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It Will Be an Election Unlike Any We’ve Lived Through. Are the Democrats Prepared?

Like it or not, 2024 has arrived. We’re in for 11 months of hell. But the outcome is far from preordained.

President Joe Biden glances over his right shoulder as he walks through the White House.
Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

1. Why This Election Is Different: The Chaos Narrative

It’s finally election year, and if you are sick with anticipation, you have good reason. This will be the ugliest election of our lifetimes by far—sordid, corrupt, and dishonest beyond decent people’s ability to imagine it right now. It will also be inescapable. Every week—and in time every day, and by the home stretch nearly every hour—will bring a development, some action or statement by Donald Trump or one of his supporters, that will drive the millions of us who care about the life of our democracy into states of deep despair.

Joe Biden and the Democrats will be tasked with a challenge that no U.S. presidential campaign has ever confronted. They, as Democrats—and more to the point as small-d democrats; that is, believers in the basic principles of American republican democracy—will be the first American political candidate and party in our history running against an openly fascist candidacy. Some will disagree with that designation regarding Trump and his MAGA movement. But for many of us, we’ve seen enough: Trump’s rhetoric about clearing out the “vermin” and the leaks from his camp about his second-term plans to weaponize the federal government against his enemies more than satisfy the definition. Most of us never thought we’d be here. And yet, here we are.

The animating concept behind the Trump campaign will be chaos. This is what history shows us fascists do when given the chance to participate in democratic political campaigns: They create chaos. They do it because chaos works to their advantage. They revel in it because they can see how profoundly chaos unnerves democratic-republicans—everyone, that is, whether liberal or conservative, who believes in the basic idea of a representative government that is built around neutral rules. Fascism exists to pulverize neutral rules. Indeed, fascism insists that republican democracies’ rules are not neutral at all but are rigged against them—the holders of an old, mythic truth that republican democracy was conjured into being to weaken and obscure.

So they campaign with explicit intention to instill a sense of chaos. And then comes the topper: They have the audacity to insist that the only solution to the chaos—that they themselves have either grossly exaggerated or in some cases created!—is to vote for them: “You see, there is nothing but chaos afoot, and only we can restore order!”

Trump teased this argument in 2016, with his “I alone can fix it” convention speech. This year, the chaos narrative won’t be just a theme of his campaign. It will be its animating force. The argument will center around crime, the border, racial politics in the schools, the rights of transgender Americans, and whatever else he can cram into the narrative that America has lost its way and can be saved only by discarding the democratic rules that have enabled “the Communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country” to flourish.

His rhetoric will get wilder and wilder, as it did with his purported Christmas message to Americans, which included the holiday wish that Biden and special prosecutor Jack Smith, and really anyone who isn’t MAGA, may “rot in hell.” And imagine what those rallies will be like in September and October—especially if he has been convicted of a crime or two.

This will all be unlike anything that any living American has seen. And shockingly, it’s unclear that Democrats can make Trump’s openly fascist appeal a voting issue that your average swing voter will care about. Unfortunately, the Democrats’ problems hardly end there.

2. The Democrats’ Other Challenges

It would be one thing if fending off Trumpian chaos were the only challenge Biden and the Democrats faced. Unfortunately, they confront a number of other problems. I count four big ones.

First, far from coming together to defeat a fascist threat, as one might expect, the Democratic Party is splintering into factionalism. This begins with the centrists behind the No Labels movement. Just before Christmas, they did something absolutely gobsmacking, which got very little attention because of the timing. In a December 21 briefing for reporters, No Labels officials floated the possibility of forming a “coalition government” with one of the major parties in the event that no candidate for president receives 270 electoral votes.

Put that way, it sounds relatively benign. It is, however, anything but. No Labels chief strategist Ryan Clancy explicitly mentioned, according to NBC News’s account, the possibility that the election could be tossed to the House of Representatives, where deals could be cut to determine a winner. This has happened before, in 1824 (also in 1800, but 1824 is the relevant case). Those who know their history will recall that this exercise in horse-trading, in which Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams and became his secretary of state, has gone down in political lore by the name the “corrupt bargain.” And No Labels is bragging about emulating it!

And with which candidate? Well, hypothetically, the group might cut a deal with either camp (although No Labels leaders have also repeatedly said that they will do nothing to help Trump win). But No Labels co-founder and former GOP Representative Tom Davis told reporters: “It could be, for example: ‘We’re going to build a border wall [and] not run deficits.’ Any number of things.” Gee. Which candidate might he have in mind?

