The overarching question as we enter this new year is will our American democracy be Trumped.
A Democracy or A Dictatorship
Stated more directly, will Donald Trump become the Republican candidate for President, win the presidency, use the office to establish a dictatorship, and convert this nation to an authoritarian state? As 2023 wound to a close, there was a deluge of commentary on that possibility.
The Atlantic dedicated a special issue titled “If Trump Wins” in which 24 writers “…warn what could happen if Donald Trump is re-elected, from destroying the rule of law to abandoning NATO and reshaping the international order.”
Charlie Savage, Jonathan Swan, and Maggie Haberman wrote a piece for The New York Times on December 4 titled, “Why A Second Trump Presidency May Be More Radical Than His First.” And Robert Kagan, editor at large for the Washington Post and a Brookings Institution Scholar, published a piece in the Post on November 30 titled, “A Trump Dictatorship Is Becoming Increasingly Inevitable. We Should Stop Pretending.”
Kagan’s article provoked numerous responses from readers. So, on December 7, he wrote a follow-up piece titled, “The Trump Dictatorship. How To Stop It.” Kagan devoted the majority of his article to what the Republicans needed to do, beginning with “consolidating all the anti-Trump forces behind a single candidate, right now”. He recommended that Nikki Haley as that candidate.
We agree with Robert Kagan that it would be ideal if the anti-Trump Republicans aligned behind a single candidate. As he notes after presenting his recommendations, however, “The Republican Party is finished as a coherent legitimate political party.” And, as we have written many times, the Republican Party is now the Party of Trump.
Thus, even if there were a consolidation, Trump would most probably win the primary contests and be the Republican candidate for president. In our opinion, the only thing preventing this from happening would be Trump withdrawing from the race due to his legal problems or some other extraneous factor.
The Concerned Citizen’s Responsibility
That being the case, this puts the ball back in the citizens’ hands. And, what we cannot do is to go sit on the sideline with it or run out of bounds.
In the concluding paragraph of “The Trump Dictatorship. How To Stop It,” Kagan states:
“Some readers of my last essay asked fairly: What can an ordinary citizen do? The answer is, what they always do when they really care about something, when they regard it as a matter of life and death. They become activists. They get organized.”
He proceeds to provide some examples of what to do. But ends his piece by declaring “I am deeply pessimistic, but I could not more fervently wish to be proved wrong.”
Unlike Kagan, we are not pessimistic. We are cautiously optimistic. That optimism is based in our faith in “we, the people.”
As we observed at the end of our blog, “Democracy on Trial,” posted in early December:
The future of our democracy is in our hands as 21st century citizens. As good citizens, we have both the rights and the responsibilities to ensure that democracy is protected and strengthened so that it can survive through the 21st century and continue to make progress toward becoming the more perfect union envisioned by our founders.
To protect our democracy in 2024, we need to do more than vote. We also need to get engaged with the states that will make a difference in terms of the presidential election.
According to a story put together by a Washington Post team (Michael Scherer, Clara Ence Morse, Josh Dawsey, and Marianne LeVine), because of the red and blue divide and the way the electoral college works, there will probably be, at most, only seven swing/battleground/tipping point states in this year’s election: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. Virginia and Minnesota might be added to that list by the Trump team if it looks like Trump is running well there as the year progresses.
The Post story reveals that seven targeted states in 2024 is lower than the 2020 election and far lower than in the past. The Post states that in the last presidential election, “just 10 states and two congressional districts were targeted by Republican and Democratic nominees’ campaigns.” This compares to “26 states on average that were targeted…between 1952 and 1980.”
To sum it up, the competitive playing field for presidential elections has shrunk considerably. The results in a small number of states will be the difference makers. What can 21st century citizens do to be difference-makers in those states?
In general, they can do what Americans have done before. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 found that in the past five years (2013–2017), citizens have:
- Publicly expressed support for a campaign on social media — 42%
- Contributed money to a campaign — 29%
- Attended a political rally or event — 28%
- Worked or volunteered for a campaign — 26%
Add to that general list for potential involvement the following:
- Use personal competencies (e.g., analytical skills, artistic talent, writing/speaking capabilities, organizational skills) to provide assistance on an issue or to a campaign
- Use personal contacts and network to reach out to prospective voters
- Draw upon personal demographic characteristics (e.g., race, religion, sex, age, education, income) to contact those with similar characteristics
- Use understanding of psychographic, geographic, and behavioral factors to help develop and deliver messages to targeted audiences
- Lead or participate in protests on a “wedge” issue (e.g., abortion, voting rights, climate change)
As the foregoing list suggests, there are numerous ways and things that a citizen can do to make a positive difference for the future of our democracy. The decision on how to make that difference should be made by the citizen, and not dictated by others.
