February 9, 2020

I get a lot of messages these days from people who say they are frightened, that they feel helpless in the face of Trump’s rising authoritarianism. The hatred on social media makes them want to hide from the world, and they cannot see a way out of the current mess America is in. They feel hopeless.

It is worth remembering that one of the goals of disinformation, especially the disinformation seeded by Russian intelligence, is to discourage voters and convince them to give up so an autocrat can take over.

People ask me what they can do. You can call your senators and representatives, give money to a candidate, knock on doors, insist on hand-marked paper ballots, and work to get out the vote.

But here’s a larger perspective.

After 35 years of studying politics, I have come to believe that what changes society is ideas, and that politics, especially, changes according to popular beliefs. We have the current leaders we do because they were able to convince voters to cast ballots for them, based on the narrative they offered.

We got to this point, where we have a party in power that is deliberately creating a false narrative, because, after World War II, so many Americans believed in the new, activist New Deal state, the “liberal consensus,” that politicians could not motivate voters with sweeping stories of what it meant to be an American: almost all Americans agreed on those basic principles. So political scientists concluded that there was no longer any real defining ideological difference between Republicans and Democrats. In a famous book published in 1960, The American Voter, political scientist Philip Converse said that Americans were not particularly ideological, but rather voted based on their understanding of what benefits a party could offer to their particular group.

On the heels of this study, both Republicans and Democrats turned away from the idea of attracting voters with arguments about principle. Instead, they focused on nailing together coalitions, in a kind of transactional politics that erased the larger meaning of what it meant to participate in constructing a government.

In 1969, after Republican President Richard M. Nixon had successfully pulled together a coalition to win the White House despite the fact more Americans had voted for other candidates than had voted for him, political operative Kevin Philips applied Converse’s idea to the fortunes of the Republican Party. In The Emerging Republican Majority, Philips argued that Republicans could win for the foreseeable future if only they kept following Converse’s advice. The Democrats followed suit, and both traditional parties began to concentrate on messaging and the mechanics of getting people out to vote.

But the men who hated the liberal consensus and wanted to destroy it, men known as Movement Conservatives, did not follow Converse’s plan. They did not try to hammer together coalitions, because their plan to destroy the New Deal state was not popular with virtually anyone but their core supporters. So instead of following the new political science, they were the only group that offered to voters a clear narrative. And their narrative tied into western and American mythology. They talked of an individual American man, usually uneducated, but close to the land and to God, who fought back against an empire trying to destroy his way of life. It was a powerful image that tied into everything from the Biblical story of David and Goliath to the modern story of Luke Skywalker and the Empire. Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, and three years later, the Movement Conservative spokesman Ronald Reagan won the White House.

Voters want to know that their votes matter. And since Reagan, Movement Conservatives have assured voters that they are playing a part in a war of good and evil, in which their votes are preserving America from what Movement Conservatives call socialism, or communism. That narrative has decimated traditional Republicans at the national level, and kept the Democrats on the ropes.

But we are in a new political moment, in which people’s ballots matter for the survival of American democracy. Now is the time to reject the idea of politics as transactional and instead talk about principles, and what matters to us as Americans. The Trump campaign is aware that he is unlikely to win a majority of voters, so his operatives are hoping to eke out a win by depressing the vote. They hope to discourage his opponents enough that they stay home. They are pouring resources into social media to convince opponents that nothing matters, at the same time that they are spurring on supporters with a social media campaign to convince them that they must get out and vote.

It all comes down to the narrative.

Trump and his operatives would not be working so hard to skew the narrative if it were not important. But while they are trying desperately to create a false narrative, based on lies, to sell a pretty package to their base, Trump’s opponents have an extraordinary advantage. A true narrative of democracy is based on reality, and it includes everyone. It is complicated, and compelling. It is the story of the first fisherman who came to these shores and the native peoples who greeted them; it is the story of women who reared children in the wilderness. It is the story of the Civil War, and industrial expansion, and two world wars and the rise of the West after World War II. It is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

It is the story of human self-determination, and the epic tale of how Americans have struggled to create a government that gives us all access to that fundamental human dream.

To people who want to find a way to make a difference, speak up, to your local officials, your friends, your neighbors. What do you hope for the future? Why does it matter that we continue to be a nation of laws? Our voices are only unimportant if we decline to exercise them. And, taken together, they have the power to redefine America from the “carnage” that Trump sees, to the land of hope and possibility it has been in the past... and can be again.