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Autocrats and Democrats

The cynical response to Biden’s speech on democracy.

Joe Biden during his speech Wednesday night. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency /Getty Images.)

What’s a president to do when his party faces an imminent electoral wipeout driven by high inflation, high crime, and the near-certainty of a recession?

Clearly, he should deliver a primetime address to the nation that … doesn’t touch on any of that.

This week Joe Biden gave his second speech in two months on the subject of democracy, a topic unlikely to move any vote that wasn’t already firmly committed to the Democratic Party. With the polls turning dark down the stretch, Biden’s decision to revisit an argument that didn’t help his candidates the first time he made it seemed baffling, almost a non sequitur.

And not just to conservatives. Ahead of the speech a well-known progressive operative all but rolled his eyes at the news that Biden would be yammering about democracy again on television.

To a blue-collar family that has been forced to substitute beans for meat at the supermarket, the idea that democracy should dictate their vote must seem not merely out of touch but callous. And to loyal Democrats desperate for encouragement before a daunting election, having Biden sink back into a well-worn subject that plainly won’t help at the polls must be demoralizing. It stinks of their leadership having run out of ideas on what to say about the country’s most urgent problems.

It’s the wrong message to win an election. And it was delivered by the wrong messenger.

Biden is the guy, remember, who spent months hysterically comparing Georgia’s new election law to Jim Crow—unfavorably. (“Jim Eagle,” he called it, with maximum cringe.) Back in reality, Georgia broke its record for most early ballots cast in a midterm election with the better part of two days of early voting still to go. Earlier this year Biden also stooped to preemptively questioning the legitimacy of the midterms because Democrats failed to advance their election reform legislation in the Senate, a curious complaint coming from someone who claims to abhor election truthers.

Righties sneering at him over all that—well, you can’t entirely fault them.

But you can fault the hell out of them for evincing less concern about their party’s illiberal drift than Joe Biden has.

My cynical pundit’s heart has a soft spot for earnestness.

As addled as he is and as corrupted as a man who’s held office since the Nixon administration is destined to be, consider the possibility that Joe Biden gave his speech because he’s earnestly alarmed by the likelihood that America is about to reward a bunch of loud-and-proud election deniers with power.

According to Politico, that’s what happened. Biden, not his staff, insisted on speaking to the nation again about democracy because he wanted to make sure voters realize what they’re about to do.

Biden had already delivered a grand address on the issue, on Sept. 1 in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. But aides and allies said this week that Biden has become increasingly dismayed as more election deniers emerged from Republican primaries to wage competitive general election campaigns. And, as evidence emerged that democracy had moved up the list of voter concerns, he wanted to take another crack at it.

As one Biden ally familiar with the planning told Playbook last night, “The [theme] of democracy versus autocracy and the notion of an inflection point — that came straight out of Biden’s head and mouth.”

The person added that Biden knows “there’s not a big interest group [for this]. There’s not a Twitter feed for democracy. But that’s the moment we find ourselves in.”

I believe it. How could I not? I share his dismay.

A look at the RealClearPolitics polling averages on Thursday reveals numerous Republican election cranks leading their races or within striking distance of victory. Kari Lake is ahead in Arizona by 2.8 points. Herschel Walker has inched into the lead in Georgia by two. Tim Michels, who promised Wisconsin Republicans this week that they’ll never lose another election in the state if he’s elected governor, is up two-tenths of a point. Don Bolduc now sits just half a point behind in New Hampshire. Even Blake Masters is within 2.2 points of a Senate seat.

If the red wave crashes down on Tuesday, all could find themselves holding high office next year. No one knows what a Gov. Lake or a Sen. Bolduc would do if America were to face another Trump-driven election crisis in 2024. But we can guess.

Have you seen any alarm about that in mainstream right-wing media?

In my first newsletter for The Dispatch, I highlighted an interview with J.D. Vance in which Vance advised Donald Trump in his second term to purge the executive branch of career civil servants, replace them with authoritarian toadies, and ignore any court rulings to the contrary. Vance justified his advice by claiming “we are in a late republican period” and warned Republicans that “we’re going to have to get pretty wild, and pretty far out there, and go in directions that a lot of conservatives right now are uncomfortable with” in order to defeat the left.

