The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How media and political figures could do better in 2022

Jonathan Bennett, host of Good Riddance Day, and Joe Papa, director of events for the Times Square Alliance, burn a 2021 banner at a celebration in Times Square in New York on Dec. 28. (Corey Sipkin/AP)

We should be realistic in our expectations for 2022. Fox News will not stop disseminating racism, Russian propaganda and vaccine disinformation. (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.) Former president Donald Trump will not confess that he lost in 2020. And the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court will not rediscover judicial restraint or the importance of precedent.

Nevertheless, plenty of people can do more to move the needle in favor of democracy and truth.

Every mainstream news interviewer can demand that Republican guests defend their participation in the big lie of a stolen election and condemn the 2020 plot to pressure state legislatures, election officials and Justice Department officials into changing results. If Republicans do not answer, interviewers should not move on to other questions.

The political media can stop casting battles for democracy as horse-race politics and concealing that only one party is launching a campaign to suppress votes and subvert elections. And they can call the 2020 insurrection an attempted coup, which it was, that began as soon as Joe Biden was declared the winner.

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Retiring Republicans who know better, including Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), can condemn GOP efforts to subvert elections and join Democratic colleagues in passing essential voting reforms. Really, why would they keep insulating authoritarians?

Lawyers, law school deans, legislators, former Justice Department officials and retired judges could highlight the hypocrisy of right-wing Supreme Court justices, their devaluation of precedent and their weak reasoning. Lower federal courts may be required to follow precedent, but they need not withhold criticism. It is long past time for a public movement to push for term limits and to admonish justices for their partisanship, including their habit of making speeches in political settings. Right-wing justices are hypersensitive to public criticism (hence the insistence that they are not “partisan hacks”), so it’s time for a very public debate about their departure from judicial norms.

Democrats need to hold red-state governors accountable for their reckless response to the coronavirus pandemic. Surely, they can put out state-by-state rankings of the worst vaccination rates and highest death tolls. Experts can calculate the number of people who would be living and the income that could have been created had Republican leaders followed best practices. It is about time Democrats stripped away Republicans’ “pro-life” facade.

Finally, President Biden needs to deliver some major addresses, including a prime-time speech from the Oval Office, to describe the threats to democracy. If possible, he should enlist former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to travel around the country to defend nonpartisan election officials under siege and stress the importance of respecting electoral outcomes. Together, they could highlight the danger that federal and state legislators may try to overturn election results (e.g., submitting alternative slates of electoral votes or refusing to count them in Congress).

We are facing a battle for the future of democracy. Biden must inhabit the role of democracy’s defender in chief, deploying the time and political capital to make the issue the top concern in 2022. When democracy is on the ballot, the president cannot be AWOL.