Add in political gadflies Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, and you have a clear recipe for a Trump win. Real Clear Politics is giving Kennedy about 16 percent and West nearly 4. That gives Trump a 39–32 lead over Biden. That would produce one of two outcomes. First, a narrow Trump Electoral College win, even while he loses the popular vote, which is likely. Or second, on the off chance that some candidate—say, Joe Manchin or Larry Hogan, who are floated as possible entrants—actually wins a state, keeping Biden and Trump below 270, you arrive at the No Labels–driven “contingent election” scenario where the House of Representatives steps in to decide the winner.

That vote would be taken by the next House, not the current one, with each state casting one vote (that’s right—Wyoming’s voting weight would be equal to California’s). In the current House, Republicans control 26 state delegations, Democrats 22, and two are tied (the District of Columbia, though it is represented in the Electoral College, would have no role here). It is extremely unlikely that the Democrats will emerge from the election with control of 26 House delegations. So in a scenario in which a contingent election decides the winner, the result would likely put Trump back in the White House. That this will be the inevitable end result of their caper is something that No Labels well knows. It’s an open question if any of their media interlocutors, who’ve proven to be good at whistling past democracy’s graveyard, are willing to call them out on it.

Finally, the Democratic Party now faces an inevitable generational implosion over Israel-Palestine. If they’re lucky, it might not happen this year. If the war doesn’t last much longer; if Israel gets a new and less radical government; if that government is talking with some representative Palestinian organization about two states, then perhaps the disagreements that exploded into view after Hamas’s October 7 attacks might be papered over for November. But if Bibi Netanyahu drags this war out, he hands Biden a terrible Hobson’s choice—stick with Israel and risk alienating young voters by the millions, or punish Israel (attach conditions to its aid, say) and risk alienating the older Jews who vote Democratic to the tune of 70 percent. And since Netanyahu obviously would prefer to have Trump back in the White House because Trump will hand him a blank check, why would he not do this? And should I even mention the possibility of a wider war that involves Hezbollah and Iran, and possibly the United States more directly?

All that is just the first of my four challenges. I’ll describe the other three more succinctly.

The second big challenge is a hostile media landscape that the Democrats have shown they haven’t figured out how to handle: either how to build narratives that effectively counter the relentlessly negative ones created by the right-wing media or how to communicate their accomplishments effectively. This will get far worse this year. The terrific new cover story in our January-February issue by Nina Burleigh goes into detail about the ways in which Fox News (and its imitators) will act as a second Biden opponent—and her reporting shows Democrats deeply split on how to handle it.

The third challenge is the way Democrats are losing their connection to Latino and Black voters, especially men. This too seems unbelievable to white liberals—that these voters would be embracing an openly racist Republican. But they are. Or at least they’re rejecting Biden. Democrats have 11 months to right this, so maybe it isn’t panic time. But somehow the polls just keep getting worse.

Fourth and finally, there is Biden’s age, combined with the presumed presence of Kamala Harris on the ticket. There is little to be done about Biden’s age except hope that he stays healthy and doesn’t have a senior moment during a debate, and to defend the idea that octogenarians can still do their jobs. (If Keith Richards, who just turned 80, can still go out on the road, as the Stones are doing this year, can’t Joe Biden still run a country, with a larger retinue than even Keith’s?)

Harris has proven to be a liability. Her political instincts simply aren’t sharp. She seemed to me like a good choice in 2020—a history-making choice and a choice that showed that Biden was able to turn the other cheek, given the way she schooled him over busing at that early debate. But almost no one I talk to thinks she’s been an asset.

Most people don’t vote on vice presidents, and that will be true this November as well. But she matters a little more than most veeps do, simply because of Biden’s age. Trump will be blunt about all this and make Harris’s possible ascension to the presidency an issue. And much like swapping out the top of the ticket, there is no way of replacing her: The turmoil this will bring with future presidential aspirants jockeying for a promotion, truces between center and left factions of the party coming undone, and a national media that’s perpetually hungering to touch off the next “Democrats in disarray” cycle will spark the real chaos that Trump is hoping to conjure. If there ever was a time for her to up her game, energize Black voters and women voters around abortion rights and other issues, and put her vaunted prosecutorial instincts to work campaigning against the economic enemies of the American people, it is now. And if party leaders work behind the scenes to distance Biden from her or leak stories about how Biden doesn’t want to campaign with her, it will only make things worse.