That quote came not from some obscure left-wing blog but from a long profile of Vance in a prominent national magazine, Vanity Fair. I’ve flagged it multiple times at The Dispatch and at my previous site. Conservative media has had ample opportunity to reflect on it since VF published it six months ago and to declare that a Caesarist is unfit to hold power in this country.

Have you heard any of them say that? 

Vance’s opponent, Tim Ryan, isn’t some Squad-style wokester vowing to bring about the revolution if elected. He’s the closest thing to a conservative Democrat on any ballot this year, whether for reasons cynical or heartfelt. He’s disclaimed left-wing culture war issues, has touted his support for Trumpy trade policies, and keeps showing up on Fox News to court Ohio’s Republican majority. He’s even backed off a bit on abortion extremism lately.

The republic won’t fall if Ryan beats a guy prone to fantasizing about investing the host of The Apprentice with absolute power. I’m less sure that the opposite is true. Yet, to my knowledge, no major right-wing media outlet has endorsed Ryan in the Ohio Senate race. To find a Ryan-supporting conservative, you have to look to—as usual—Liz Cheney.

The Republican Party establishment not only isn’t abandoning unfit candidates, it’s going to bat for them. From Arizona to New Hampshire, “sane” figures have put aside their reservations about the GOP’s kooks to campaign with them. Doug Ducey endorsed Kari Lake’s moderate opponent in the primary but he’s all-in for Lake now. So are Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin, each of whom stopped off in Arizona to stump for her. Chris Sununu, who once dismissed Bolduc as “not a serious candidate” and ruled out ever endorsing him, has now endorsed him.

If you’re inclined to say that all of that is fine, or even salutary, because the normies like Youngkin will assimilate the nuts like Lake, I’d point you back to this post and ask you to consider carefully who’s assimilating whom.

I can imagine Joe Biden taking all of that in, despairing, and wondering incredulously if voters might not realize just how sordid their preferred candidates are, in which case he’d better tell them right away. I can imagine it because I’ve had the same feeling many times. One wants to think the best of one’s countrymen, that they wouldn’t vote for a cretin like Vance if they knew that he was coup-curious. Surely, then, his lead in the polls must be an information problem. If you and I and Joe Biden raise the alarm about authoritarians on the ballot this year, the great and good American people will react with horror the same way you and I and Joe have.

But they won’t. We should face the fact that the people, in their infinite wisdom, don’t care. Not at a moment of high crime and high inflation, at least, and maybe not after crime and inflation ease.

Certainly Republican voters don’t.

I can’t fault Biden for trying, though. If he doesn’t speak up, no one in a position of influence on the American right is going to do it for him. Come next week, 95+ percent of conservatives sneering at him today for worrying about authoritarianism will be cartwheeling over victories by J.D. Vance and Kari Lake. And the other more respectable 5 percent will be celebrating amid some limp “not my cup of tea, but even so” throat-clearing.

Elections are about policy, after all, we’re told. And J.D. Vance has better policies than Tim Ryan does: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-coup.

The truth is that elections aren’t always about policy. Usually they are, but policy differences are ultimately a second-tier concern. A first-tier concern, which we’ve all been lucky enough to be able to take for granted in the past, is that the people retain power to replace their leaders periodically by voting them out if they don’t like the policies being enacted. When you have candidates on the ballot who don’t acknowledge the primacy and legitimacy of that first-tier concern, you’re reminded of just how second-tier policy is.

The smartest criticism of Biden’s speech that I’ve read came from Josh Barro, who’s not a Republican and therefore doesn’t have the credibility-destroying “rootin’ for J.D. Vance” liabilities that the president’s conservative critics do. 

