A Drill for Democracy: Awaken the ‘Sleeping Giant’ to Fortify Majority Rule

Malinowski at the crux of democracy.

As the stores shift displays from Halloween to Thanksgiving and then Christmas, it will be tempting to let the turn of the seasons and the hope of a life post-pandemic lull us into a false sense of wellbeing.

The noise generated by the 2021 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign and down ballot legislative races about who is responsible for property taxes gives no hint of the real stakes in the election. It’s dangerously disconnected from the reality that the bloody Trump insurrection that tried to use force to install the loser of the 2020 election just several months ago is still simmering across the land.

We may be briefly comforted by the primordial procession of the turning of the leaves, the cooler temperatures and shorter days. This is the cycle that has always moved us through time before the pandemic and the attempted insurrection.

We are weary and still dealing with the collective trauma of a once in a century mass death event that’s left millions of us worried about the long-term consequences of a deadly virus that’s shadowed us for almost two years that we still don’t fully understand.

It would be great if the mass death event that’s killed over 700,000 Americans and the Jan. 6 fatal attack on our nation’s capital as well as on our democracy amidst a pandemic, were all just vivid nightmares.

They were ample evidence of a nation on a planet facing existential challenges that are interconnected and loom larger as the calendar pages turn. It’s clearer with each passing day that climate change is already upon us in the form of increasingly more lethal storms like Sandy and Ida that are happening with greater frequency as epic wildfires continue to burn for weeks at a time.

For three years before COVID hit, our national average life expectancy was in decline. That was the first time that had happened since the Spanish Flu outbreak that started in 1918. For years before COVID hit, the powers that be had ignored the deteriorating health of the American people and the gaping holes in the public health safety net.

We’ve now exceeded the 675,000 death toll from the Spanish Flu by tens of thousands and in the process exposed how the growing wealth concentration and resulting inequality in our nation leaves tens of millions of poor and low wage households vulnerable to something like the Coronavirus. We also know that it’s precisely these families, often of color, that are the backbone of the essential workforce that served the entire society while so many had the luxury to work from home.

At the same time, in states across the nation, the authoritarian cadre loyal to insurrectionist Donald Trump have been successful in rolling back voting rights protections at an unprecedented pace building on their electoral successes locally in 2020. Trump is the anti-immigrant demagogue who denies that climate change is real. He lied to the nation about the severity of COVID and then attempted to use the virus for tactical advantage by pitting red state against blue, a self-serving strategy that helped spread the disease and pushed the death toll ever higher.

Sen. Angus King, the mild-mannered and independent from Maine, recently warned on MSNBC that our national politics were at a “fragile” and “very dangerous moment” perhaps the “most dangerous since 1860 in terms of the future of the country” because of Congress’s inability to stave off the attack on voting rights particularly targeting communities of color.

He warned the only way to “protect democracy” was by successfully beating back “this wave of voter suppression and the changing of the rules” now well underway in key swing states that rejected Trump and all he stood for.

King rightly calculated that thanks to the existence of the undemocratic Senate filibuster, just 41 U.S. Senators, representing just 24 percent of the American people “have an effective veto, over anything that 76 percent of the American people think is important public policy.”

So, this is the backdrop against which the tightening races for governor here in New Jersey and Virginia are playing out. Coming as they always do, the year after the national presidential contest, they are often seen as bellwether for the bi-annual Congressional contests that come the following year and in 2022 will be of truly historic consequence.

Republicans can roll out this second wave of Jim Crow race-based voter suppression because they have the leverage from their years of disciplined party building from the bottom up that they accomplished in successive elections at the local, county and state level. It’s given them control not only in places like Florida and Texas but in states like Ohio as well as Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, Democrats, who control the White House, the House and U.S. Senate were unable to even pass a watered-down version of a desperately needed voting rights bill that was championed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) who mistakenly believed it would attract a Republican vote.

Efforts to hold those responsible for the Jan. 6 violent attack on the U.S. Capitol meant to derail the peaceful transition of power and install minority rule by force continue to run into serious resistance. A significant number of sitting members of Congress continue to give voice to Trump’s big racist lie that the election was stolen in urban centers where voters of color are concentrated.

While the Biden Harris ticket won a solid national victory in 2020, the Trump white supremacist tractor beam energized Republicans down ballot and Democrats lost ground in the House of Representatives and in the nation’s statehouses where voting rights and reproductive rights are defined.

