Lessons Learned and a Warning — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on staying vigilant. (Note: this article was written before the Senate elections in Arizona and Nevada were called. The Democrats won both seats and keep control of the the Senate.)
Last week, when Joe Biden remarked that democracy would be “on the ballot” in the midterms, he was criticized by some for not focussing on other issues. However, his warning was well founded. In this year’s elections, according to a tally by Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists that monitors democratic practices and the potential threats to them, between thirty-one per cent and fifty-five per cent of all G.O.P. candidates for Congress or top statewide office had expressed support for the unfounded claim that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. Candidates for attorney general were the least likely to endorse the stolen-election claim, whereas candidates for the U.S. House were the most likely. The election deniers included Republicans running for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, governorships, and for state offices that oversee the election process—usually secretaries of state.
In addition to the risk of election deniers gaining power, there were concerns that right-wing militia groups could interfere with voting. In parts of Arizona, vigilantes bearing arms and wearing tactical gear lingered near voting drop boxes, prompting a federal judge to order the members of one right-wing group, Clean Elections USA, to stay at least seventy-five feet away from the boxes and refrain from carrying firearms or wearing body armor. Another legitimate concern was that some defeated Republican candidates might mimic Trump and refuse to accept the results, prompting a rerun of 2020, albeit on a smaller scale.
Despite all these threats, democracy prevailed. In many closely watched races, voters repudiated Republican proponents of the Big Lie. Despite logistical issues in a few places, voting and vote-counting went ahead largely without incident. And, in something of a surprise, many of the defeated election deniers have publicly acknowledged that they lost. “The basic institutions of democracy held,” Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth who is a co-director of Bright Line Watch, told me. “We had another round of free and fair elections, and the major institutions of state haven’t been taken over by election deniers.”
Among the prominent Big Lie losers were the U.S. Senate candidates Don Bolduc (New Hampshire) and, it seems likely, Blake Masters (Arizona), along with the gubernatorial candidates Doug Mastriano (Pennsylvania), Tudor Dixon (Michigan), and Tim Michels (Wisconsin). In Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico, election deniers lost in races for secretary of state, and their vocal counterpart in Arizona, Mark Finchem, appears to be heading for a defeat, too, although that race remains undecided. Joanna Lydgate, who heads the nonpartisan election group States United Action, told the Times, “The voters stepped up to defend democracy.”
That they did, and they also delivered a message to the unrepresentative and far-right Supreme Court, which took it upon itself to overturn Roe v. Wade. In California, Michigan, and Vermont, voters approved amendments to their state constitutions that would guarantee abortion rights. In Kentucky, which Trump carried by more than twenty-five points in 2020, voters rejected a constitutional amendment in the opposite direction, which would have ended protections for abortion. Regardless of one’s view on Roe, these ballot measures indicated that the institutions of U.S. democracy are doing what they are supposed to do—giving the citizenry a voice.
In sum, Tuesday’s election showed that American democracy is in better shape than some people feared. But there were also some less encouraging developments. In the U.S. Senate races in Ohio and Wisconsin, J. D. Vance and Ron Johnson, two Republicans who have questioned the 2020 result and toadied to Trump, both prevailed. In some deep-red states, including Alabama, Indiana, and Wyoming, promoters of the Big Lie were elected as secretaries of state. And, according to the Washington Post, “at least a hundred and fifty G.O.P. election deniers running for the U.S. House won their races as of Friday.”
“There are going to be a lot of election deniers in the new Congress,” Nyhan noted. “We can’t be confident that the G.O.P. has repudiated election denialism. It has taken over the Party. The fact that the Democrats have done well in this one election doesn’t mean that the threat has been eliminated.” As if to emphasize this point, Trump is set to announce his 2024 candidacy, in which he will surely renew his assault on the norms and institutions of democracy. Although many Republican leaders are privately alarmed about the prospect of having Trump at the top of the ticket again, and though the conservative media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch appear to have turned on him, the former President still has a great deal of support among the Republican base.
With Trump back out there whipping up the MAGA faithful, will other G.O.P. politicians, who have caved to him so often in the past, behave any differently? And would a defeat for Trump in the 2024 G.O.P. primary, perhaps at the hands of Ron DeSantis, actually end the threat of democratic erosion? “On the one hand, Trump is the locus of election denialism and the threat to democracy,” Nyhan said. “At the same time, though, he has demonstrated the appeal of an authoritarian populist approach, and there may well be other Republican candidates who will adopt it after him.” It was only three months ago that the audience at a conference of conservative Republicans warmly greeted Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian exponent of illiberal democracy, who has squashed his domestic opposition. “The results of the election were generally good news, but we have to keep up our vigilance,” Nyhan said. “There are still many grounds for concern.”
Doonesbury — He knows Tucker.