|President Joe Biden speaking on November 10, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum / Getty)
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It’s been a rough ride for democracy in the United States and around the world. We’ll talk later in the week about the setbacks for authoritarians overseas in Brazil and Russia, but for now the results of the 2022 elections are good news for American democracy. Biden took heat from friends and foes alike for making closing arguments in favor of democracy instead of prosaic “kitchen-table” issues, but the president—a man with half a century of experience in elected politics—knew the voters better than his critics did.
Consider the magnitude of what happened last week. The Republicans went into the midterms as heavy favorites, with advantages that included the patterns of political history, some star power, money from churlish billionaires, and—in theory—Donald Trump. The Democrats had every headwind imaginable, including an unpopular president, a fractious coalition, and an economy beset with high inflation.
The misfit flotilla of Republican election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted flakes and phonies was poised, it seemed, to board the American ship of state without much resistance. Instead, much of the Republican fleet sank within sight of the shore. A few survivors (such as the reprehensible J. D. Vance) made it to the beach, and the GOP seems likely to control the House by the thinnest of margins. But the Republicans fell short when the voters noticed their extreme positions on almost everything, including January 6, elections, and abortion.
Jim Marchant of Nevada, for example, put together a slate of fellow election-denying secretary-of-state hopefuls under the banner of “America First.” This congerie of conspiracy theorists ran as a bloc that promised to make voting more difficult and hold up election results they didn’t like. The gang included Arizona’s Mark Finchem, an extremist whose bio notes that he is a “Six Sigma practitioner” but leaves aside that he was also a member of the Oath Keepers. Arizonans, who kept some of their other races close, had no trouble rejecting Finchem by more than five points. Marchant and the rest of the deniers lost, except for one candidate in Indiana (not exactly a battleground state).
Pennsylvanians elected Josh Shapiro their governor in a double-digit drubbing of the Christian nationalist Doug Mastriano, and they seem close to flipping the state’s House to the Democrats. In Michigan, Tudor Dixon—another out-of-nowhere candidate endorsed by Trump—lost and took the weird secretary-of-state candidate Kristina Karamo down with her, while Michigan voters placed their state under unified Democratic rule. And in Wisconsin, the Democrat Tony Evers beat Tim Michels—a man who said that if he won, the GOP would never lose another election in Wisconsin—by three points.
The challenge to American democracy is not over, but the 2022 results should give the prodemocracy coalition hope, for many reasons.
- American voters stepped back from the abyss. (Even if they cut it a little close for my comfort.) As my colleague Anne Applebaum tweeted, “the biggest story” of the midterms is that “the 2024 election is safe, or safer, from another, better organized, MAGA attempt to steal it.” This is not an exaggeration. Imagine if, in 2024, there is a close presidential election, and the governors of Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin, buttressed by election-denying secretaries of state, simply decided not to certify any Republican electors. Chaos and even violence would almost certainly have ensued. All of that is unlikely now; whoever wins in 2024 will have to win the old-fashioned way, by getting enough votes in enough states to win the Electoral College.
- The midterm results suggest that Americans (and American women, especially) made a decision not to separate abortion rights from democracy; I suspect that they viewed the overturning of Roe v. Wade as part of the overall right-wing assault on their liberties. Plenty of voters are in favor of placing limits on abortion—but they do not want the issue decided by theocratic judges. Even more galling, the GOP decided that Herschel Walker’s personal involvement in at least one abortion (and perhaps more) was not disqualifying even as Walker and other Republicans insisted that no one else should have access to abortion ever, under any circumstances. The proper pop-culture reference here is not The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 but The Shawshank Redemption: Americans got a look at what life would be like not in Gilead or Oceania but under Samuel Norton, the corrupt, sadistic, Bible-toting warden, a Pharisaical hypocrite whose scripture needlepoint hid his wall safe.
- Three cheers for the American system of government. Frustrated liberals have sometimes wished for a parliamentary system, in which a single election can flush out the ruling party overnight. But under a parliament, we might never have been rid of Trump after 2016: Republicans could have used parliamentary supremacy to ram through changes in important laws and kept power for a long time. Instead, American federalism and the distinct mandates required for both the executive and legislative branch functioned as the Founders intended, ensuring that the GOP majority of 2016 could be broken in 2018 independent of the presidency, and that Democratic gains would have to be revalidated at the ballot box in 2020 and 2022.
- Perhaps most heartening, the midterms showed that money and gerrymandering and voter suppression can be overcome when people actually show up and vote. Ballots are more powerful than Peter Thiel’s checkbook.
We should not lull ourselves into believing that the fight for democracy is over. The local governments, state houses, and the new Congress will still have plenty of odious characters in them. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Nonetheless, the gloom and gathering darkness I felt last week has dissipated to a considerable degree. The president and the prodemocracy forces issued a call to the public to defend the American system, and the public responded in force. I regularly criticize the public for a lack of civic virtue; I even wrote a book about it. But I must give credit where it is due: The voters, this time, proved me wrong—and showed that Joe Biden was right.