If, like me, you bought the conventional wisdom and thought democracy was headed for extinction on Election Day, you got a glimpse of why that might not yet be the case last Saturday. In North Philly, the Democrats called out the big guns — Presidents Obama and Biden — to rally the troops. By then, you’d likely already been captured by the prevailing media narrative that had taken hold: The Dems were once again about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by not paying attention to the kitchen-table issues Americans cared about most, like inflation and crime.
But then you were jolted awake not by Obama or Biden, but by a stemwinder of a speech by Attorney General Josh Shapiro — when had he become such a stirring orator? — that brilliantly appealed to a self-interest in all of us that is bigger than any naked claim to just the girth of our wallets.
Shapiro had been giving a version of this speech on the stump since he trotted out its central idea last May at the Erie County Democrats dinner. He’d become fed up with Doug Mastriano’s “Walk as Free People” rhetoric, phraseology used to justify a slate of Christian Nationalism policies that threaten freedom, as New Yorker reporter Eliza Griswold has made so clear. (More on her in a moment.) “Let’s try it out,” Shapiro had told his staff that night in Erie, and so began his redefinition of the notion of freedom, a concept owned and traded upon by Republicans for ages.
Some 15 years ago, when he was a reform-minded state legislator, Shapiro was dubbed “The Jewish JFK” by one local power broker, owing to the young upstart’s unique combination of erudition and ambition. That really ought to be amended now to “The Jewish Obama” — whom Shapiro has admired since, as a mere state rep, he was one of the first elected officials in the nation to endorse the then-obscure U.S. Senator for president in 2007, defying Governor Rendell and Philly Mayor Nutter at the time, both firmly with Hillary Clinton.
In Saturday’s speech, Shapiro in effect rejected the binary conventional wisdom that a Democratic candidate could either talk about how inflation and crime affects the individual voter or the more abstract notion of the threat to democracy. He tied them together as Obama would — by appealing to communitarian values. What, after all, is a more common value than being free to walk down a street without getting shot? For too long, Democrats have focused on a laundry list of policies without attaching them to any higher theme. Shapiro not only did that — he also made those attending and listening feel like they were all on the same team, one characterized by a careful mix of moral certitude and common decency.
I’ve written often about the need for someone somewhere to emulate Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, which brought together Blacks and Whites from the working class with students and New Deal loyalists. It was, in the words of Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, “a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.”
How do you get there? Not by pandering to disparate interests, but by appealing to shared values. That means showing up in places that have historically been hostile to Democratic candidates and dropping the notion that you can persuade folks by telling them they’re stupid. “I don’t think in fighting to defeat Donald Trump, we need to attack the people who voted for him,” Shapiro told me a couple of years ago. “I think we need to understand them.”
Why did Shapiro win this week by the largest margin of any non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate since 1946, and apparently take control of the House for the first time since 2010, with the help of grassroots activists like Turn PA Blue and leaders like Rep. Joanna McClinton? Because, like any good communitarian, he showed up, and he talked not only of rights, but also of shared responsibilities. Check out how Shapiro fared in typically Republican counties:
Shapiro’s speech on Saturday catapulted him to national star status — MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, a former Republican operative, waxed on and on about him as the future of the Democratic party. If Biden doesn’t run for president, (unlikely, now that the most surprisingly bionic president had the best mid-term results since JFK) some local pundits are already speculating that Shapiro, a year into his governorship, will.
I think that’s unlikely, but let’s see how he governs first, shall we? When Shapiro ran for the state house, his platform was clear: Political reform. Montgomery County Commissioner? He pledged to clean up a fiscal mess, and his adoption of innovative zero-based budgeting turned the county around. Attorney General? His predecessor had been jailed, and he instituted ethics reform and embarked on big fights, like taking on the Catholic Church.
This campaign, the stakes were so high — democracy literally in the balance — it’s harder to discern what his governing priorities will be. Policy-wise, Shapiro, with his law enforcement and political reform bona fides, represents both fighting crime and working to make the criminal justice system fairer.
