On January 6th, 2021, Democrats won control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, all while the Capital Building was laid under siege. Those who took part in the insurrection hoped to disrupt the democratic process underway and even commit acts of violence on certain politicians they deemed “enemies of Trump”. While this event shocked the nation, it was not a sudden development. In fact for many years prior there had been a slow buildup of people within the Republican party who had espoused anti-democratic values with an emphasis on minority rule and the suppression of people of color’s right to vote. With the election of President Obama in 2008 came the anti-establishment and populist driven Tea Party Republicans. Swept into popularity through primary challenges and inter-party fights, the Tea Party Republicans fundamentally challenged the center-right and cooperative stance the party had taken for decades. While they gradually dissipated within the party due to election losses and retirements in their suburban-heavy districts, which were slowly realigning to favor the Democratic party, their ideals and practices permeated the Republican party and completely transformed how the party operated. This noncooperative and combative stance created the very dysfunction and dissatisfaction with the government that allowed Trump’s meteoric rise. With President Trump’s election in 2016, these anti-democratic ideas were swept into the forefront of the American psyche, supercharging the potential for democratic backsliding. The Republican party of today has been nearly totally transformed by the anti-democratic and populist appeals of President Trump, who seems likely to have a stranglehold on the party for years to come.
This creates a unique dichotomy within American politics. Currently, there is one party that now struggles with how to handle the current democratic crisis (if there even is one in their eyes), and another that openly courts with fully embracing a democratic backslide for the purpose of maintaining their current coalition. While the Republican party has historically had a more broad coalition that could support election wins across the board, recent trends within a diversifying country has resulted in a much more narrow group of supporters which require constant outrage and anti-democratic values to successfully maintain. The Republican electoral strategy has now taken a unique turn which could further erode or completely destroy American democracy. Instead of expanding their base, most Republicans have rather tried to openly target the ability of groups who don’t vote with them to participate in elections. Voter ID laws, polling closures, and voter roll purges have directly impacted the voting rights of people of color and young people, two groups who vote heavily Democratic. With Democrats in control of all chambers, however, we will not see the full impact of this newly embraced anti-democratic stance taken by the Republican party for some time, but their rhetoric and behavior as a minority party will still pose a risk to normal democratic function.
In just a few months, however, we will be fully entrenched in the 2022 primary season, culminating in the 2022 midterm elections. These elections have the possibility of being incredibly consequential, not only for the Biden administration, but also for the health and well being of American democracy. With narrow majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Democrats stand likely to lose both chambers of congress to Republicans in a year which historically is bad for the incumbent party, as midterm elections energize the opposition while those who support the party in power stay home. This would not be unfamiliar territory for President Biden, as while Vice President under President Obama, a similar event occurred in 2010 and 2014, resulting in a period of stagnation and gridlock as congressional Republicans refused to work with President Obama on key issues. This time, however, Republicans may not be interested in just gridlock, but might actively seek to erode and dismantle democratic institutions across the country.
As noted by Stepan, Lust, and Norris, the active loss of faith in the democratic process and its institutions within a country can be lethal to its function. Supreme Court Justices Breyer and Scalia both testified to congress in 2011 that the lack of support in American institutions like Congress and the Supreme Court could result in a complete breakdown in the government’s ability to work. Ten years later, we are seeing some of their predictions come true.
If the country is to weather this anti-democratic tide, Democrats must mobilize to beat historical trends and retain both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The most obvious strategy would be to increase base turnout by making voters aware of the consequences of not voting in 2022. Unfortunately, however, there is no past election which could be used by the Democrats as an example of a repeatable successful strategy for an incumbent party to win a midterm election, as most were under extreme circumstances such as war or sudden economic boom. While these circumstances may be dire in many American’s minds, it is still a monumental challenge to break the trend set here.
By maintaining both chambers, the Democrats could both protect American democracy from eroding further, as for now, anti-democratic sentiment remains lopsidedly supported by Republicans, and enact crucial reforms needed to improve American democracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and HR1 would do much to reform and improve elections by combatting the strategies used by Republicans to harm voting rights as spoken to previously, but it is likely that the filibuster would need to be abolished to pass these laws. Eliminating the filibuster would require more Democratic senators than currently serving, as currently two Democratic senators currently oppose abolishing the filibuster.
While expanding Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate might be a heavy lift in a midterm election, it seems as if Democrats have no choice but to try. There is a legitimate concern that if Republicans gain control of either chamber of Congress, then they will use their new majority to attack American democratic institutions and further sow doubt and division within the American populous. The 2022 elections as a result can be seen as a referendum on American democracy, as put through this framework, the results of this election can lead to serious backsliding or the maintenance of a currently fragile yet resilient democracy. This election will serve as a massively consequential decision for the American people and ask a key question; is our Democracy worth it?