Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What does the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections have to do with the future of democracy in America?

The Signal

What does the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections have to do with the future of democracy in America? J.J. Gould on political realities, conspiracy stories, and the new media ecosystem.
Luke Stackpoole
Luke Stackpoole
The American presidential historian and NBC News commentator Michael Beschloss warned last week—five days before Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections—that if the Republican Party were to win back control of Congress, it would be a question for Americans “whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed.” He concluded, “We’re on the edge of a brutal authoritarian system.” It was a shocking claim, even among those who share Beschloss’s anxieties about the direction Republican politics has taken since Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency. But it was shocking more for the unexpected and strange specter of children being killed than for the fundamental idea that—as U.S. President Joe Biden put in in a speech Wednesday night—“democracy itself” was at stake in these elections. That idea has been everywhere. How exactly would American democracy have been at stake in a democratic election?
John Jamesen Gould is the editor of The Signal. To Gould, we’re living in a time when there can be very fine margins, in the U.S. and in democratic societies globally, between extreme hyperbole and plain truth. As common as it became leading up to this election to hear in mainstream U.S. media that any Republican victory would be a potentially fatal blow to democracy in America, candidates and parties winning elections simply is democracy. There was a threat to democratic institutions, Gould says, but it was always more specific—in the number of Republican candidates running on “conspiracy stories” initiated by the former U.S. president Donald Trump about the 2020 election having been “stolen” by Democrats. For Gould, it’s “good news” that those candidates have struggled most among Republicans on the ballot, but it’s also unclear what will happen to the conspiratorial political tendencies they represent—especially given the symbiotic relationship between those tendencies and the “media ecosystem” Americans and people around the world are increasingly living in.
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Eve Valentine: How do you think about the idea that the future of American democracy was at stake this week?
J.J. Gould: I think it’s true.
I also think it’s important to remember that the future of democracy is always at stake in a major election—and that we can’t always see the most consequential turns in the history of democracy in real time; sometimes they might be obvious, sometimes they’re not.
I reckon we’d have to say, too, that dread about the future of democracy has been a fairly regular theme in Democratic political rhetoric for the last six years or so—ever since all the comparisons started emerging across U.S. media between America after Trump’s win in 2016 and Weimar Germany before the rise of the Third Reich.
But it’s true here: A very real current, with very real implications for American democracy, was running through a lot of Republican Party campaigns this year. Something close to 300 of the party’s candidates on ballots across the U.S. were amplifying President Trump’s lie about the 2020 U.S. presidential election being “stolen” and therefore illegitimate. No one should need to see a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol to know how fraught that is. And now, in the run-up to the midterm elections, a good number of Republican candidates wouldn’t commit to accepting the results if they were to lose. That’s just straight-up serious; the stakes for democracy in any election when a candidate isn’t committed to its outcome is serious.
I can’t say I know how many of these candidates believe what they’ve been saying publicly about stolen elections—I mean, how many are actually caught up in conspiracy thinking about a “regime” behind the Democratic Party that’s denying Republicans rightful victories, versus how many are just political opportunists thinking, Well, here’s something that worked for Trump; that can work for me and get me elected; let’s do that. Either way, it’s a real danger.
Valentine: A danger that a Republican-controlled Congress could mean the beginning of the end for American democracy?
Gould: No, I’d say a danger specifically that the election of people with open contempt for the rule of law—and people who’d understand themselves as being directly rewarded for it with political power—could accelerate the country on a “path to chaos,” as President Biden put it. I think Biden was right about that. There’s a lot of partisan hyperbole and freaking out in American political life these days. But this wasn’t either, in my opinion; it was plain language about a real threat.
Valentine: With the election results still coming in, it seems the Republicans will win the lower house of the U.S. Congress and may or may not win the upper house; it’ll take some time to know. So the question of Republican control is still up in the air. But it also seems the more extremist Republican candidates you’re referring to—who’ve supported Trump’s conspiracy story and who Trump has supported in turn—have overall fared poorly. What do you see there in the stakes for American democracy?
Gould: That’s a good question. There’s been a tendency in a lot of mainstream American media commentary, and certainly among Democrats, to equate any Republican victory in these elections with a threat to democracy. But we have to be specific: Candidates from a party you may not like winning elections isn’t a threat to democracy; it is democracy. Candidates winning elections who otherwise wouldn’t acknowledge their outcome, that’s where democracy is immediately at stake.
So it’s good news that conspiracy-story candidates as a whole haven’t done so well. And you can hear some commentary already about how this may be a leading indicator that Trump’s influence on the Republican electorate may be waning—and so, maybe that his influence in the Republican Party will start to wane. And so, maybe this could be a tentative beginning to the end of this very crazy-feeling era in American life.
But I don’t know. I don’t think a conspiratorial tendency like the one Trump has activated just goes away. It can be defeated in a high-stakes election. But where does it go from there? I’m hopeful, in the long run; I don’t think this tendency is sustainable over time. But the forces that created it are still here. I think the question is, how will it adapt?
Samuel Schneider
Samuel Schneider
More from J.J. Gould at The Signal:
There’s been a tendency in a lot of mainstream American media commentary, and certainly among Democrats, to equate any Republican victory in these elections with a threat to democracy. But we have to be specific: Candidates from a party you may not like winning elections isn’t a threat to democracy; it is democracy. Candidates winning elections who otherwise wouldn’t acknowledge their outcome, that’s where democracy is immediately at stake.”
Where it all gets really complicated, to me, is where you can see Trump using precisely the idea that he’s a fascist—and that his supporters, by extension, represent a “fascist movement”—to strengthen his politics of us versus them. I don’t know that he’s done anything more effective—or more innovative—in his politics than getting his opponents to decry his supporters as fascists. See, they hate you. They have total contempt for you. They call you fascists. You know what that means. It means they’re mobilizing to destroy you. … It’s part of a repertoire Trump refined, playing left-wing anxiety about him back through his political-messaging channels—and through the right-wing media ecosystem aligned with them—to his target audience.”
The style of politics optimized for the new media environment, Trump’s style of politics, turns democratic conflict into something else—a kind of compulsive entertainment that makes you miserable. It makes sense that this kind of politics is so heavy on culture-war narratives and so light on policy platforms. And it makes sense that so many media outlets love it. Back in 2016, Les Moonves, who was then the CEO of the corporation that owns the American TV network CBS said about the ongoing reality show of Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That sounds cynical, because it is, but it’s ultimately just a very clear description of how the contemporary media ecosystem works. More and more, that media ecosystem doesn’t just shape the world we live in; it is the world we live in.”

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