Opinion

Do Democrats really believe Republicans pose an existential threat to democracy?

Because they aren't acting like it

Do Democrats really believe Republicans pose an existential threat to democracy?

They say they do, every day — in Congress, in op-eds, on cable news, in fundraising emails. But do their actions in the White House and on Capitol Hill confirm or belie it?

The answer, I think, is the latter. This doesn't mean that Democrats are intentionally lying to the country about the threat that Donald Trump and his staunchest allies pose to American democracy. But it might mean that many Democrats are lying to themselves about it. If these Democrats really believed what they are saying about this threat, they would be making different decisions about the party's priorities.  

What would Democrats be doing differently if they truly thought that the country's other major party was working to eliminate free and fair elections? They would be prioritizing election reform. Not necessarily the kind of things contained in the seemingly doomed Freedom to Vote Act, which is a grab bag of reforms that federalize elections and make it easier to vote in various ways. I have no objection to eliminating some barriers to voting, but that doesn't address the vulnerability Trump exposed in the aftermath of the 2020 election. That vulnerability had to do with how votes are counted, how electoral votes are allocated, and how both are certified within states and in Congress.

This would mean, at the very least, overhauling the poorly drafted and dangerously ambiguous Electoral Count Act of 1887. It's possible that will happen between now and the party's likely loss of Congress in next year's midterm elections. But it's hardly been a priority for Democrats.

What has been? Attempting to pass a massive spending bill favored by the most progressive factions of the party. As Matthew Yglesias noted in a recent Substack post, this is the kind of high-risk behavior one would expect if Democrats were simply trying to get as much done before they lose control of Congress in the normal back-and-forth of electoral politics. It is not the kind of behavior one would expect from a party convinced that with their next victory Republicans are going to rig the system so that Democrats can never win power again.  

What kind of behavior would one expect? Probably, as Yglesias points out, the kind of poll-driven calculus advocated by David Shor, the data-crunching Democratic strategist well known for advising the party to stop listening to the demands of progressive activists and lead with their most broadly popular proposals. That's because Shor has been partially driven to this position by his conviction that American democracy is in grave danger. This is consistent — as is his defense of Democrats working to add states to the country in order to boost the party's prospects in the Senate. If American democracy truly is at risk of being snuffed out in the near future by the GOP, Democrats should be more concerned about that than anything else, and acting accordingly.

Yet the party — very much including its leader in the White House, who ran for president warning about Donald Trump posing a potentially fatal threat to "the soul of America" — has chosen a different course. Rather than seeking to pass reforms to ensure Republicans can't overturn election results at the state level or in Congress and then supporting a large but smaller, more tightly focused spending bill that would be widely embraced, Democrats have acted like this was an ideal time to dole out favors to every flavor of progressive activist in the party. The result has been a decline in popularity for the president largely driven by a precipitous loss of support from Democratic-leaning independents.

Now, it's true that some on the left tilt their heads, squint their eyes, and otherwise work very hard to convince themselves that this way of proceeding is actually the best way of responding to the danger posed by Republicans — by addressing the economic problems confronting all Americans, including those attracted to Trumpian lies about election fraud. But that, again, is how you would talk and think if you considered the GOP a normal party offering an alternative slate of policies for the country. It's not a serious response to a movement supposedly hell-bent on overturning American democracy in favor of fascism or something fascist-adjacent.

But then why continually invoke a rhetoric of alarm? Perhaps because it's extremely effective at driving up turnout for Democratic candidates. One could say the same about most Republican invocations of voter fraud. Though telling Republicans that Democrats will inevitably cheat may convince a few GOP voters not to bother showing up on Election Day, it probably convinces far more that the party needs every single vote it can get to overcome a system rigged against them.

There's already some anecdotal evidence that Democrats are helping themselves with this two-step — talking as if the GOP is an existential threat to democracy but acting as if the really important thing is passing progressive legislation. Just look at the Virginia governor's race, where early voters are citing fear of Trump (who is of course no longer president) as their primary reason for supporting Democrat Terry McAuliffe against Republican Glenn Youngkin.

This doesn't mean the Democrats are engaging in a deliberate ruse. It means they're folding their fears about Trump and the GOP into their ideological agenda and then campaigning on election anxiety while rewarding partisan supporters when they turn to governing.

In our closely divided country, doing so might make political sense, at least in the short term. But it doesn't make a lot of rational sense — and it points toward a longer-term danger to American democracy.

Yes, Republicans refusing to accept the results of elections is bad and potentially very dangerous. But so is both parties continually pushing the message that the preservation of American democracy depends above all else on the other guys losing.

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