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Democracy Is Not on the Ballot
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Democracy Is Not on the Ballot

Don’t despair for democracy, fight for it.

People wait in line for early voting for the midterm elections. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

You’re all losing your frickin’ minds. 

Okay, maybe not you, specifically, but a lot of people are. 

Look, I think my record over the last seven years or so of arguing that politics in general, and right-wing politics in particular, is going in a bad direction is pretty solid. Heck, now that I think about it, my record for arguing that left-wing politics is going in a bad direction is pretty stellar. 

But to listen to a lot of folks, the National Guard should go door to door collecting belts and shoelaces from a vast cross section of the commentariat as well as millions of rank-and-file voters. 

Take Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, who used to be a pretty moderate fellow back when I knew him a little. 

In a segment titled “Six Days to Save Democracy” on Chris Hayes’ show, Beschloss said

“A historian 50 years from now, if historians are allowed to write in this country and if there are still free publishing houses and a free press, which I’m not certain of … a historian will say, what was at stake tonight and this week was the fact whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed.”

He also said that we’re “on the edge of a brutal authoritarian system, and it could be a week away.”

Dude, sit out a few plays. 

Of course, Beschloss is hardly alone. Everywhere you look people are saying the end will be nigh if you don’t pull the lever for Democrats. 

You want to know what I think will happen if Republicans have a really good night on Tuesday? 

Not much. 

First of all, you’ll still have the same friends, family, and job you did the day before the election (not counting a few hundred campaign and congressional staffers and the like). That’s important because, as much as partisans have convinced themselves otherwise, politics isn’t as important in your daily life as politicians and pundits want you to believe. 

But yeah, okay, in political terms “not much” is a relative concept. Against the yardstick of “normal” American politics a lot of bad things could happen, and some will. But if you’re expecting even a modest slide toward a “brutal authoritarian system” where our children are “arrested and conceivably killed,” it’s gonna be closer to puppies and daisies as far as the eye can see as the American people whistle “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” out of their sphincters. 

Broadly speaking, here’s what I think will happen if Republicans gain control of Congress. Things will go very badly for Hunter Biden as the GOP dissects his life down to his DNA (and let’s face it, he is a sleazy, corrupt dude, even if he isn’t the bogeyman some want him to be). Alejandro Mayorkas, the DHS secretary, will quit rather than face impeachment, or maybe he’ll stick around and be impeached. Anthony Fauci will be put through the wringer. But we’ll also probably get some needed investigations into the origins of COVID and the debacle in Afghanistan. 

And yeah, Republicans will waste a lot of time talking about and maybe actually going through with what will likely be a stupid, pointless, and hypocritical effort to impeach Joe Biden.

Barring some crisis, Congress will pass very little significant legislation, and what legislation that does become law will be relatively bipartisan—because it will have to survive a presidential veto. Some Republicans will be horrid hypocrites as they suddenly support abolishing the legislative filibuster, and some Democrats will be equally ridiculous hypocrites as they suddenly switch (back) to opposing its abolition. There could be some truly terrible gamesmanship on the debt ceiling. The GOP crazy caucus will expand as a few more tinfoil hatters join Marjorie Taylor Greene’s treehouse of stupid.

Broadening out, there will be some new bad apples at the state level, and they will say and do terrible things. But most of their schemes will fall afoul of both the courts and the court of public opinion. 

There will be ample good news for the left. The Democrats will benefit from being out of power in numerous ways. They will have great fun in pointing out that spelunking in Hunter Biden’s laptop will do nothing to fix inflation or gas prices. It is surely the case that they will be in better shape to win in 2024—particularly if Biden and Harris don’t run—after two years of GOP theatrics. Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus will make Kevin McCarthy’s life a living hell and the Peter Thiel and Steve Bannon factions of the right will give Mitch McConnell no end of heartburn. Sen. Herschel Walker will be a constant foil of liberal comedians and pundits alike.