“It’s difficult to take it seriously and easy to tune out when they’re talking about witchcraft and demon possession. The idea that this electoral defeat of these ideas will make them go away is naive,” says journalist Eliza Griswold. “This embattled minority of disenfranchised White people thrive off the idea of being persecuted.”
He emphasized a pro-growth agenda in a state ranked 38th out of 50 in percent of GDP increase. When it comes to economic development, Tom Wolf amounted to a caretaker governor, thanks largely to Covid and his own timid nature. This moment is ripe to get Pennsylvania “moving again” to harken back to a JFK line, and Shapiro has made all the right noise about investing in innovation.
If Shapiro governs as he campaigned, there’s an object lesson to be heeded. For we learned this week, here and elsewhere, that the center still holds in general elections. As conservative John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post:
In the past four midterms, independents by double-digit margins chose the party that did not hold the White House. In 2018, with Trump as president, the independent vote was 12 points in the Democrats’ favor. In 2006, with George W. Bush in the Oval Office, the number was 18 points. When Barack Obama was president in 2010 and 2014, indies went 16 and 12 points in the Republican direction, respectively. This week, independents went 49-48 for the Democrats … They didn’t want to keep hearing about voter fraud that didn’t exist, or about how the world had done wrong to a multibillionaire boo-hoo whiner who lost his re-election bid due to his own incompetence. Voters have their own problems. This election was about them.
We have a mayoral election next year and candidates would do well to remember that ideological sloganeering is sideshow and that, apparently, old political skills like putting voters first, coalition building and finding common ground ain’t dead yet.
Niceness Makes a Comeback?
Sometimes we can overthink this stuff. Trump unleashed a lot into the American atmosphere, but one effect is rarely talked about: Joylessness. After all the darkness in our politics, all the sneering, all the snideness, all the downright meanness — like making light of the head hammering 82-year-old Paul Pelosi was tragically subject to — a slate of seemingly nice candidates were voted into office this week. Shapiro is one. I’ve known him nearly 20 years, and have criticized him on policy, but there’s no questioning his essential character.
He is this guy:
Every morning on my way out of the house, my wife puts her finger to my chest and tells me, “You better win.”
She’s not the only one. ☺️ pic.twitter.com/VK6S8WoL82
— Josh Shapiro (@JoshShapiroPA) July 30, 2022
But it wasn’t just Shapiro. Nationwide, it seems, voters rejected dourness, anger and grievance. In Maryland, Wes Moore became the state’s first Black governor, and just the third elected in American history. We had Moore at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival in 2020, when he was running the Robin Hood Foundation, the nation’s largest poverty-fighting organization. Joy emanates from the dude’s very pores, as you could tell from his stirring election night victory speech, during which, like Shapiro, he takes ownership of values that democrats once conceded to Republicans, like public safety.
The state’s multibillion-dollar surplus, Moore argued, was a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to boost economic development, fight crime and end child poverty — but to also cut the estate tax, long a Republican talking point. He was endorsed by the state’s outgoing Republican governor Larry Hogan over his election-denying opponent, and it’s not hard to see why. “You cannot love your country if you hate half the people in it,” Moore said on election night. “Real patriotism means bringing people together.”
And let’s not forget Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who not only stared down a first term kidnapping plot (which her opponent mocked!) and handily won reelection, but swept the state house and senate along with her into democratic control for the first time in 40 years.
She was elected to “fix the damn roads” as she famously called for in 2018, in a series of in-depth policy proposals that few candidates would risk putting out there. In fact, while significant investments in public safety and child care have been made, much of Whitmer’s agenda has yet to be realized, given ongoing dealings with her Republican legislature. But more than any leader in the country, she made the protection of reproductive rights the centerpiece of her campaign, saying repeatedly that she was “fighting like hell” against her state’s 91-year-old abortion ban that, in the absence of Roe’s protection, would be a travesty for Michigan.
