like the protections for elections officials against partisan removal, and measures to limit purging voter rolls. Reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent Congress from derailing election certifications.

When your house is on fire, drop what you were doing and put it out. Maybe, finally, Democrats will do that.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.