Most of the things I detest about the way the American right is trending will get worse, but some will get better. Most of the things I detest about the American left will get worse, but some will get better. 

For instance, if Hispanics provide the margin of victory in some important races, Democrats might rethink their lazy and crude addiction to identity politics and Republicans might do something similar in the way they talk about immigration, never mind the “Great Replacement” garbage. I’m particularly keen on seeing how the relative impotence of abortion as an issue in this election changes both parties, hopefully for the better. 

Anyway, I’m sure there are more unknown unknowns, but I think I’m directionally right. But “democracy” will survive.

About democracy.

In his speech this week, Biden mentioned various issues being contested and then added, “But there’s something else at stake, democracy itself. I’m not the only one who sees it. Recent polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, that our democracy is under threat.”

This is one of the great misinterpretations of public opinion in my lifetime. A recent New York Times poll found that 74 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of Republicans, and 71 percent of independents believe that “democracy is currently under threat.”

But Americans are all over the place on what poses the actual threat. Voter fraud, voter suppression, corruption, misinformation, polarization, Trump, Biden, nationalism, extremism, and the media all made the list.

For Biden, the topline number suggests everyone should vote for Democrats because Democrats are the only party committed to “democracy.” But that’s nonsense. The mere fact that a majority of Americans are worried that democracy is under threat suggests that Americans like democracy and want to keep it around. Heck, I’m pretty sure that the quarter of Americans who don’t think democracy is under threat like democracy, too. 

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.

I take a backseat to no one in my contempt for both the grifters and sincere hysterics on the right who take things like Dinesh D’Souza’s 2000 Mules seriously. But even Dinesh’s carefully crafted crackpottery works on the assumption that democracy is good. Even putsch-peddlers like Michael Flynn argued for rerunning the election, because in America we believe that elections confer legitimacy for elected positions. 

For all of Donald Trump’s lies about the election being stolen, his mendacious vice pays tribute to the virtue of democracy. He wants people to believe he actually won. His whole bogus pitch is premised on the idea that democracy should be restored. 

Now, I should be clear. I don’t think Donald Trump gives a damn about democracy, but he knows deep in his condo salesman brain that the American people do. His attitude toward democracy is indistinguishable from his attitude toward golf and business—he sees nothing wrong with cheating, but he also wants people to believe he won fair and square. 

Cheating is terrible. But there’s a difference between stealing a couple bills from the bank when playing Monopoly and saying, “Screw this game, it’s corrupt. I choose Stratego!”

The poison of despair. 

I don’t begrudge anyone who’s sincerely worried about the health and integrity of democracy. But what I really can’t abide is all of this catastrophizing. I’ve been entirely consistent about this. I think Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” essay was an intellectual grotesquerie and have said so many times. The constant pants-wetting hysteria on the right in 2016 about the survival of our country was dangerously idiotic. And so is all of this “democracy is on the ballot” garbage. 

Contrary to so many bromides about the glories of unity, democracy is about disagreement. It’s about arguments. It’s about racking up temporary victories and recovering from temporary defeats. Democracy doesn’t deliver permanent solutions or eternal social justice. It’s a hedge against tyranny and a way to settle differences without resorting to the sword. And that’s good enough. 

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. 

This is a good country full to the rafters with decent people. Are we perfect? Of course not. Have we sinned in the past? Obviously. But if you actually believe in democracy, you have to believe that Americans can correct their errors. That’s the story of America after all. Jim Crow was evil. We had a huge, messy, and grueling democratic argument about it, punctuated by numerous elections. And like a sifting pan clearing away the dross, we finally elected to get rid of it democratically. The better argument won. Taken seriously, Beschloss’ bowel-stewing cri de coeur removes all agency from generations of Americans, to the point where, 50 years from now, historians—if they’re even allowed to publish books!—will look back and say that democracy was lost because of the frickin’ 2022 midterms. That’s moral panic. 

