Did the Midterms Save American Democracy?

For everyone furiously debating the condition of American democracy, the 2022 midterms were a beautiful thing — a gift to both sides of the argument, a Rorschach test that yields to either interpretation.

Suppose, first, that you were among the democracy-in-peril alarmists, for whom Trumpism and MAGA Republicanism represent not just a chaotic populism but an existential threat. What did you see happen?

Well, you saw an embattled president, Joe Biden, decide to make the defense of democracy itself his key election theme. For this, he was scorned from multiple directions — for ignoring kitchen-table issues, for conflating normal conservative positions with authoritarianism, for failing to offer the kind of radical bipartisanship that his diagnosis would imply.

Yet in the end it seemed to work: Voters who were otherwise inclined to vote for G.O.P. candidates did tend to reject exactly the kind of “MAGA Republicans” — the Trump-endorsed and Trump-imitating, the most paranoid-seeming “Stop the Stealers” — that Biden’s argument tried to single out. The red wave predicted by fundamentals and history disappointed, in part, because Americans judged a subset of Republican candidates too extreme to entrust with normal democratic powers. The public did the work of de-Trumpification that Trump-era Republicans themselves had failed to do — and they did so, one could argue, precisely because of alarms raised on democracy’s behalf.

Thus the happy conclusion for the alarmist camp: Democracy was in danger, and for this cycle, at least, we saved it.

But then imagine yourself a non-alarmist, looking at the same results. For the last few years you’ve heard the alarmists argue that the problem isn’t just Trump or his epigones — that the entire Republican Party has been remade as an authoritarian formation, that its preferred election rules are basically Jim Crow 2.0., that the structures of American government are enabling permanent minority rule by a white-identitarian right, that the United States is on the brink of low-grade civil war, that Jan. 6 never ended and the right won’t accept any election result that doesn’t go its way.

Yet what did you see happen? Most Republican candidates losing their elections and conceding entirely normally, the MAGA candidates included. Georgia, supposedly ground zero for the new Jim Crow, delivering normal turnout and another strong performance for its African-American Democratic senator. The structures of American government delivering Republicans less power in Washington than their current raw vote totals would imply, with a Democratic Senate and the thinnest House majority for the G.O.P. despite their solid-seeming majority in the House popular vote. A continued migration of minority voters into the Republican Party, suggesting that the country is actually growing less polarized by race. And a conspicuous absence of the kind of violence that the new-civil-war prognosticators keep expecting.

Between these two interpretations of 2022 — the alarmists celebrating a hard-fought victory for democracy and the non-alarmists seeing a predictable return to normalcy — is any synthesis or handshake possible?

Let me propose two possible concessions, one from each direction. First, the alarmists might concede that the unique shamelessness of Trump himself, joined to the wild, weird circumstances of 2020 — a pandemic, a wave of riots and protests, an on-the-fly remaking of election procedures — were probably more determinative of Republican voter-fraud paranoia and its Jan. 6 consummation than some deliberate ideological turn toward authoritarianism or semi-fascism.

In other words, the results of 2022 don’t vitiate the original alarmist idea that Trump is a dangerous figure who shouldn’t be entrusted with the presidency. But they do call into question the systemic alarmism, the belief that the entire Republican Party is seceding from normal democratic politics and that Trump’s ascent was just a trigger for that process.

Then likewise, the non-alarmist might concede that such fascism-on-the-march alarmism, overblown as it may seem, may itself be one of the forces that tends to stabilize a democratic system, by mobilizing and balancing against excesses and paranoias on the other side. That the hyperbole before the midterms — think of the TV historian Michael Beschloss envisioning a right-wing dictatorship arresting and executing children — may have been one reason among many why so many “Stop the Steal” candidates got pasted in their races. And that such alarmism has arguably always played a version of this balancing, stabilizing role, all the way back to the early days of the Republic when the various factions reliably traded accusations of monarchism and Jacobinism.

This last image, of extremisms and anxieties about extremism balancing one another out, also suggests a hopeful way for the alarmists and non-alarmists of the Trump era to think about our relationship to one another: not just as rival interpreters of our democracy’s discontents, but as partners, in some strange way, in its continuing stability.

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