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Democrats Should "Take On the Swamp" and Mean It
If the Democratic Party wants to win big this fall and in 2024, their best bet is to oppose corruption in all its forms. And then, unlike the Trumpy Republicans, to walk the talk
Russian presidential candidate Alexi Navalny is rotting in a Russian gulag because he picked up the most powerful weapon a candidate can wave against an entrenched political opponent: “Corruption.”
Democrats need to learn from his effort, and Republicans are handing them all the ammunition they’ll need for this fall.
When they make a clear and convincing case about the corruption of their opponents — like Navalny did against Putin in Russia — politicians claiming to fight corruption always win (unless they’re poisoned and then thrown in prison).
Both Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine ran on anti-corruption platforms and won (only one was serious about the issue). There’s no more powerful tool in a politicians toolbox.
Bolsonaro, during his first election, laid it out in terms most people agree with:
“The evils and harms of corruption affect the population in every way. This is what we want to stop. A corrupt government stimulates crime in all areas.”
But, as The Washington Post points out, “Now, he’ll have to find another slogan.”
Donald Trump also ran against corruption in 2016 and it was his most powerful sales pitch.
Louise and I lived in Washington, DC at the time of the election and knew, socially, quite a few Trump voters, most of them active duty or retired military.
More than half of them were willing to vote for either Trump or Bernie Sanders: their issue was that our government had grown so corrupt that politics in DC needed a strong and incorruptible president who’d shake things up and clean house.
“Trump’s too rich to be bought,” they’d tell us, sometimes adding a variation on, “And Bernie doesn’t care about getting rich so he can’t be bought, either.”
This phenomenon is completely independent of party.
Just after the 2016 election Huffington Post contributing writer Jon Hotchkiss put together a fake Facebook account and joined a few dozen pro-Trump groups. He then put together a pro-Trump meme that asked, “What do you like about President Trump?”
“I got more than a thousand responses in 24 hours,” Hotchkiss wrote, “and the thing people wrote most is that they like Trump because he’s not a politician ― he’s a real American not corrupted by Washington, and beholden to no one.”
During the Republican primary election, Trump said of his GOP competitors:
“They will be bombarded by their lobbyists that donated a lot of money to them. Again, Jeb raised $107 million dollars, OK? They’re not putting that money up because it’s a wonderful charity. Well, it is a charity, but for them, not for America.”
That was in July of 2015 when he was considered a long-shot, five months before President Obama said, “I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president.”
Trump argued that normal, corruptible politicians would have to bend to their campaign donors, even when that meant sending jobs overseas.
“So their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton, President Walker. Pretty much whoever is president other than me. Other than me. And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign, two million, five million.”
Across the auditorium heads were bobbing as Trump tossed out the punch line he used in hundreds of speeches:
“And the plant will be built in Mexico and [that’s how] we just lost lots of plants all over our country.”
But after seizing control of the House, Senate and White House in the 2016 sweep, powered in large part by Trump’s anti-corruption promises, the Republican Party took a cue from Bolsonaro instead of Bernie:
Trump assembled the most corrupt Cabinet in US history: five different agencies’ inspectors general referred their cabinet officer heads to the US Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
Attorney General Barr was so corrupt that he ignored those referrals, and then lied about and concealed from the American people the results of Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s multiple connections to and assistances from Russia.
Trump put a fossil fuel lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department.
The Environmental Protection Agency was taken over by Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist.
The Transportation Department was run by Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, whose family is worth hundreds of millions of dollars from their Taiwan-based shipping business…that’s regulated by the Transportation Department.
Trump brought criminals and fascists like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn into the heart of our political system.
Republicans in the House and Senate passed only one consequential piece of legislation during Trump’s entire four years in office, and that was an insanely corrupt $2.5 trillion tax cut for the billionaire oligarchs who own the Party.
Republicans refuse to pass legislation to control our epidemic of gun violence because they’re taking money from the gun industry.
Republicans won’t do anything about drug prices because they’re paid off by Big Pharma.
Republicans block regulations that would reduce greenhouse gasses because they’re owned by the fossil fuel industry.
Republicans won’t improve our food safety amidst a nationwide crisis of deadly food-borne illnesses because Big Ag tells them how to vote.
Even though the big banks stole billions and crashed our economy on Bush’s watch in 2008, Republicans still refuse to hold them responsible, support banking regulations, or break up the “too big to fail” institutions that hand them millions.
But, as Jair Bolsonaro proved in Brazil, you can only successfully use the corruption card once if you have no intention of actually cleaning up corruption.