No, the only thing to do with Harris now is to lean into her hard and try to create a new narrative, a new reality about her. But this is something the Democrats have to do more broadly.

3. What the Democrats Need to Do

Politics is defined by eras. I came of age in the Reagan era. Ronald Reagan was first elected president 44 years ago, before most Americans alive today were even born. In most ways, we are no longer in the Reagan era. But in one crucial way, we still are.

That way is this: When it comes to the terms of our political debate, Republicans are usually on the offensive, while Democrats are more often playing defense. This wasn’t true when I was little and Republicans were the clear minority party. But once the conservative movement swallowed the GOP, during Reagan’s time, it became emphatically true. Republicans relentlessly attacked the liberal status quo, and Democrats defended it, usually meekly. Often, that status quo was hard to defend: High rates of crime, for example, far higher than today’s numbers, were an easy mark for Republicans. On other matters, Democrats played defense by adopting more centrist positions: Oh, we don’t want big government either; just enough government.

Some of those centrist positions were more defensible than others, given the times (liberal sentiment was at a real low point then). I’m not here to debate those again. I am simply explaining a historic dynamic that is to a surprising degree still with us today. Republicans attack government and liberalism, and Democrats typically try to run from directly defending either. Think about it: When was the last time you heard a leading Democratic politician give a major speech defending government—not a particular program like Social Security but just the philosophical idea of a robust public sector? Or calling him or herself a “liberal”? And by the way—is that really still a curse word? You know who the last president to call himself a liberal was? Barack Obama? Not that I remember. No, you need to go back a little further than that. It was John Kennedy, while speaking to the New York Liberal Party (a small party permitted under New York law) as a candidate in 1960. I’m not sure he ever used the word as president.

I don’t particularly care whether Joe Biden calls himself a liberal. But I am saying that the Democrats can’t be supine in 2024. They need to play offense; wake up each day as the party on the attack. They need to head into this campaign proclaiming themselves to be on the side of middle America, because on most questions, they are: on guns, on abortion rights, on an economics built around the middle class and not the rich, on confronting excess corporate power, and many other issues—matters on which the Republican Party is steadfastly stuck on the wrong side.

And here’s another thing they need to do: name their enemies. Not just their political ones but their corporate ones as well. It’s a fact: People know you by the enemies you keep. Explicitly naming enemies hits people emotionally. If an Alabama fan walks into a bar of fellow Tide backers and says, “I love Bama,” everyone will nod and think that’s nice. If he says, “I despise Auburn more than I hate William T. Sherman,” they’ll buy him rounds till closing time. That’s how we’re wired.

Recently, Biden has been talking about price-gouging. Great: It’s high time he spoke about this. (By the way, did you even know this? If not, that points to yet another problem—that congressional Democrats don’t follow the Biden White House’s talking points, and just freelance around with little thought to message discipline.) Biden has even called out Big Pharma, which is progress, because most high-level Democrats have been afraid to do that for years. But he still seems hesitant to go after specific companies by name. A December 13 White House fact sheet on Pharma and price-gouging doesn’t call out a single company by name for ripping off consumers. News articles like this one don’t name any specific companies that Biden has mentioned, which suggests to me that he has not done it.

Name names. Name bad guys. Go after them and shame them. This is the only way to get people to really pay attention. Democrats and liberals sit around wondering why Biden, despite all the policy successes, isn’t connecting with the working classes? This is a big reason why. Those voters will far more readily know he’s on their side if he’s regularly flaying the people who are picking their pockets. I happen to think the junk fees issue, while no one’s idea of a revolution, is political gold. But the White House has to name specific villains. If Biden managed nothing this year but to end Ticketmaster’s practices, that alone could win him millions of votes from low-information voters. It’s uncomplicated, and it’s the kind of thing everyone sees, like a governor lowering a bridge toll.

Finally, Democrats have to exude confidence and a sense of victory. In addition to calling him dangerous, call Trump weak, old, out of it, lazy, senile, dumb, a loser, a bankruptcy buffoon, a clown, a grifter. Mock him. Mock them all. Mock Mike Johnson. Mock Jim Jordan (that wrestling trial is probably going to court this year, by the way). Today’s Republican Party is frightening—but it’s also an absurdist parody. Don’t ignore that second part.