Biden and the Democrats have done next to nothing to try to attract centrist voters, Barro notes, a weird strategy to follow for a party bleating about unity against fascism. Their democracy pitch isn’t being packaged with conspicuous moderation on issues like fossil fuel production and bailing out student loan debtors aimed at attracting moderate Republicans to help crush the MAGA hordes. They’re ramming through the liberal agenda and warning anti-authoritarian conservatives to either get on board or enjoy Weimar America. Worse, Democrats threw gobs of money at election deniers in Republican primaries this year in the belief that they’d be easier to beat in a general election. What kind of “pro-democracy” party helps insurrectionists advance?

If the country is facing a crisis of democracy, why aren’t Democrats acting like it?

I take Barro’s point. The DCCC’s decision to target Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the 10 Republicans who risked his career by voting with the left on impeachment, was unforgivable. They did Trump’s dirty work for him in that race by taking out one of the few brave, independent-minded GOPers left in Congress.

But grasping for reasons why Democrats are culpable for a red wave propelled by a GOP electorate that’s unworried about authoritarianism at best and enthusiastic about it at worst sits uneasily. It smacks of the logic you often see on conservative Twitter to justify supporting candidates like Vance or Lake or Trump, of course. If the libs weren’t so crazy, I wouldn’t be compelled to support this fascist.

I have good news for members of the so-called “party of personal responsibility.” You’re not compelled to do anything. No matter how crazy the libs get, you have the option of declaring a pox on both their houses and staying home.

And if you do feel compelled to turn out to vote for fascists, let me gently suggest that you didn’t need as much compelling as you’d like to believe.

Never forget: Republicans, especially moderate Republicans, bear ultimate responsibility for letting post-liberal candidates in their party come to power, not Democrats. Faulting liberals for ineptly prosecuting the case for democracy rather than conservatives for declining to prosecute the case at all is a classic case of the soft bigotry of low expectations or of naked partisan spin. Or both.

The left isn’t the only faction either that pursues maximalist policies while catastrophizing about an alleged national crisis. It’s the GOP, not Democrats, that first embraced the idea of a “Flight 93 election.” Its members routinely accuse Democrats of trying to destroy the country. Donald Trump has taken to complaining lately about “communism” taking over America. If all of that were true, one would think Republicans would be tacking hard to the center to unite with independents to defeat “communism.” They aren’t. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, numerous red states moved to impose unpopular strict abortion bans instead of opting for a compromise that would keep the practice legal in the first trimester. Congressional Republicans also continue to oppose policies with high public support, like amnesty for DREAMers, codifying legal gay marriage, and universal background checks for gun sales.

If right-wingers fear creeping socialism as much as they claim, they should be nominating ultra-electable normie candidates to win over centrist voters instead of cranks like Lake and Walker whose liabilities have turned a favorable national environment into toss-up races.

Why haven’t they? What about communism? Democrat William Saletan wonders.

Go figure that in an era of hyperpolarization, when primaries threaten most incumbents more than general elections do and voters are siloed off in their own soothing media realities, both parties would eschew moderating on policy and focus instead on ramping up their base.

Precisely because of that hyperpolarization, I suspect that even if Democrats had taken Barro’s advice and reached out to the center, they’d still be en route for a midterm drubbing. Maybe not quite the drubbing they’re going to get next week; margins do matter. But if Biden had opted for a “caretaker” presidency in which nothing much happened during his first two years and political “gravity” asserted itself by sweeping Republicans to a midterm victory anyway, liberals would be irate that the president had squandered his congressional majorities. A country poised to nominate a twice-impeached insurrectionist again in 2024 and to give him no worse than a 50/50 chance at the presidency isn’t a country whose voters were prepared to reward Joe Biden and the Democrats if only they, say, showed a bit more restraint on student loan forgiveness.

Tom Nichols is right. Those who want a reason to vote for the Trump-led GOP will always find one.

As I say, margins do matter. Had Biden not passed the COVID relief bill, had he encouraged new drilling for oil and gas, maybe that would have meant the difference between John Fetterman losing narrowly next week to Mehmet Oz and winning narrowly.

