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Democracy Was on the Ballot
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Democracy Was on the Ballot

Too late?

Joe Biden gives remarks on preserving democracy ahead of the midterm elections at a DNC rally. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images.)

A thought experiment. Could a more charismatic politician than Joe Biden have made last week’s “democracy is on the ballot” speech compelling?

Barack Obama would have delivered it dynamically, maybe even turned it into a barnburner. He would have cleared the low bar of persuasion set by our mumbling 1,000-year-old president by miles. Could he have made the point compellingly enough to move votes, though?

No way. For one thing, he gave dynamic speeches before the midterms when he was president. Check the scoreboard from 2010 and 2014 to see how much good it did. But even Obama at his peak would have landed with a thud in pitching this particular message because of the electoral circumstances in which Democrats find themselves. Telling voters that democracy is on the ballot when they’re poised to hand you a victory is one thing; scolding them about it when you’re staring at a landslide defeat reeks of sour grapes.

It’s a prefab guilt trip masquerading as a political argument. “The reason we lost is because Americans hate democracy.”

There’s also no way to make the point without sounding hysterical. A Republican voter in my family who worries about crime marveled to me yesterday that Democrats seem to be calling her a fascist because she prefers Lee Zeldin to the dismal Kathy Hochul in New York’s gubernatorial race. Millions of people must have heard Biden’s warning last week and understood him to mean that if Republicans win the midterms there’ll be no elections in 2024. Imagine how seriously they’ll take future Democratic warnings about democracy when the 2024 elections take place as scheduled.

Most of all, “democracy is on the ballot” is doomed as an election message because no one who isn’t worried already about the GOP’s drift toward Trumpy authoritarianism will be made to care about it at this point. On Friday’s Real Time, a resigned Bill Maher said of Biden’s democracy pitch, “Anyone who believes that is already voting and anyone who needs to learn that isn’t watching, and no one in America can be persuaded of anything anymore anyway.”

It’s a message destined to fail. And, if anything, it’s probably an election cycle too late.

I understand how Republicans persuaded themselves to take a chance on Trump in 2016. He was charismatic and ran as an outsider against one of the most despised establishment politicians in modern American history. A Supreme Court vacancy hung in the balance. It seemed vaguely conceivable, sort of, that he might grow into the presidency. And even if he got a little wacky, the principled small-government Tea Party Republicans who dominated Congress would be there to rein him in.

By 2020 it was clear that, rather than Trump being assimilated into the institutional GOP, the institutional GOP had been assimilated into a Trumpist personality cult. Deficit hawk Mick Mulvaney boasted in 2016 that Trump becoming president would give House Republicans a chance to show that they opposed big government in principle, not just when Democrats propose it. Three years later Mulvaney had become Trump’s acting chief of staff and was heard to say that no one cares about deficits. Mike Lee, constitutional conservative, tried to organize a floor revolt against Trump’s nomination at the 2016 Republican convention. By 2020 he was comparing Trump to Mormon religious figures and babbling that “we’re not a democracy.”

Reflecting the party’s complete cooptation and intellectual bankruptcy, Republican delegates opted not to pass a policy platform at the 2020 convention and instead vowed to “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” Some state parties canceled their primaries to spare His Majesty the indignity of dissent expressed by his subjects at the polls. For four years the country had a taste of what it was like to be led by a populist strongman, down to the requisite staffing of the executive branch with underqualified and unconfirmed lackeys in important positions, and had to decide whether it wanted to double down on a second term in which term limits would mean Trump could get as crazy as he liked without having to worry about electoral consequences.

Many more Americans than expected did want a second helping of the Trumpified GOP, it turned out. Republicans up and down the ballot overperformed in 2020, Trump included. He ended up running much stronger than polls had predicted and fell barely short in the states that mattered most. In the end, he improved on his 2016 showing by more than 10 million votes, the second largest haul in American history. His party, which had been remade in his image, swept toss-up races in the House and nearly flipped control. If not for Trump’s foolish election skepticism in Georgia before last year’s Senate runoffs, the GOP likely would have taken the upper chamber.

“A large portion of the electorate chose the sociopath” is how Tom Nichols described his qualified dismay at the 2020 results. Trump had lost but Trumpism had won. Hope that the party’s turn toward strongman authoritarianism would mean its ruin at the polls was gone. If anything, the new Trump-dominated GOP looked more formidable than the pre-2016 edition.

The 2020 election mainstreamed Trumpism. That was the moment the electorate could have steered the Republican Party in a new direction by giving it a hard whack, possibly sending Trump himself into retirement if the repudiation had been emphatic enough. It didn’t happen. In the aftermath, the right’s commitment to democracy appears … uncertain.