Indeed, that is the politics of despair. In Christian teaching, despair is among the gravest of sins because it is the willful rejection of the idea that personal redemption is possible. The politics of despair promotes the idea that national redemption is impossible if we lose the next election. What I said to the right in 2016 is as true for the left in 2022 (and for both in 2024): If we’re one election away from America being over, then America is already over. 

And that’s why Flight 93-ism is so dangerous: There’s a chance people will believe it. The January 6 riot proves the point. Most of those goons and buffoons storming the Capitol committed the blunder of believing Donald Trump’s lies about the election being stolen. That’s the weird irony lost on so many people rightly appalled by that day: Most of those in the mob thought they were fighting for democracy. Some were more villainous than that—particularly the ringleaders like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon who knew it was all a lie—and some were just thugs looking for an excuse to riot. But a lot of those fools were fools for democracy.

The core problem with American politics today is that a large number of people have become convinced that elections aren’t for eliminating problems, they’re for eliminating our “enemies.” Each election is pitched by partisans as our last chance to stop or purge our existential foes before they go about destroying the country or, as Joe Biden once put it, “putting y’all back in chains.” And once elected, each side thinks this is their last chance to get everything they want all at once, which all but guarantees the American people will put the other team back in power to punish their overreach.

It’s hard enough to eliminate problems. Usually, modest improvements are the best you can hope for. But it’s impossible to eliminate whole categories of people in democracy. If you take to heart that the other team isn’t going away—and that maybe, just maybe, some of them are decent people—you will change your politics accordingly. It’s much easier to be a jackass to a stranger you will never see again than to a neighbor or coworker you’re going to see every day.

If despair is the sin of losing hope for the possibility of personal redemption, the politics of despair is the sin of losing hope that democracy is up to the task of righting itself. And once you believe that, you give yourself permission to do terrible things and to be a terrible person—so long as you are terrible toward your enemies. 

Have some faith in your country and your stated ideals. Have some faith in the Constitution and your fellow Americans. I’m not arguing for complacency. I’m arguing against panic and despair. Despair is a sin because it forecloses any notion that you can do anything to climb out of it. That’s not the American way. That’s not the democratic way. Freedom takes work. It takes commitment to defending ideals that can only die when people stop defending them. 

Let’s be clear: Most of the people saying democracy will be over if Republicans win on Tuesday are lying, at least to themselves. Because it’s not like they will resign themselves to tyranny and authoritarianism on Wednesday in service to a foolish consistency that says they must be faithful to their own prophecy. I’m sure Michael Beschloss will be on TV on Wednesday or soon after—even if Republicans have a banner day. 

Various & Sundry

A note of thanks: I’ve tried to respond to all of the notes, emails, DMs etc. offering condolences about the passing of my mom. There’s no way I could respond to each kindness in the comments section individually. But please know I’ve read it all and I’m deeply grateful for the encouragement and sympathy (I’ve learned the hard way not to search Twitter for mentions of my mom—that way lies madness and rage). I’m also grateful to all of my colleagues at The Dispatch and AEI for the immense consideration and concern so many have shown. I should also note that the Fair Jessica has been nothing other than heroic (I should note it in part because I failed to last week in the G-File). I’m going to be okay, thanks in no small part to all of you.

Canine update: Much has happened in the world of Goldberg quadrupeds. For starters, Pippa seems to have decided she’s afraid of the dark in the morning. For the last few days, I’ve had to either wait until the sun comes up or simply go for a walk without her. I don’t know what it is. And as much as I’m against Daylight Saving Time, I look forward to some earlier sunlight for canine perambulation purposes. Then there was Halloween. Yes, we got costumes for all of them, and they all hated it. Though I think Gracie at least knew that she looked fabulous. The dogs wore their bat wings for about 15 minutes—long enough for some pictures and a neighborhood walk. Beyond that the girls are good. Scheduling Pippa’s surgery is an ongoing problem in part because our schedule got blown up by the recent travails with my mom. They really love this weather and Zoë has been great with various small dogs that in her younger years she would not have abided.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.