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Will Democrats raise the volume on expressing what they believe in?

When confrontation disturbs an unequally enforced 'decorum,' voters usually approve

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., speaks during a Pro-Choice Caucus and Democratic Women’s Caucus news conference outside the Capitol on Wednesday.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., speaks during a Pro-Choice Caucus and Democratic Women’s Caucus news conference outside the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Does this mean Democrats don’t have to be afraid anymore?

You know what I mean. Though Democratic politicians and the party itself stand for certain values and policies, sometimes, when they promote and defend them in the public square, well, they do it in a whisper. This is despite the popularity of many of these views, and despite the fact that the folks they are trying to persuade with cautious hedging were never going to vote for them in the first place.

It’s a problem Republicans traditionally have not had. No matter how extreme or unpopular the opinion, you have known exactly where they stand. Hit them with truth or logic, science or math, and you could bet they would double down. And it has worked; bluster and browbeating have the ability to drown out most everything else.

All that may be changing.

When it comes to political third rails — from abortion to gun reform to the state of our democracy — and after some nudging and throat-clearing, Democrats are acting positively positive. They are no longer sitting still while Republicans try to brand them the party that wants to kill children and send “deep-state” agents door to door to collect your water pistols, handguns and bazookas.

With GOP presidential hopefuls lining up last week at a National Rifle Association convention as the number of mass shootings climb, perhaps it doesn’t take crazy courage to say enough.

Maybe it’s the polls.

Gun violence is creeping closer to every American. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed “one in five (21 percent) say they have personally been threatened with a gun, a similar share (19 percent) says a family member was killed by a gun (including death by suicide), and nearly as many (17 percent) have personally witnessed someone being shot.”

It makes sense that a Gallup poll published in February found 63 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with U.S. gun laws.

On the issue of abortion, in a recent Pew Research survey, 53 percent of adults say medication abortion — using a prescription pill or a series of pills to end a pregnancy — should be legal in their state, while fewer than half as many (22 percent) say it should be illegal.

Though the numbers when broken out reflect partisan and political divides, “among moderate and liberal Republicans,” the study found, “half say it should be legal,” even as a federal judge in Texas wants to lead the country in the opposite direction.

Unequal ‘decorum’

And boldness has been getting results. In a recent state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin, progressive candidate Janet Protasiewicz — who made her opinions, if not her future rulings, clear on the issues of abortion and threats to democracy — won by double digits.

It’s no surprise that some of the more veteran Democrats in the Tennessee state legislature were not initially thrilled when representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson echoed the sentiments of vocal constituents, crowds of fed-up students and parents demonstrating to elevate a discussion of gun reform in the wake of a deadly Nashville school shooting, which left three 9-year-olds and three adults dead.

But the risk for their predominantly white and male colleagues who overreacted by disrespecting — then expelling — the Black Tennessee members is that when confrontation disturbs a standard of unequally enforced “decorum,” voters just might not only understand, but also approve.

As Rep. Gloria Johnson, a self-described “60-year-old white woman” and the third member of Tennessee Three — the one not expelled — told Knox News: “It’s a different generation. And that’s OK because every generation has its differences. But these fellas are so smart and so passionate about their community, and we need to welcome their voices.”

Traditionally marginalized voices have realized the impotence of “respectability politics” — the belief that if only you act a certain way, compromise on core values until they become unrecognizable, and, above all, practice patience until someone else decides it’s your turn, then you will be accepted. So, it makes sense that many who had been relegated to the end of the line are the ones taking up the literal and figurative megaphone.

In the past, Republican presidents like George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote, yet treated their Electoral College wins as mandates. Trump, with the support of Senate Republicans, put his third justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, after early voting had started. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed considering President Barack Obama’s replacement for Antonin Scalia by making up a rule he then broke.

Democrats objected — meekly.

Now, observe what happened when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan recently signed a package of gun violence prevention bills into law, including one strengthening background checks and another that added a requirement for safe storage around children.

She made no apologies, nor excuses, in the state where a gunman killed three and critically wounded five others in a February mass shooting at Michigan State University.

GOP’s rhetorical tightrope

Senate Democrats are being tested as they mull strategies on just how to push back against GOP obstruction on temporarily replacing ailing 89-year-old California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee, the better to confirm President Joe Biden’s judge picks.

Still, for the most part, it’s Republicans who seem to be bobbing and weaving, and it’s easy to see why, as they slap “freedom” onto the name of every book they churn out and advocacy group they populate, while curtailing the rights of those they deem unworthy of consideration.

Alas, they are finding that includes a lot of Americans.

When that Trump-appointed judge in Texas, Matthew Kacsmaryk, penned a decision replacing legal and medical terms with the language of the anti-abortion movement, instead of celebrating, few Republicans went in search of a microphone.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, inching closer, it seems, to a presidential bid, and usually so sure-footed when it comes to walking a rhetorical tightrope, couldn’t quite land on a message when asked about his support for an abortion ban. He kept it as vague as possible, fumbling an NBC reporter’s question he must have known was coming.

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom many see as Republicans’ best hope to move past Donald Trump in 2024, last week signed legislation that would ban most abortions in his state after six weeks.

“We are proud to support life and family in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in a statement announcing the signing — after 11 p.m. Now he’s quickly moved on to his next attack, on Mickey Mouse?

So, who’s afraid?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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