Democracy Gets a Reprieve

American flag on broken walls.

The votes are still out in the 2022 midterm elections, partly a result of the patchquilt system of fifty states, each with its own rules of when and how to count them. Dear Georgia couldn’t call a winner in both its senatorial races two years ago because, uniquely among the states, it requires an absolute majority for victory, and it is giving us the same rigamarole this year for the race between incumbent Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, which won’t be rerun until December 6. Welcome to the thirteen colonies, now grown too large and strange for their own good.

Still, the elections have been run in reasonably good order, with no militias to guard the ballot boxes and no street riots about the outcomes. This, in the Age of Trump, is progress, even if no thanks to The Donald himself. And we may be grateful for the fact that slightly more than half the voters in the country chose the candidates of the Democratic Party over those of the Autocratic one, formerly known as Republican. It may prove only a stay of execution for democratic governance, but it is something.

There are two major takeaways from the elections—two major losers, not winners. The first is the media, still colloquially known as the press. For many months, it had all but uniformly predicted the Red Wave that would firmly ensconce the Republican Party in power on all levels, leaving only a crippled Joe Biden in the White House. This partly repeated the gospel that the party in power typically lost seats in midterm election, and partly the conclusion drawn from polls that inflation, inarguably a phenomenon of Biden’s watch although a worldwide one as well, had eclipsed all other issues in voters’ minds, including the revocation of abortion rights by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Dobbs v. Jackson decision this June. Democrats had presumed that this issue would trump all others, having been the most divisive in the country for half a century. It had prompted nationwide protest marches last spring. And it was the issue on which both parties had taken the strongest stands pro and con. Nonetheless, the pollsters saw it almost vanishing as the election approached, with barely a tenth of the electorate reporting it to be its chief concern. Inflation, the media reported, now overwhelmed everything else.

When exit polls were finally conducted, it turned out that 27%, not 11% of voters had indicated abortion as their primary interest. How could repeated statistical surveys, scientifically conducted, get things so wrong? An obvious reason that suggests itself is that many voters chose not to be candid about what was really on their minds. Abortion is controversial. It divides families and communities. No one favors inflation, except the giant monopolies whose strangleholds enable them to profit from it.

Beyond this was the question of narrative. The job of the free press used to be to report what happened. Increasingly, and not only with digital media but what remains of print, what almost every news outlet now concentrates on is speculating about what will happen; that is, not reporting the news but handicapping it. The result is that most media compete in constructing narratives. The most favored narratives, liberal or conservative, get the widest attention and hence acceptance. Once inflation became the narrative—and, to be sure, it was a strong issue, easy to elicit complaints for from frustrated shoppers—competitors dropped out. Hence, the big Election Day surprise: the Democrats not only more or less held their own but fared far better than the party in power usually does in the midterms. This was not because they were suddenly loved, but because the underwater issue of abortion bobbed to the surface as votes were actually cast.

There was another issue, too, more difficult to quantify but arguably present, namely the fate of democracy itself in a race between a party that accepted the peaceful transfer of power and one in which many prominent figures did not. The Democrats tried to make this their campaign keynote at the end when abortion had seemingly failed them. But the argument seemed too frightening for many to accept, at least overtly, and it required Republican voters to reject not only their party’s candidates but the party itself. Nonetheless, it did apparently gain traction among Democrats, some Independents, and even Republicans in the Liz Cheney camp. And that was because, thanks to Donald Trump, it struck such voters as all too plausible.

The other loser was, of course, Donald Trump. Trump has been dragging the Republican brand down since 2016, when he won the presidency—the greatest defeat the Republican Party had ever suffered—while losing the popular vote. His formula was never to win a majority, but to create a loyal base within the Party sufficient to give him control over the whole. His model was the Tea Party caucus, which briefly held sway over the GOP, but lacked the single unifying figure—the demagogue—around which it could coalesce. Trump provided such a figure, and spent most of his term in office cultivating it. He understood that the way to forge a political movement out of a mélange of disparate mob elements was to personalize it. It wasn’t a new idea; Hitler and Mussolini had both used it. And the Republican Party, built since Richard Nixon atop constituencies of resentment—racists, Evangelicals, frightened suburbanites, and a deindustrialized working class—was ready for a leader even more outlandish than Trump’s fascist avatars, if not as daring.

It worked, for a while. But Trump’s fatal weakness was his inability to accept defeat of any kind, especially from what appeared to be the pinnacle of success, the American presidency. His reelection, as he contended, could only have been “stolen” from him. It was the theme he clung to. It was one that resonated with his followers, who felt their lives too had been stolen from them. But it could not sell finally to the mass of Americans still wedded to their own dreams of success, and to the lesser but still critical notion that their votes could count even if they did not go to candidates anointed by Donald Trump. It’s a slender thread for democracy to hang on. But, at least in 2022, it was enough.

About Robert Zaller 91 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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