Play offense, name enemies, emanate victory. The voters who will decide this election, unfortunately, have no firm policy convictions. They’ll vote partly on which side has the smell of a winner. Democrats need to act the part.

4. Despair, or Fight

It practically goes without saying that the Democrats will do none of the things I suggest. That kind of aggression just isn’t how most of them roll. Some of the younger Democrats, happily, have the fight in them. One of the things that’s refreshing about new-guard Democrats like Katie Porter and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is that they did not come of age in that prime Reagan era when Democrats were so often backpedaling and apologizing—they love a bit of political knuckle-dusting, and they train for the fights they pick. But for most leading Democrats and their pollsters and operatives, caution is much more the byword than aggression. Playing offense and exuding victory just aren’t in their collective DNA. And I suspect they don’t name names because they’re either just afraid to be that confrontational or because a good number of those malfeasants are their donors, which is a problem they’d better think about.

Biden and the Democrats will campaign on issues: abortion rights, prescription drug prices, democracy preservation, and, they hope, the economy. And certainly, those, or at least the first three, are winning issues for them. I’ve been urging them to tie these policy positions to the broader theme of personal freedom for more than a year. That they’ve started to dip their toes in those waters gives me some hope. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro is the leader here. Real freedom, he often says, is not just letting the free market do whatever it wants. Real freedom is giving people the tools to fulfill their highest potential. That involves protecting their rights, saving their democracy, and putting forward an economic program that helps them live freer lives.

It would be great if we saw more rhetoric like Shapiro’s on the campaign trail from everyone in the party. That may be enough. God knows, the Republicans, although they do a masterful job at exuding victory, are in fact quite incompetent and so chained down by their ideological insularity and culture-war obsessions that they make mistake after mistake. They haven’t managed so far, for all their fearmongering over trans people, to make that a winning issue. “Open borders” fearmongering might work, but remember, it explicitly did not in 2018, when President Trump spent the weeks before the midterms warning about the Texas-bound caravan. Crime? I know facts don’t matter much these days, but the fact is that the murder rate went way down in 2023, in addition to crime rates in most other major categories. The Republicans’ Biden impeachment will likely explode in their faces. They are about to nominate a man who stands every chance of being a convicted felon by Election Day. Liberals spend a lot of energy worrying that every conservative line of attack will resonate (another Reagan-era reflex). But most of them don’t. The right is much stupider than the left gives it credit for.

And most of all: The economic news could be a lot more positive this year than people have been thinking. In November, Goldman Sachs issued an economic forecast that surely has White House officials just praying that it’s correct. Stable wage growth (3.5 percent) and unemployment (3.6 percent). Inflation down to 2 percent. Overall growth of 2 percent. The Federal Reserve cutting interest rates four times this year. As different and unprecedented as this election will be, some things about it might be normal—namely, that the state of the economy will be the main determinant of the outcome. If Goldman is correct, Trump will have a very hard time selling the argument that Biden’s economy is a disaster.

An absence of economic chaos—low inflation, gas prices back to normal—will go a long way toward undercutting Trump’s main contention. But that won’t stop him. “The country is in chaos” will be his relentless argument. He’ll find it wherever he can. Chaos is always unfolding somewhere. That fact is Trump’s big advantage. The world can always be described as going to hell in a handbasket. The right-wing press will echo Trump’s words like Pravda echoed Lenin, and the mainstream media will first report Trump’s words and then refute them, but by then it will be too late.

So we are in for 11 months of hell. But there is only one choice, facing Joe Biden and all elected Democrats, and facing every one of us: Despair or fight. The fascists want us to despair. They’re counting on it.

Fascism is (obviously) an extreme choice for voters, a choice they make under only two conditions: one, when their country is in genuinely deep crisis; or two, when they feel that the anti-fascists are divided, weak, and not presenting a bold and coherent program that counters the chaos narrative. Today the United States confronts a range of serious problems, as it always does; but it is not in any genuinely deep crisis. It’s not 1932 out there. That leaves the second condition. Over that, the Democrats, who for better or worse are our leaders in this battle, have some control. The great question of 2024 is whether the Democrats understand all this. If they are unified, bold, and aggressive, they will establish the reigning narrative, and they will win. If they are not, they will lose. In which case we might say, “Oh well, gear up for the next election.” Except that there might not be one.