Tomorrow is Midterm Election Day, a fact of which, between a bombardment of mailers, text messages, emails, phone calls, TV ads, radio ads, digital ads, billboards, and nonstop press coverage, you are likely aware. If you are eligible to vote, I trust that you have either already voted early, or plan to vote at the polls. (If you need any election help, such as finding your polling place, please go to www.Vote.Org.)
Regardless of the outcome–polls suggest that Republicans are likely to take the House and maybe even the Senate, though pollsters may be overcorrecting for previous errors in favor of Democrats and many of those polls have been commissioned by Republicans–it’s hard to feel encouraged by America’s state of affairs. Even in a dream scenario, Democrats would barely maintain control of the House and Senate. On its own, that seems normal enough: the party controlling the White House typically loses seats in the midterms.
But think about who we would be losing seats to. It’s not just that the Republican Party platform is now election denialism, but that many of the candidates poised to win are lunatics, pretending to be lunatics, or eagerly courting the vote of lunatics. Consider Kari Lake, a former TV anchor who may become Governor of Arizona. Time Magazine, in an article titled How Kari Lake Went From Local Anchor to New Face of the MAGA Right, noted that “Lake has claimed that Joe Biden ‘lost the election and shouldn’t be in the White House,’ and claimed that she wouldn’t have certified Biden’s Arizona victory in 2020.” What happens if, in 2024, the election comes down to Arizona, a key swing state, and the Governor won’t certify the election? Having someone that doesn’t believe in democracy in charge of a state is deeply unsettling.
Or just consider a recent piece from the Washington Post. In, Think you already know crazy? Meet the House GOP Class of ’22, Dana Milbank starts by listing the qualities of a number of especially batty candidates, including one that “invoked a conspiracy belief that alien lizards control the government” and another that “acknowledged bypassing police barriers at the Capitol” on January 6th and used 120 gallons of paint to turn “his entire law into a Trump banner.” He then goes on to say:
And [these crazy candidates] are on top of a larger group of GOP nominees in deep-red congressional districts who are a motley assortment of election deniers, climate-change deniers, QAnon enthusiasts and Jan. 6 participants who propose to abolish the FBI and ban abortion with no exceptions, among other things.
In a healthy democracy, these people wouldn’t be within shouting distance of holding any elected office, let alone projected to take control of a co-equal branch of government, at which point they will be in a position to do unimaginable damage to our democracy. For instance, Barton Gellman, writing in The Atlantic, argues that, if they win, “Sometime next year, after an interval of performative investigations, Republicans in the House are going to impeach Joe Biden” for no legitimate reason. Nor will they stop there. “For months, House Republicans and conservative think tanks have been meeting to game out an aggressive agenda of hearings and investigations for the coming term,” Gellman writes. That will include investigations and impeachments of a whole host of Administration officials–the Homeland Security secretary, the Vice President, Attorney General, you name it–as well as government shutdowns, and all manner of histrionic hearings and votes. “The overarching purpose will be to inflict political damage on the president in the run-up to the 2024 election.”
My point, aside from highlighting how awful it would be for Republicans to win tomorrow, is that even if they were to lose, it would be a Pyrrhic victory for democracy. It’s as simple as this: polls show that many voters are more concerned about inflation than they are about a functioning democracy. Not two years out from an attempted coup on the part of a sitting president, those voters are poised to put that ex-president’s party back in power. How does one message to people who are okay voting for the insurrectionist party so long as, maybe, the price of gas will come down? (Not that Republicans have an actual plan for inflation. Also, authoritarian countries are not noted for low levels of inflation.)
If the election goes as is expected, there will be a lot of hand-wringing about how Democrats are out of touch with blue-collar and middle-class voters, how they are turning people off with all the talk about pronouns and defunding the police. Well, I’m going to suggest a different problem. The electorate is extremely susceptible to a certain kind of simplistic messaging–that immigrants are the problem to everything; that the solution to crime is a) exaggerating the extent to which crime is rising and then b) saying that the other side is weak on crime; that low taxes and less regulation will solve whenever problems deporting immigrants and saying one is tough on crime can’t; and that we don’t have to deal with any issue–pandemics, climate change, racism–as long as we deny that it exists.
Vaclav Havel wrote that “It is a natural disadvantage of democracy that it ties the hands of those who wish it well, and opens unlimited possibilities for those who do not take it seriously.” In the past, we have generally benefited from a bipartisan seriousness when it comes to the underpinnings of our freedom: adherence to the Constitution, a belief in free and fair elections and politicians who accept their results. No longer. While the Democratic Party can undoubtedly do a better job reaching voters, honing its messaging, investing in down-ballot races, building local power, and de-emphasizing its internecine battles (defund the police is, to my mind, a terrible slogan for a very real issue, ending police brutality and the overpolicing of communities of color), what it cannot be blamed for is a gullible, uninformed, and uninterested electorate.
Yet somehow we are going to have to figure out how to reach these voters–not only to ensure that Trump doesn’t win in 2024, but that we have a nation capable of responding to the myriad challenges we face today, and will face long into the future. I don’t have the answer. And if you think I sound like an elitist, out-of-touch Democrat calling others stupid for voting Republican, I say this: If you can look at the insurrection, at the MAGA movement, at QAnon and Neo-Nazism, at the millions of COVID deaths and shrug your shoulders, then it is you who are in the position of privilege–the privilege of ignoring the harm done to Americans and the world when hate, fear, and lies take root and spread.
The true message of tomorrow won’t be that the polls were right or wrong, that there was a Red Wave or a Red Trickle or a Blue Surprise, but that the January 6th Insurrection didn’t stop, is ongoing, is growing stronger, and it’s still not clear which side–autocracy or democracy–will come out on top. Winning that battle, convincing a majority of voters that their economic interests can and must be aligned with the freedom and dignity of all citizens, and that we live in a complex world whose problems do not respond to bromides and slogans–that’s the true challenge of our time.