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.
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?