Yes, Biden and Harris won more votes than any ticket in U.S. history, but President Trump also got the second highest vote total ever, adding several million votes to his 2016 total.

In the 2020 election cycle in New Jersey Trump still carried Ocean, Cape May, Salem, Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties and added to his vote totals from 2016 in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Gloucester, Hunterdon, and Mercer counties.

Like they seem to do in almost every campaign, the polls appear to be tightening between Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican rival former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. Last month, a Monmouth University poll gave the Democratic incumbent a 13- point advantage. A recent WPIX / Emerson College Poll found Ciattarelli had closed that gap to just six percentage points, with seven percent of those polled still undecided.

According to that same poll, Murphy’s time leading the state through the pandemic might be reflected in his 49 percent favorability / 47 percent negative split with the voters that were sampled.

In Virginia, 2021’s the other bellwether race, a Monmouth University Poll has former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, dead even in his race with Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Meanwhile, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a leading Trump acolyte who replaced Rep. Liz Cheney’s as chair of the House Republican Conference, sent out a fundraising appeal on Oct. 23 for “Young Gun” Tom Kean who is in a rematch “against Pelosi Puppet Tom Malinowski” who represents New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District.

Malinowski, who only won by a few thousands votes, less than one percent of the votes cast in 2020, has become ensnared in allegations he failed to properly disclose personal stock transactions. The Hill reported Oct. 21 that the Office of Congressional Ethics has concluded it found “substantial reason to believe” Malinowski failed to “disclose stock transactions in accordance with ethics rules and federal law.”

Nancy Pelosi holds on to the House majority by just three seats after her party lost ground in the 2020 election and has continued to lose ground since. In addition to the precarious status of Malinowski’s seat there’s 7th CD in Virginia where Democrats also prevailed in 2020 by just a one percent margin.

If Democrats are to beat the odds and NOT lose seats in 2022 in the House of Representatives, and control of Congress, it’s vital that Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia see the Nov. 2 election that is now upon us as a kind of fire drill to engage what Rev. Dr. Barber has described as the “sleeping giant of poor and low-income voters” in their states.

It was this under-appreciated voter cohort that provided the margin of victory in key places like Georgia where these voters sent Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate. And while some beltway consultants try to coach Democrats away from progressive policies that appear “too left” or “too socialist”, they need to energize their base which includes speaking directly to the pressing needs of poor and low wage voters of all colors.

Out of the 168 million voters who cast a ballot in the 2020 general election 58 million were poor or low-income voters, according to research complied by Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “This means that more than one-third of the voting electorate—35%—were low-income voters,” according to the PPC: NCMR report issued earlier this month. “There were another 22 million low-income voters who were registered, but did not vote, meaning that out of the 215 million registered voters in 2020, 80 million—or 37%—were eligible low-income voters.”

The report continues. “While low-income voters are not a monolithic group, they represent a significant population of voters that is often overlooked and misunderstood. This report focuses on low-income voters in 2020 and the broader population of eligible low-income voters as an electoral sleeping giant, holding the potential to shift our political maps and reshape our political priorities.”

“At the same time, the significance of the low-income electorate is about more than winning elections,” according to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “The concerns of these voters are widely popular, yet far from being fully implemented. Instead, 140 million people are poor or living one emergency away from economic ruin, while the wealth and abundance of the country becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In addition, the democratic rights of the people are under attack with voter suppression laws.”

According to PPC: NCMR’s state-by-state analysis of the 1.4 million registered low-income voters in New Jersey, just over one million voted, meaning that close to 400,000 sat out the 2020 election. So, while this cohort’s registration rate was close to 80 percent, only 58 percent felt sufficiently engaged to follow through and cast a ballot.

Consider how the 2020 race between Trump Republican Jeff Van Drew and his Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy would have gone if the “sleeping giant” of low wage workers had been fully awakened in New Jersey 2nd Congressional District and in its Cumberland County, one of the poorest in the state.

In Virginia, according to the PPC: NCMR report of the 1.74 million low-income voters that were registered, just 1.34 million actually voted, meaning that 400,000 sat out 2020, votes that could have had a significant impact on down ballot races.

In the days left of the 2021 campaign, Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia have a chance to get a jump on their 2022 to do list by zeroing in on these voters to give Murphy and McAuliffe a convincing victory.

If you knock on their door in 2021, they will know who you are when you come calling in 2022.

It may well be that it is this “sleeping giant” Rev. Barber references that is all that stands between us and the reimposition of the tyranny of Trump’s minority rule.

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