|Gas prices at a gas station on October 03, 2022 in San Bruno, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty)
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Last summer, it seemed like the Republicans were going to face a reversal of political gravity, and the Democrats would keep their majority during a first midterm election under a Democratic president. Historically, this is hard to do: Voters, for many reasons, usually trim congressional seats from a first-term president’s party. But the Democrats have benefited from the Republican plunge into extremism. The GOP still refuses to abandon Donald Trump and his violent insurrectionist movement; it is running ghastly candidates; and like a dog chasing a car, it smashed its snout into the bumper of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade, angering millions.
But autumn is here, and Democratic candidates are now struggling against this parade of election deniers, religious bigots, and conspiracy theorists who once would have been beyond the pale of modern American politics. The revelations of January 6, as I wrote earlier this month, seem irrelevant to many voters, some of whom still refuse to believe that anything bad happened on that horrible day. (If the police officer Michael Fanone had a heart attack during the riot, one Pennsylvania voter told MSNBC, he “shouldn’t have been a cop.”)
Some of this is the result of Democratic miscalculations. Abortion rights and Donald Trump were never going to win this election on their own, and though foreign policy is a Democratic bright spot, it does not usually play much as an issue in midterm elections. (That didn’t stop 30 House Democrats from issuing and then retracting a clumsy and pointless letter to Joe Biden this week about seeking negotiations with Russia.) Yes, inflation is high, and Americans always blame the party in power for such indicators. But there is another reason the Democrats could lose to this bizarre parade of otherwise unelectable candidates: The coalition to protect American democracy has failed to present a narrative of what life would look like—politically and economically—if this Republican Party returns to power.
This is a daunting challenge, but it is much harder now that the Republicans have convinced their opponents (especially among the Democrats) to internalize a Republican narrative: that the economy is the only thing voters care about, and that only a change of party can fix it. Ironically, even Republicans aren’t bothering to run on that same narrative, other than to say that Democrats are responsible for all bad things, including inflation. Republicans know their base, and have not bothered to put forward anything like an economic plan. The GOP response to everything is a Gish Gallop of fearful messages about crime and immigration and gun rights and trans people, and for their voters, it works.
Recall, for example, that in Ohio, J. D. Vance early on was trying to run something like a moderate primary campaign—including putting distance between himself and Trump—and found himself losing to an extremist. Vance learned his lesson. He started talking about “degenerate liberals” and accepted Trump’s humiliating embrace. Likewise, it’s not because of gas prices that in Arizona, Kari Lake is running an ad featuring a homophobic and Islamophobic pastor. Doug Mastriano is not running as a Christian nationalist in Pennsylvania because milk is more expensive.
And Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock are not in a tight race because Georgia voters think that Walker understands the problems of the common folk (unless the problem is men not acknowledging the children they’ve fathered). It is risible to believe that GOP voters are hoping Walker is going to take a seat, say, on the Finance Committee and start proposing solutions for inflation.
But the economy and democratic freedom are related—and the voters are capable of understanding this, if anyone would bother to make the case. Instead of preemptively apologizing for inflation or trying to undermine Biden’s foreign policy, perhaps the Democrats and others supporting a prodemocracy coalition should ask Americans if they’d like their votes nullified and to see the U.S. eventually transformed into a democratically challenged country like Turkey, where an autocratic president cracks down on his opponents and presides over an 83 percent inflation rate. Perhaps they’d like to be Hungary—a country now loved by many on the American right—where democracy is floundering, inflation is 20 percent, and teachers are marching in the streets.
Perhaps those of us who believe democracy is on the ballot could take a page from Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 pummeled Jimmy Carter both on the economy and foreign policy and won. And yet, by 1982, his victory seemed to be in ashes and predictions of a single term were common. The Cold War was frozen solid, people were scared, and the economy was in a brutal recession. Reagan’s answer was not “I feel your pain,” or “It’s the economy, stupid,” but rather: “Stay the course.” He asked the public to stand by him rather than return to the situation they had just left behind.
The need to stay the course is even more important now. Voters concerned about democracy should remind their fellow citizens that a GOP majority will not fix the economy or face down the Russians. Instead, state-level Republicans will issue partisan challenges to our constitutional process while cowardly national Republicans nod their approval. By 2025, Republicans at the state and national level might be able to simply ignore any election result they happen not to like.
To believe that voters can only think of one thing at a time is a remarkably elitist position, especially when Americans have repeatedly proved that they can vote on multiple issues. To reduce everything in 2022 to inflation and gasoline is to demean and infantilize the voters, to treat them as if they are cattle whose only concern is the price of feed. But all of us need to make the case for democracy and prosperity—and to remind ourselves that these blessings cannot exist without each other.