It will appear less certain by Wednesday morning.

This is, of course, the first national election since the then-sitting president tried to stage a coup to keep himself in power. Voters in 2016 could tell themselves that he’d be better in office than they hoped. Voters in 2020 could tell themselves that at least he wasn’t the autocrat the left was forever accusing him of being.

Post-insurrection, voters are out of excuses.

They know who Trump is now. They know he owns the party lock, stock, and barrel (except in Georgia, weirdly), having watched numerous Republicans who crossed him be purged. They know he’s likely to be the nominee again in 2024, coup attempt and likely forthcoming indictment notwithstanding. They also know that GOP candidates down-ballot increasingly emulate his worst attributes, with hundreds of election deniers running in races across the country this year including budding superstars like Kari Lake. And if they don’t know the precise percentage of Republican voters who continue to insist that Biden’s 2020 victory was illegitimate, they know that it’s a lot. 

The mask is off, yet the electorate is poised to deliver a Republican landslide all the same. In a post this morning, Damon Linker considered the prospect of a red wave and recognized, correctly, that “it would indicate that Republicans not only didn’t pay a penalty for running unorthodox/extremist candidates, for sticking by Trump after January 6 and through his subsequent legal troubles, and for the Dobbs decision, but that the GOP may well have been rewarded for all of this. Maybe not rewarded in the sense that voters positively liked any of it, but definitely in the sense that voters just didn’t care about any of it enough to say, “I can no longer countenance voting for this party.”

“The Republican Party has chosen to remake itself in Trump’s image, and the political gestalt he created can win,” Daniel McCarthy wrote recently in the New York Times. “Gestalt” is a polite term to describe a movement that incorporates stuff like this but he’s right about the main lesson that’ll be absorbed if the right wins big tomorrow.

In that context, whether “democracy is or isn’t on the ballot” feels like semantics. Tuesday’s result will almost certainly further incentivize and cultivate an anti-democratic culture within the GOP by rewarding its adherents with power. Not anti-democratic, perhaps, in the sense of “elections should never be held again.” But certainly anti-democratic in the sense of “elections can no longer reliably produce outcomes that are fair to our side.”

A few days ago my colleague (well, boss) Jonah Goldberg made the case that democracy is not, in fact, on the ballot this year. These passages brought me up short.

Sure, Americans like to complain about democracy, but they don’t want to get rid of it. Indeed, besides a handful of fringe dorks and radical fantasists, there is literally no significant constituency on the American right or left for getting rid of democracy. There are significant constituencies for bending the rules, working the refs, even rigging the system, and these constituencies should be fought relentlessly. But while often in error, most of these people believe they are on the side of democracy. The people who wildly exaggerate both voter suppression and voter fraud believe what they’re saying. They’re just wrong.

What is most offensive about all of this “this is our last chance” hysteria is its fundamental anti-Americanism. I don’t mean ideological anti-Americanism, which is a real thing with a long pedigree on the left and the right. I mean it is anti-Americans. It is premised on the idea that if our team loses the election, we cannot count on normal Americans not to blindly and obediently go along with tyranny, authoritarianism, communism, fascism, or whatever brand name these faux Martin Niemöllers assign to their political opponents.

I wouldn’t say “this is our last chance” but otherwise I’m guilty as charged. I do not in fact trust Republicans after 2020 not to blindly and obediently go along with attempts to overturn an election won by Democrats. All it would take to bring the bulk of the party along in a new coup attempt, I think, is some patina of legal legitimacy of the sort Mike Lee was desperate to find in November 2020. If Trump had contrived a quasi-legal way to flip electoral votes that year, like by having swing states send dual slates of electors to Congress, I see little reason to doubt that a majority of conservatives would have talked themselves into blessing the ploy as fair because it was, after all, technically within the law. Rules were followed, the people’s representatives acted to correct “fraud,” the right outcome was reached. The “soft” coup was the proper democratic result.

If Republican voters weren’t okay with delegitimizing elections with an eye to overturning them, would this conspiratorial creature be at 50 percent in polls of Arizona?

If they weren’t okay with it, would these two guys be major figures within the populist wing that now dominates the GOP?

If they weren’t okay with it, would ambitious “mainstream” Republican politicians be seeking their favor by campaigning for election deniers (sorry, a former election denier in this case)?

