Opinion

Does either party actually believe democracy is dying?

Both parties insist American democracy is in peril. So why aren’t they doing more to save it?

If you sincerely believed the Constitution was being demolished by domestic enemies in an unprecedented way, if you really thought representative government was slipping from your nation's grasp, if you were actually convinced a partisan cabal was destroying democracy, wouldn't protecting it be your political priority? Republicans and Democrats alike have spent the better part of a year describing our circumstances in exactly such dire terms, but they seem strangely unconcerned with pursuing a remedy.

For example: Asked in a CBS/YouGov poll this month whether they believe Joe Biden is "the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election," two in three Republicans said "no." In fact, a little over half of Republicans say former President Donald Trump is the "true president" of the United States at this very moment, per a Reuters/Ipsos survey published Monday. They think the election was "stolen" from Trump and that Biden's inauguration is the result of "illegal voting," Reuters reports.

But for all that — which collectively envisions a nation fallen deep into lawlessness, corruption, and coup — most Republicans do not consider "support[ing] claims of 2020 election fraud" a priority for elected officials and candidates in their party. By significant margins, they told CBS, they'd rather keep the focus on "important legislation," "economic policy," and culture war. As for future elections, "get[ting] more voters with policies and ideas" is a more popular strategy than "push[ing] for changes to state voting rules." So the Constitution is functionally repealed, but hey, there are bills to pass, talking points to hit, and illegitimate elections to win?

These apparently dissonant priorities aren't unique to the GOP. "If you've followed recent Democratic messaging, you'll have heard that American democracy is under serious attack by the Republican Party, representing an existential threat to the country," writes Jacobin's Luke Savage at The Atlantic this week. "If you've followed Democratic lawmaking, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the threat is actually a rather piddling one." Biden has described January's chaos at the Capitol as the "worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War" and urged congressional Democrats to pass voting and election security legislation in response. Those reforms are languishing in the Senate.

Something doesn't fit here, but I'm not sure how to explain the incongruity. Here are five ideas I'm mulling:

1. No one really believes democracy is dying, but they have a motive to claim it is.

After Trump's upset victory in 2016, the "shy Trump voter" was posited to account for the gap between pre-election polling and the results. More recently, the "trolling Trump voter" has emerged as an explanation of shocking poll data: Perhaps some Republicans habitually pick the most extreme option because they think the elite hand-wringing is funny. It's an unproveable theory, of course, but it would make sense of the alarm/action disparity.

For politicians, there are more mundane reasons to claim democracy is dying without buying their own hype: It's useful for rallying the base and raking in donations. Rhetoric has escalated, yes, but it has more continuity than not with standard American political talk. This theory doesn't directly explain those poll numbers, because ordinary people don't get votes or donations, but maybe the partisan public is simply parroting leaders they like.

2. The forecast is sincere but hopeless, while smaller wins remain within reach.

Perhaps Republicans and Democrats really do believe our democracy is in mortal peril. Perhaps they think it's already doomed. The Titanic is sinking, but we might as well have a nice, comfortable circle of deck chairs as we slip beneath the icy waves. Ousting a presidential usurper might not be feasible, but we could still tweak the tax code. Safeguarding the right to vote is too tall an order, but at least we could start the apocalypse with some new bridges and roads.

3. The forecast is sincere, but the strategy is indirect.

Here's a more hopeful option: You know how two people who don't like each other can sometimes forget their differences when they focus on solving a problem together? It's a classic Hollywood trope — the distant father trains a horse or dog or whale or whatever with his estranged daughter, and by the end, they're friends. Maybe this is like that. Maybe some Americans truly believe our democratic governance is in deep trouble, but they think that if we can come together to fix other problems, the whole democracy thing will sort itself. If we can just juice the economy or improve health care or figure out early child care, our country can reunite and move past our democratic woes. The GOP preference for focus on "policies and ideas" might be the best case for this, which otherwise strikes me as the least likely option here.

4. The forecast is sincere, and accelerationists are looking forward to whatever comes next.

Here's a less hopeful option: Perhaps some Americans believe democracy is dissolving — and they welcome it. They're some sort of accelerationists, deliberately not fixing each new crack (or even creating more) so the whole edifice will more rapidly tumble. They're eager for the new order, whatever that may be. Perhaps they believe they'll get to design it.

5. It's political anomie and apathy, and the "democracy dying" rhetoric isn't insincere so much as unsupported by courage and conviction.

This is Savage's take in The Atlantic: that Democrats are guilty of "inexcusable complacency," more concerned with preserving their own election prospects than free elections, and in thrall to defeatism (branded as realism) which leaves them unwilling to take radical action (namely, ending the filibuster) to pass the legislation Biden endorsed. The Republican variant of this might be along the lines of this 2020 column in The Week by Matthew Walther. "Any politician can serve [the causes of modern social conservatism] because they are not really causes but clichés," he argued. It's easier to tweet about democracy dying than to take real steps to resuscitate it.

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