I recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which I argued that global democracy was in better shape than many of its well-wishers believe, with Russia, China, and Iran exhibiting serious weaknesses that could be directly traced to their authoritarian systems. Despite recent populist gains in Sweden and Italy, democracies in Europe and Asia are generally not doing badly. The real cloud over the horizon, I said, was the United States.
I’m posting this piece on the eve of our 2022 midterm elections, whose outcome will have a major impact on both American democracy and on democracy around the world. I’m not going to make any predictions about its outcome: this is not my forte, and in any case there is a huge amount of analysis and speculation about this out there already. The median expectation at this point is for the Republicans to reclaim the House and very possibly the Senate; the major question will be the margin of their victory. There are, however, a number of observations to be made regardless of the actual outcome.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The first is how debased and irredeemable the Republican Party has become in the two years since the 2020 Presidential election. Despite revelations from the January 6 committee of how Donald Trump and his allies deliberately sought to overturn that election and hold onto power, the party has thrown its lot in with him and a good majority of Republican voters agree that the election was stolen. Those few Republicans who stood up and voted for the second impeachment have been driven from the party, and a whole series of election-denying candidates are currently running for office in states across the country. Being a member of the Republican Party in good standing now requires fealty to the stolen election narrative. Whether Trump himself runs or not in 2024 has become less important; the Party is developing a new generation of candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Kari Lake who follow Trump’s line to the T but whose demagogy may be even more effective than his was.
There is thus no hope that the Republicans will come to their senses from the inside; this will only happen if the Democrats defeat them soundly in a series of elections. But unfortunately this is very unlikely to happen anytime in the near future. Most voters do not take the threat that the Republicans pose to American democratic institutions seriously; most are treating the contest as a normal election in which bread-and-butter issues like inflation and crime are the deciding issues. And on these issues the Democrats have performed poorly while in office. They can correctly argue that inflation is occurring everywhere and driven by factors beyond any administration’s control, but these arguments will simply not be convincing to anyone struggling to meet their rent or gas bills.
A Republican comeback could have disastrous consequences internationally. The likely future House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has already indicated that his caucus is getting tired of continued support for Ukraine; with every vote on aid for that country, the number of dissenting Republicans has grown. The Ukrainians have a good chance of inflicting serious defeats on Moscow and recovering important parts of their territory, but this will happen only with continuing high levels of Western support. Putin is openly placing his bets on the Republican Party, many of whose members accept his narrative that it is liberals in the United States that pose the biggest threat to both stability and Western values. Hostility to what America stands for has shifted from the far left to the far right in recent years. For better or worse, the United States remains critical in both a material and moral sense to the broader democratic world order. If it loses confidence in itself and in its own institutions, the liberal world order will suffer.
How the Democrats react to the election results will be critical for 2024. As I argued earlier in this series, they could command solid majority support if they made a decisive shift to the center on issues like crime and identity politics, as well as demonstrating greater fiscal responsibility. The only cultural issue where they hold an advantage is abortion; we will have to see how the bets they have placed on this fare in the coming election. Biden himself will have to decide whether to follow through on his promise to run for a second term. Biden’s weaknesses are well understood, but there is no easy or clear path to a successor within the Democratic Party, and the prospect of a big intraparty fight over succession will not help their electoral chances. Speaking not as a partisan but as an advocate for liberal democracy, I hope they get their act together in the wake of Tuesday’s vote.
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