The Concerned Citizen’s Political — Civic Engagement Plan
The first step a concerned citizen should take to make that decision is to determine where — in which state or state (s) — to be involved. The second step is to do her or his homework by doing an assessment in order to determine what the critical needs are in the target state or state(s) and what capabilities she or he can bring to the table to help address those needs. The third step is to use that assessment to put together a Political — Civic Engagement Plan (P-CEP)
The P-CEP should be as specific as possible. It should spell out the areas for engagement, what will be done in each area, and the period of time in which to engage. Below is a topline example of a P-CEP using the generic areas for engagement which involves working through a candidate’s campaign group in the target state of Wisconsin.
A similar process should be used with the additional areas cited in this blog. The additional areas enable the concerned citizen to customize and tailor her/his areas of engagement, based upon the needs assessment for that state and evaluation of his or her capabilities to make the greatest difference possible there.
While the needs in each swing state will differ, the results of the 2020 presidential election, the 2022 midterm elections, and votes on special issues such as abortion rights indicate turnout of the following voter segments will matter the most in order to defeat Trump and the destruction of our American democracy: youth, Hispanic, Black, female, suburban educated voters, true independents, and traditional Republican voters who are ticket splitters.
At this early stage, based upon survey and polling results, it appears that many of these segments may be somewhat at risk or undecided at this point in time. The citizens in those segments will need a personal reason and a compelling message to motivate them to vote against Trump and to sustain democracy.
Young voters could be especially important in the upcoming election. On November 29 the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University issued a report providing the results of CIRCLE’s early poll of youth (ages 18–34) ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The main findings of the CIRCLE report include the following:
- 57% say they are “extremely likely” to vote in 2024 with 15% saying they are “fairly likely” to do so.
- Among the extremely likely to vote: 51% say they would back the Democratic candidate; 30% the Republican; and 16% are undecided.
- The young people’s top issues are inflation/cost of living, jobs that pay a living wage, gun violence, and climate change. “Cost of living” is, by a wide margin, young people’s top concern.
- Only 19% of those youth have heard about politics and issues this year from political parties or campaigns or from community organizations (14%).
The primary opportunity in the youth segment lies in crafting a message and having messengers that appeal to the 16% of those “extremely likely to vote” but who are undecided, and to the 15% who are “fairly likely” to vote to convince them to come to the polling booth. To maximize its persuasiveness, part of that message must relate to the cost of living.
The messengers also need to be people who will appeal to the youth. In a December 7 piece for the Brookings Institution, Morley Winograd, Michael Hais, and Doug Ross opine, “Credible messengers who can communicate why a vote for Biden serves younger voters’ vision of the America they desire must be given a much higher profile in the campaign than they currently have. A cadre of influencers and surrogates from the world of social media and entertainment who connect with younger voters should be recruited and strategically deployed by the Biden campaign if they want their message to reach younger Americans.”
Many concerned citizens will not have the “right stuff” to connect with the younger voters. They will have the “right stuff”, however, to connect and communicate with others on their P-CEP.
The Need for Civic Engagement Investments
This political civic engagement will help to ensure the triumph of democracy over autocracy in the 2024 presidential elections. That triumph is not the finish line, but it is essential in order to continue the evolutionary process in these United States toward becoming the more perfect union envisioned by our nation’s founders.
Ali Noorani, program director of U.S. democracy at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, makes a similar point in a December 13 commentary in which he notes, “A durable, inclusive democracy requires civic engagement beyond the important act of voting.”
We agree with Noorani. As we have written before, a vital and vibrant democracy requires 21st century citizens who are invested in five forms of civic engagement:
- Individual — being the best one can be and responsible for one’s actions
- Organizational — contributing to the success of the groups (e.g., business, religion, associations) to which one belongs
- Political — participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government
- Community — collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place
- Social — advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all
Investing in these forms of engagement will strengthen our democracy. The returns on these investments will accrue to 21st century citizens, to all the citizens of this great nation, and to citizens around the world.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.