Then there was this, a viral endorsement by the Detroit rapper Gmac Cash:
My favorite Whitmer story — and, again, why she’s likable — came after the dress she wore during her 2019 State of the State prompted a lot of Twitter criticism. “Boys have teased me about my curves since 5th grade,” she responded on Twitter at the time. “My mom said, Hold your head high and don’t let it bother you.”
One year later, though, she hadn’t forgotten, and she began her State of the State with a brilliant response. “This year, I want to get one thing straight — this is not the red carpet,” she said, smiling. “So please, I urge you — focus on the substance of my speech. It’s about issues, not appearances. I mean, I don’t care how distracting Sen. Shirkey’s outfit is. I mean, cut him a break.”
Poor Senator Shirkey, her political rival. The dude was seated behind her, wearing a dark suit. He stood up and hugged her, a teachable moment for all of Michigan.
Maybe likability is making a comeback?
Wait … The Best Political Reporter in Pennsylvania Commutes from London?
Well, she really lives in Chestnut Hill, but while Eliza Griswold’s husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll, is on sabbatical after having run Columbia Journalism School for many years, the two have been living across the pond. Still, Griswold’s New Yorker coverage of the Pennsylvania election has been by far the best anywhere. She’s a poet, journalist, and author of 2018’s Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, the moving story of the energy boom’s impact on a small Pennsylvanian town.
Over the last nearly two years, she’s turned her piercing lens onto Pennsylvania politics, and her portraits of Doug Mastriano and the growing Christian Nationalism movement are so well-reported and so smartly couched that they’ve at once enriched and scared the shit out of me.
Her recent New Yorker piece, How Election Subversion Went Mainstream in Pennsylvania is a chilling foray into a burgeoning world of conspiracy theory and end times true believing. Yes, the world lucked out when Josh Shapiro beat Mastriano this week, but make no mistake: Dodging ordnance does not mean there ain’t a war going on.
“This is the newfangled Christian Right,” Griswold said when I caught up with her yesterday. “When Mastriano intones scripture, that’s pretty normal for the Christian Right. But there’s this insane new super fuel to it that is Pentecostal in nature. This spiritual warfare is real, it’s more than a dog whistle.”
In the aforementioned piece, Griswold introduces us to Sam Faddis, a career CIA operative who now peddles in conspiracy theory. And he’s not the only one. The theories that are out there get weirder and weirder. It’s not just that there was election fraud in 2020 and that Mike Pence is a traitor. “There’s a wider Patriot Movement,” Griswold says. “They’re not all Christian Nationalists. But they come together under the Patriot Movement and share God’s moral authority to take over state houses — the idea of insurrection is to take back the physical symbols of government. The ideology is from the Fall of the Walls of Jericho — that’s why they walk around the buildings seven times. The state house is evil. This is not Jerry Falwell or Ralph Reed we’re talking about.”
“You cannot love your country if you hate half the people in it,” Wes Moore said on election night. “Real patriotism means bringing people together.”
Like the great reporter she is, Griswold walked among these self-appointed patriots for God — listening. “I have Doug Mastriano’s personal cell phone and at a rally I’ll text him, I’m here. You want to talk?” she says. Outside of email exchanges when she first profiled him, Mastriano hasn’t responded. But others have — even though others will dox her after her stories come out.
“We of the secular press, it’s difficult to take it seriously and easy to tune out when they’re talking about witchcraft and demon possession,” she says. “But the idea that this electoral defeat of these ideas will make them go away is naive. This embattled minority of disenfranchised White people thrive off the idea of being persecuted.”
So get ready. Twenty-one years ago, on 9/11, we had to be shaken awake and adjust to medieval attacks on modernity, and so it goes again. Only this time, as Griswold chronicles, the enemy is within, and doesn’t necessarily see itself as your enemy, so long as you see the world a certain way. Griswold bears witness and humanizes her characters, but the triumph of her work is that, reading her, you’re still reminded that this shit ain’t normal. And if we don’t engage, we’re screwed. So, yes, Tuesday had some encouraging election results. But reasonableness, love, and freedom are forever on the ballot.
MORE ON THE 2022 MIDTERM ELECTION FROM THE CITIZEN