If it makes you feel better to know that future attempts to overturn elections will be couched in the language of democracy, in which procedural chicanery is occasionally needed to undo phantom “fraud” at the polls and vindicate the true will of the people, fair enough. It’s nice that both sides view the popular will as the touchstone of legitimacy in governing, but to me authoritarianism shellacked with a democratic veneer is worse than authoritarianism unvarnished.

I’m also less confident than Jonah that voters won’t begin to question democracy qua democracy in the years to come, especially if one side or the other ends up on a losing streak that drives them far out of power. Liberals already denigrate the constitutional mechanisms of American democracy, like the Electoral College, because they empower the rural conservative minority to punch above its weight. And if Democrats rattle off a series of wins, it’s easy to imagine populist Republicans already primed by 2020 concluding that America’s elections are so hopelessly rife with “fraud” that some alternate system should at last be considered.

We may get a taste of that this week if Democrats overperform their polling and win some races they were supposed to lose. (The ground is already being prepared for Republicans to cry foul.) Picture not just Kari Lake falling short in Arizona but, say, J.D. Vance being upset in Ohio by Tim Ryan. Eventually, egged on by Trump, right-wing suspicions about rigged elections could grow this decade to the point where a meaningful number of Republicans concludes that democracy would be the ideal system if it could be administered fairly. But since it can’t …

Needless to say, I agree with Jonah that constituencies that support bending the rules or rigging elections should be “fought relentlessly.” But if we’ve reached the point where narrow electoral defeats reliably generate durable, broadly popular conspiracy theories about cheating followed by support for extraordinary “legal” remedies to undo that cheating, I’d say we’re losing that fight. With figures like Lake, Don Bolduc, Blake Masters, and Herschel Walker set to emerge as new leaders of the Republican Party, and Lake possibly as a presidential contender, we should consider seriously the possibility that those constituencies will win.

Inasmuch as “democracy is on the ballot” implies that tomorrow’s election is “about” democracy, it’s untrue. The election is “about” inflation and crime. But there are potential major implications for democracy from the results. The GOP is now a party that prioritizes loyalty to one man over loyalty to the will of the majority. A majority of House Republicans voted against certifying Biden’s electoral votes in 2020, remember, and all but 17 Republicans in Congress voted against a richly deserved impeachment or conviction following the insurrection. The next House and Senate caucuses would be even more radical and slavishly loyal.

If Americans are willing to hand huge majorities to a personality cult led by a twice-impeached soon-to-be-charged coup-plotter in spite of all that, there may be no way to persuade them to prioritize democracy, even in the future. Not even when they’re asked to decide on a second term for Donald Trump in 2024.

My rule of thumb for whether a Republican candidate is worth supporting is this: What would they have done in Mike Pence’s shoes on January 6?

If in my judgment they would have done their duty as Pence did, they’re worth electing. And there are Republicans who would have. I’d happily vote for Brian Kemp in Georgia, a solid conservative who drew a line at aiding and abetting a coup in deciding what duty he owed his party. I’d vote for Doug Ducey for the same reason, although he’s not on a ballot. (Thanks to Trump.) I’d vote for Joe O’Dea in Colorado, a newbie who’s cultivated an image as a moderate to appeal to voters in his very blue state.

There are others—obviously, I’d vote for all of the impeachers if not for the fact that most of them have been excommunicated from politics by the cult for their sins. But I suspect we’re reaching the point, if we haven’t reached it already, where the average Republican in elected office wouldn’t follow Pence’s lead if forced to decide.

Whether they would decline out of fanaticism or fear for their family’s lives would vary from person to person, but that question is academic for our purposes.

We know what Kari Lake, the biggest star in this year’s Republican field, would do. In fact, given the national chatter lately about her retail skills and potential as a Trump running mate, there’s a very dark timeline in which Vice President Lake gets to preside over the counting of electoral votes in Congress on January 6, 2029, after she’s just lost the presidential election to some Democrat.

Knowing what you know about her, how do you think she’d handle that situation?

If she handled it … badly, shall we say, how many elected Republicans do we think would dare denounce her or protest her coup attempt? 

How many have done so to protest Trump’s?

I mention Lake here not just because she’s likely to be the most buzzed-about newcomer in American politics within 24 hours but because everyone knows how she would have handled January 6 and she’s going to win anyway. With the lone exception of Doug Mastriano, there’s no candidate in the country whose civic corruption is easier to predict. Yet not only is that likely to be no obstacle to victory in Arizona, her triumph will be actively celebrated on Wednesday by even respectable conservative media.

So, put it this way: If democracy isn’t on the ballot tomorrow, it’s at least near the ballot. The results will affect the course of future American elections, maybe profoundly. Do your best with the choices you have.

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.