To stay in power, you have to make sure you’ve seized such complete control of your country’s elections and judiciary that no matter how unpopular you are, you can retain power through sham elections.
Which, eerily, is exactly what corrupt Trumpy Republicans are doing in state after state as the naked corruption of the Trump wing of the GOP is laid bare.
As the CNN headline noted this January:
“At least 19 states passed 34 laws that restrict voting in some way in the last year, analysis shows.”
Since then the pace has picked up; the most recent law will require any voters in Arizona who registered to vote more than 18 years ago to re-register and start over from scratch. That alone will knock out an estimated 200,000 older voters who’re worried about Republican Senator Rick Scott’s plan to phase out Social Security and Medicare within five years if the GOP retakes the Senate.
All of which means OPPORTUNITY for Democrats this fall.
Issues rarely exist outside of a frame, and in American politics that frame is usually broadly defined as either “conservative” or “liberal,” “Republican” or “Democratic.” And once an issue is dropped into one of those four frames, its ability to reach voters “on the other side” or independents diminishes fast.
Whether it’s healthcare, education, immigration, or even voting rights, once its framed and thus perceived as ideological or partisan, that issue’s ability to reach the broadest possible audience is narrowly circumscribed.
Put the “corruption” frame around an issue, though, and it cuts through American politics like a hot knife through butter. As Trump’s 2016 candidacy proved, you can take down the most well-known, issue-savvy, richly funded Republican politicians in America, one after the other, if you just credibly allege corruption.
When Democrats run:
on expanding healthcare (as Stacey Abrams is doing now in Georgia), they can frame their Republican opponents as corrupt stooges of the insurance industry.
on ending student debt, they can frame their Republican opponents as toadies of the corrupt bankers who make billions in profits every year from student loans and high college tuition.
on voting rights, they can frame their opponents as corrupt toadies who’re rigging the system so they can continue to wallow in the big bucks their “donors” shower on them.
on inflation, they can frame the issue as Republicans refusing to do anything about companies that exploit the end of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine to rip off consumers.
on labor, they can tell the story of Republicans fighting against the right to unionize ever since it was first put into law in the 1930s, and how Reagan put his “War on Working People” on steroids in the 1980s when he took down PATCO.
on drug prices, they can point out Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz’s recent corrupt assertion that high insulin prices are justified because, he says, there’s too many fat people in America.
on green energy, they can frame the issue as a corrupt fossil fuel industry that doesn’t care how much Americans pay for energy or how many die from exhaust fumes and climate change, so long as they can maintain their profits from our addiction.
on immigration, they can point out how Republicans have no problem with “illegal employers” because they’re on the take from those giant corporations, and refuse to fund programs to help struggling democracies to our South because it might raise billionaires’ taxes.
As Donald Trump showed us in 2015/2016, almost every issue can be reduced to corruption or, as he called it, “the swamp.”
Most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are already framing issues this way.
And if the Democratic Party wants to have serious electoral victories this fall the Democrats who’re deeply in the pockets of special interests are going to have to renounce their own corruption.
It appears this is already happening. Here in Oregon, for example, “corporate problem solver Democrat” Kurt Schrader — a reliable vote against many progressive positions including letting Medicare negotiate drug prices — has announced that he’s no longer taking money from Koch’s enterprises.
It’s a start.
The core of the problem for corporate-funded Democrats is that five corrupt Republican appointees on the US Supreme Court legalized political bribery with their notorious Citizens United decision in 2010. That began a great bifurcation of the Party into “clean” progressive and “corrupt” corporate wings.
A solution to this problem is to openly acknowledge it and work to fix it, be that through overturning Citizens United legislatively, through Constitutional amendment (unlikely), or through expanding the Court so the decision can be re-litigated.
There are few issues that animate American voters more than corruption in politics. It’s so powerful that it’s already affecting Democratic voters’ perception of a few on our side.
Young people know, for example, that climate action is stalled by every Republican in the Senate and Joe Manchin making piles of cash from his coal business and being the largest Democratic recipient of fossil fuel money.
Minimum wage workers and people on Medicare know that every Republican in the Senate was helped by Kirsten Sinema, who shot down their hoped-for raise and regulation of drug prices because of the big bucks she got from the same billionaires and industries that fund the GOP.
If the Democratic Party wants to win this fall and in 2024 in a big way, their best bet is to fully oppose corruption in all its forms. And then, unlike the Trumpy Republicans or Jail Bolsonaro, to walk the talk when they govern.
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