Democracy is not in crisis just because Democrats are losing

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Everywhere you look, Democrats are warning about the threat to democracy currently posed by Trump or the GOP or some combination of the two. The panic seems omnipresent and is peaking as we approach the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots at the capitol. Last week the NY Times published an editorial titled “Every day is Jan. 6 now.

One year after the smoke and broken glass, the mock gallows and the very real bloodshed of that awful day, it is tempting to look back and imagine that we can, in fact, simply look back. To imagine that what happened on Jan. 6, 2021 — a deadly riot at the seat of American government, incited by a defeated president amid a last-ditch effort to thwart the transfer of power to his successor — was horrifying but that it is in the past and that we as a nation have moved on…

In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. No self-governing society can survive such a threat by denying that it exists.

You’ll get no argument from me that the riots were anything but bad news, but every day is not January 6. That’s hysteria and the media is inviting more of it. Here’s Margaret Sullivan writing for the Washington Post this week:

That American democracy is teetering is unquestionable. Jan. 6 is every day now, in the words of a recent New York Times editorial that noted the growing evidence: election officials harassed by conspiracy theory addicts, death threats issued to politicians who vote their conscience, GOP lawmakers pushing measures to make it harder for citizens to vote and easier for partisans to overturn legitimate voting results…

NPR recently ran a seven-minute segment on what it called “the clear and present danger of Trump’s enduring ‘Big Lie.’ ” As NYU’s Jay Rosen noted, the piece was admirably direct in its language: “No dilution via ‘both sides,” no ‘critics say,’ Just a straight-up warning.” And on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this weekend, moderator Chuck Todd — who has deservedly drawn criticism in recent months for too often allowing GOP talking points to go unchallenged — stepped up in a significant way to detail the “big lie” spread by Trump allies this past year to evoke the specter of a supposedly stolen presidential election…

This new pro-democracy emphasis should be articulated clearly — and fearlessly — to readers and viewers. That could be in statements from editors or publishers, in advertising campaigns, or in other ways, declaring, in essence, “we are devoting more resources to this crucial subject because it is at the heart of our mission.”

This message from left-wing partisans like Sullivan and Jay Rosen literally boils down to this: Unapologetically side with the Democrats because anything less is tantamount to abandoning democracy. Yesterday, fellow progressive Greg Sargent wrote a piece about the “horror show” of Republicans (gasp!) winning state elections. He’s writing about a new report circulating among Democrats which says they need to do a better job of tying Republicans to Trump and extremism.

At first glance, the report’s conclusion seems grim. When it comes to macro national political trends, it says, “The outlook for Democrats is precarious.”…

“Low information and swing voters are seeing local Republican representatives as distinct from the national Republican Party,” said Vicky Hausman, co-founder of Forward Majority. She said Democrats must drive home that local Republicans are as “extremist” as the Trumpified GOP.

Never mind that this is basically the game plan Democrats ran with in Virginia. How’d that turn out again? Nevertheless, pushing the horror of GOP extremism is still seen as the party’s best chance to avoid a blowout. In other words, now would be a good time for the base to panic about the fate of democracy.

Personally, I suspect a lot of the panic over the anniversary of Jan. 6 is really connected to another anniversary that is coming up. In about two more weeks, Joe Biden will have been president for a full year. You may have noticed that it hasn’t been going very well for him or his party.

Violent crime spiked last year and then, in many places, spiked again this year. The economy was looking pretty decent until inflation started to spike and turned out not to be as transitory as predicted. The pandemic was looking pretty good until the delta wave spiked and now more Americans have died since Biden took office than before that. The border situation was looking pretty good before Biden took office, then apprehensions spiked to a historic high, literally the highest numbers ever recorded in a single fiscal year. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was approved of by most people in theory, but it became a deadly disaster where Americans and former allies were left behind to the tender mercies of the Taliban.

On top of all of that, Biden’s agenda is stalled, his approval ratings are deep underwater and Democrats’ control of Congress is very much at risk, so much so that many are retiring rather than contemplate a future in the minority. Much better to talk about the anniversary of last year’s riot than how the Biden administration is doing one year in.

And that brings me to the larger point I wanted to make about the current media panic over the fate of democracy. The fact that Democrats are losing (in Virginia, in polls) points to a rather different outcome than a stolen election and the end of democracy. Democrats talk as if the election this November and the next presidential election in 2024 are going to be won by Democrats and then overturned by nefarious Republicans. But the semi-private panic Democrats are having is about another scenario, one which seems far more plausible at this point, i.e. Democrats getting crushed at the ballot box. There’s a real chance they could see dramatic losses later this year not because of cheating Republicans but because their party and their president are deeply unpopular. There’s a word for the process of removing deeply unpopular elected officials. We call it democracy. The real danger for Democrats is not that democracy won’t work but that it will.

Hopefully at this point you see the glaring inconsistency between what media partisans say they are worried about and what is actually likely to happen. Democrats could lose a bunch of elections this year fair and square. No one has to cheat to beat Democrats at this moment. But instead of dealing with that looming disaster, some media partisans keep shouting about a counter-factual in which Democrats were poised to win if not for dastardly Republicans stealing elections and ending democracy. This is being taken very seriously by people on the left who don’t seem to notice how much it sounds like their own version of “the election is rigged!”

It sets up a scenario in which the legitimate results (Democrats losing) are considered illegitimate and possible even a crisis when in fact they are perfectly understandable. Simply put, Democrats losing elections is not a crisis of democracy. The party in power losing in the midterms is literally what’s expected to happen and it probably will happen this year. But some partisans see a chance of holding that outcome at bay if they can whip up enough frenzy about an existential crisis of democracy which can only be stopped by Democrats.

There is a more productive path they could take. Democrats could move to the center. They could fight inflation, keep schools open, support the police and generally embrace the mainstream while telling the socialist left and the woke culture warriors to buzz off. I don’t see it happening anytime soon but it is possible.

Absent that kind of fresh approach, here’s what is likely to happen: Republicans run a change election against an unpopular status quo president (or an equally unpopular Vice President) and win handily. It turns out you don’t need to end democracy when your opponent is stuck at 40% approval, you just need to run.