The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many of my fellow politicians won’t tell voters the truth. The result was Jan. 6.

Telling the public only what it wants to hear is no way to keep democracy going

House members walk down the east front stairs of the Capitol building in September 2013, hours before a government shutdown encouraged by right-wing activists.
House members walk down the east front stairs of the Capitol building in September 2013, hours before a government shutdown encouraged by right-wing activists. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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In the fall of 2013, in the middle of what was at the time the second-longest government shutdown in American history, Republican leaders in Congress kept asking each other one question: “How did we end up here?” That is also the question I have had in recent weeks, especially as I witnessed the violent attack on our Capitol and our democracy on Jan. 6.

The answer is the same in both cases: an unwillingness to speak truth to power. In businesses, employees speak truth to power when they deliver unwelcome facts to their bosses. In government, appointed officials do that when they tell elected leaders something they don’t want to hear. But in a democracy, the people are the ultimate source of power. Our elected officials work for us, and they fail us when they decline to tell us truths that we, the people, don’t want to hear. Even worse, they fail us when they set up false expectations we desperately want to believe.

Back in 2013, the expectation was that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives could force the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass — and compel President Barack Obama to sign — a repeal of his signature health-care initiative. This false narrative started with a few outside groups like Heritage Action and Tea Party Express arguing that the barrier to repealing Obamacare wasn’t the president; it was elected Republicans who were unwilling to fight hard enough. These groups purposely ramped up expectations, overpromising, even knowing that the end result would under-deliver.

Conservatives have traded periodic revolts for a permanent revolution

At first, this was a political headache for me and my colleagues: Few elected Republicans wanted to spend much time or political capital refuting people who were part of the base. But then a small group of lawmakers in the House and the Senate, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), started telling the base what they longed to hear: that Republicans could indeed defund Obamacare simply by insisting on it as part of a larger annual government spending bill. These members, and indeed every other elected Republican, knew better, but very few were willing to say so. I had dozens of meetings with individual lawmakers, as well as group sessions, imploring my colleagues to take a different approach, because shutdowns don’t work. Often, these same members would leave the meetings and go on cable TV to talk about how leadership wasn’t fighting hard enough, and only they were. And the shutdown was born.

As former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial nears, lawmakers discussed on Jan. 31 whether he should be held accountable for the Capitol breach. (Video: The Washington Post)

This pattern repeated itself at a new level around the 2020 election. “Stop the Steal” narratives about widespread fraud, albeit without evidence, sought to undermine the results. Bloggers and certain friendly radio and TV shows didn’t need to worry about providing defensible facts or being confronted with the truth. Soon, President Donald Trump was talking about how the election could be overturned and awarded to the “true” winner — him — if only a secretary of state . . . or a governor . . . or the judges he appointed . . . or congressional Republicans . . . or the vice president would fight like he wanted them to. It was ultimately all political posturing, and I honestly don’t know if the president believed the story or not — but many in the GOP base did. Two-thirds of voters who are Republican or lean Republican have been misled into thinking that there is solid evidence of widespread fraud in the election, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found this month.

A political litmus test for Republicans: Fail it, lose your TV slot

To my fellow Republicans who hope that Trump’s departure from office will end this cycle, I would remind them that it started long before he descended the escalator in Trump Tower more than five years ago. And left unconfronted, it will continue long into the future.

And to my Democratic friends who think this is a Republican problem, I say be careful. The same pattern is already unfolding on your side as progressive activists — joined by elected officeholders, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and “the Squad,” with aspirations of higher office — tell tales of what Democrats could accomplish if only they were willing to fight and use their power.

So how do we break the cycle? How do we persuade responsible elected officials to speak uncomfortable truths to the people they work for?

In many ways, it is the classic prisoner’s dilemma. If the majority of Republican elected officials work together to confront the false narratives in our body politic — that the election was stolen (it wasn’t), that there is a QAnon-style conspiracy to uproot pedophiles at the heart of American government (there isn’t), that a Democratic-controlled government means the end of America (it doesn’t; it may produce worse policy, but the republic has survived 88 years of Democrats occupying the White House) — all Republicans will be better off. If instead most elected Republicans decide to protect themselves against a primary challenge through their silence or even their affirmation, then like the two prisoners acting only in their own interests, we will all be worse off. (The same holds true for Democrats.)

The U.S. shows all the signs of a country spiraling toward political violence

I am by nature an optimist, but I don’t think broken systems just fix themselves. It takes hard, uncomfortable work. Such work would be rewarded: Denouncing the false narratives and the conspiracy theories is the first step to winning back the college-educated, suburban and young voters Republicans have lost. Who knows, it might provide a path to a national popular-vote victory. Equally important in a representative democracy is how you earn the trust of voters, both those who support you and those who don’t.

Most elected officials first run for office for the right reasons: They want to make big policy changes. But every big change has a cost, and if you aren’t willing to level with people about those costs — or anything else — don’t be surprised when they don’t trust you to make the change. You might just find that leveling with your constituents and getting to do big things is more rewarding than spewing a guaranteed applause line at a rally.

Political parties and their leaders have two options: Engage in the competition of ideas and solve problems while moving the country forward, or continue to promote disinformation and false narratives designed to undermine our democracy. The choice should be obvious.

Twitter: @EricCantor

Read more from Outlook:

We’ll still be divided after Trump. But the fault lines will move.

Political partisanship is vicious. That’s because political parties are too weak.

The parties are locked in a political arms race — and keep finding new weapons

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