But maybe not. Maybe a demoralized left, frustrated that Biden had accomplished so little, would have boycotted the midterms. Maybe Republicans would have opted against Fetterman anyway because of his stroke, and to communism.

Given how partisan the right has become, even the Democratic strategy of donating to election deniers in Republican primaries has a twisted logic to it. As cynical and repulsive as their strategy was, it recognized that the choice in most GOP primaries isn’t between Joe Q. Insurrectionist and a Peter Meijer or Liz Cheney. Typically the choice is between Joe Q. Insurrectionist and an incumbent who objected to certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory in 2020 and/or who voted against impeaching Trump. Forced to choose between spending money to boost a less electable overt election crank in a Republican primary or to stand down and let a more electable covert election crank sail through, Dems concluded that they’re better off with the former. If the Republican nominee is destined to do Trump’s bidding once in Congress, no matter who that nominee is, the left might as well aid the candidate who’s easiest for them to beat.

I wonder how much of the right-wing grousing about Biden’s speech is evidence of a bothered conscience.

Maybe that’s me being naive again, like when I wonder whether the GOP’s drift toward authoritarianism might be a simple “information problem.” It’s comforting to think that the conservatives sniping at Biden may quietly share his alarm about the type of candidates being elevated by the party but can’t muster the nerve to cross their audience by asking them to withhold their votes. They might find that nerve someday.

Until they do, they’ll have to soothe their unease by complaining about Sleepy Joe, resenting him for harping on about democracy because they refuse to open their own mouths. 

Complaining about Trump soothes that unease as well, as I think he functions sometimes as a sort of safety valve for disquiet about autocratic populism. It’s okay in non-populist conservative media to criticize the guy responsible for January 6 and to believe he shouldn’t be nominated again. There’s always Ron DeSantis, after all. But to suggest that Republicans not vote for budding authoritarians like Kari Lake or Don Bolduc, knowing what that would mean for Democratic power? That’s where they draw the line, buddy.

They can check the “anti-authoritarian” box by attacking Trump and only Trump. Until he’s the party’s presidential nominee again, of course.

The less generous theory of why conservatives bite their tongues about the party comes from Democrat Jonathan Chait, who’s known for less generous theories about Republican motives. The irritation at Biden isn’t a matter of righties feeling shamed by his pro-democracy rhetoric, he writes. It’s a matter of conservatives recognizing that the only way they’ll get the policies they prefer in a populist GOP is by reconciling themselves to authoritarianism, and deciding “Sure, whatevs.”

When one of the two major political parties is captured by authoritarians, the best recourse is to persuade large numbers of elites associated with that party to defect to the opposing one. That has failed in part because of errors by Democrats but mainly because the vast majority of Republicans would prefer an authoritarian party that’s committed to their policy agenda to a nonauthoritarian party that isn’t. In the absence of such a mass defection, we’re left hoping for Democrats to keep winning elections until something, somehow, changes.

That also helps explain righty media’s efforts to minimize the recent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Chait writes elsewhere. If keeping Democrats out of power is the supreme political virtue then you do what you need to do and say what you need to say to hold your coalition together. If that means dismissing Paul Pelosi’s injuries as the product of an apolitical nut or a gay tryst gone bad or “something something liberal media” in order to exculpate the populist political culture on which your coalition depends, then you do that.

And if it means looking the other way at Kari Lake and J.D. Vance and scores of other election-denying cranks on the ballot this year in the belief that even autocrats are preferable to Democrats, then you do that too.

Wherever you fall on the question of motive here, understand that the phenomenon of Republicans backing authoritarian candidates will get worse after next week, not better. To a certain type of amoral partisan zombie, the strongest critique one can make against a Lake or Vance is that they’re unelectable in theory. If a red wave delivers them to power, that argument is out the window. Trump will point back to it whenever he’s accused of being too damaged politically to win again in 2024. “That’s what they said about Kari Lake in Arizona!” he’ll say. And he’ll be right.

He can win again. In a country as morally and civically corrupted as ours has become, you’re whistling past the graveyard if you think he can’t.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.