October 1, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Undecided voters are dangerous radicals

They are not what they seem.

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I wrote Wednesday that Joe Biden demonstrated ways of saving the republic from the mistake of electing a demi-despotic goon like Donald Trump. During the first of three scheduled debates, the president was a fire-hose of bullying, pouting and puling, rarely giving the former vice president a couple of quiet minutes to speak. He tested his rival until Biden decided at last to stop tolerating the intolerable: “Will you shut up, man?

Then something amazing happened. As I was writing Wednesday’s edition, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan nonprofit that organizes the debates and set the rules, said “that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” according to the Post. Implicit in this change was a remarkable consensus: that Trump is to blame for the chaos. Changes include cutting off the candidate’s microphones while the other speaks. The commission, in so many words, will be forcing the president to shut up.

They will never respect you. Therefore, be sparing with your respect in return. The only thing they truly respect is a democratic majority in this country flexing its power.

Later on the same day, something else amazing happened. CNN’s Jake Tapper, who was the subject of Wednesday’s Editorial Board, followed suit. His guest was Trump campaign Director of Communication Tim Murtaugh. In a clip shared widely, Tapper asks why the president refuses to condemn armed white-power groups. Murtaugh answers with accusations that Biden “palled around with” segregationists decades ago. It’s a maneuver aiming to “prove” the president is no more racist than his opponent. Tapper grows impatient with the nonsense. Murtaugh increases the volume, running over Tapper followups until he signals to the camera operator to shut Murtaugh up.

Telling authoritarians to shut up isn’t the only way, or even the best way, of dealing with them. But it’s one of the tools the rest of us can use on confederates who have told us who they are when they exploit the rights and privileges of a free and open society to undermine a free and open society, even destroy it. Don’t argue with them. Don’t reason with them. Don’t debate with them. Debating them civilly is making room at the table of civilization for renegades ready to flip the table over if they don’t get their way. They will never respect you. Therefore, be sparing with your respect in return. The only thing they truly respect is a majority flexing its democratic power.

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For the same reasons, we should be exceedingly wary of what I’ll call the Nice Undecided Voters (NUVs). The NUVs are almost always super-white. They are almost always rural. They are almost always middle class and up. They get a lot of attention from the press corps in light of a vast majority of Americans making up their minds about 2020 way back in 2017. (This is why the president’s aggregated job approval rating has rarely changed since he took office.) To reporters, the NUVs appear to be deeply concerned about the fate of the nation, conflicted about the decision facing them, and symbolic of the divisions riving the United States. Most importantly, the NUVs are people who care about their reputations in their communities, and appear to be searching for ways forward in accordance with their genuinely held principles.

Truth is, the NUVs are dangerous radicals. No other serious conclusion can be drawn from the Post’s Wednesday report on the NUVs’ reaction to the debate. The president encouraged white-power vigilantes to “stand back and stand by.” He repeatedly tried extorting the electorate, musing about bad trouble if he loses. This is what someone says when he sits at the head of the table of American civilization, expects everyone else to behave according to a set of established rules, but reserves the absolute right to hold himself above the law in case he needs to flip the table over to get his way. Trump was telling us clearly who he is, but the NUVs interviewed by the Post either refused to see the truth, accepted the truth secretly, or lied about accepting the truth. In all cases, seeing evil but ignoring it or joining it is another form of evil made more sinister by the appearance of being nice, respectable, concerned, and patriotic undecided voters.

The NUVs are not undecided. They are undeclared. They fear making their preference for fascism known. They fear it will get in the way of their nice respectable lives at the office, at church, at the bowling alley. This fear of social sanction is more powerful than their fear of Americans being taken out and shot. Or they want the freedom to dominate those they believe deserve domination without being held responsible for their behavior. They want to punch down without the possibility of being punched back. They cannot get what they want, however, if the rest of us deny them what they need to get it. If you revoke your respect, if you take back your welcome to participate in the public square of a free and open society—if that happens, you in effect shut them down. The intolerant are only as strong as our willingness to tolerate them.

So don’t.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Dave S on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Interesting take but makes sense.

  2. danamo on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm


  3. abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Excellent column. I keep in mind a column by Tim Wise in the Washington Post a couple of years ago in which he shared the lessons he learned defeating David Duke in Louisiana. He said it is wrong to debate issues with a racist candidate; he said they didn’t talk issues, didn’t make a big deal about Duke’s adultery and tax evasion, but focused on Duke’s KKK leadership. The question before the voters was “Are you choosing an avowed racist or are you choosing our candidate?” I get very frustrated with the press wanting to cover issues in this race. That is what opens the door to taking these so-called “undecided voters” seriously. If you don’t know which side you are on, you are taking a side. Same thing with the super-Left that wants to push Biden about GND and Defund Police. This is not the time for issues. The only issues are blatant racism and looming fascism.

  4. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Somebody suggested that Wallace be given a taser to keep order in the debate. I know that won’t happen but it seemed amusing enough to share. John, I think what you’re saying in this essay is exactly right. Also, Mr. Biden was exactly right to tell the current president to shut up. But he’s not going to shut up as long as he thinks people are listening; and it’s possible even if not probable that he knows the only people who want to listen to him are those who want to live in a fascist country.

  5. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Yes, enough is enough. Let’s be intolerant of the intolerant.

  6. Linda Mehta on July 30, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    It is likely true that the “undecideds” are more accurately described as undeclared, as you suggest, and some of them are also undercover and not in a good way. A number of them are also undeclared because they don’t want to offend or rile anyone up. What this particular cohort seems not to understand is that citizens in a democracy shouldn’t excuse themselves from having an interest in politics or from studying the issues so they know where they stand.
    During the debate, I kept wondering how the League of Women Voters would have handled moderating the debate. They did a highly professional job of it for years, and things turned more partisan after they were no longer in charge. Or put a couple of top high school debate coaches in charge of moderating. Sadly, we no longer have Gwen Ifill to moderate. So that’s one of my thoughts.
    I also wondered if Trump was being so over the top (even for him) in an attempt to get Biden to stutter so that he (Trump) could make fun of him (Biden). Some critics were giving low points to Biden because of the pauses he took, but I wondered whether that was to keep his speaking steady. My guess is Trump would leap at the chance to mock Biden’s if he could.

    Finally, another thought was regret that Biden didn’t take the opportunity to mention that the forests in California are something like 97% under federal control, so it’s not the Democratic governor of California who has mismanaged these forests, it’s Trump’s own administration.

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