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?
First off, I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head in regards to the stakes of our upcoming elections. After the events of January 6th, it became clear that the removal of Donald Trump the past November had been vital in stopping future abuses of power. And even while the 2020 election helped restore democracy in the country, the fact is that leading up to and persisting after the election were multiple worrying signs of democratic backsliding taking place.
There are many different factors that can contribute to democratic erosion, whether they be intentional legislation or broader cultural changes. Some major examples of these include voter restriction or suppression laws and hyperpolarization of voters. Taking a look at the events leading up to the 2020 election and those that are arising before the 2022 elections, we can see a trend of increasing amounts of legislation designed to limit voter turnout, and an increased amount of polarization and anger towards opposing parties (especially by Republicans). These symptoms point to a larger problem that America is facing, that of regression away from democracy and towards inequality.
Starting with the most obvious and reported-about aspect of democratic erosion, there were significant efforts leading up to the election in November and ongoing pushes in Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict the ability to vote for people in poor and minority counties; these counties generally sway significantly to the left. As Robert Dahl describes, “Democracy is when government is continually responsive to the preferences of citizens,” explaining that the most basic and important way for our voices as citizens to be heard and enacted by the government is via voting. Any assault on the ability to vote or restricting what groups of people can vote is therefore an affront to democracy itself. However, it appears that Republicans were then and are now all too happy to try this in order to consolidate power for themselves. Preceding November, spearheaded by Postmaster DeJoy and marketed by President Trump, was a massive effort to delegitimize and gut mail-in voting services across the nation. A tried-and-true method that increases participation and turnout for people who might not be able or willing to wait in long lines at the polls was suddenly turned into a political football because Republican realized that Trump simply didn’t have the numbers on his side. DeJoy undertook serious actions to hamper, confuse, and delay mail services before November, such as removing mail sorting machines, ballot drop-off boxes, and increasing postage costs, in order to reduce the number of mail-in ballots that would be sent, received, and counted on time . While this was happening, President Trump was busy telling the public, without evidence, that mail-in voting would be rampant with fraud and was so insecure that it would “rig the election” in favor of Joe Biden; while it is certainly true that an increase of mail-in voting correlates to more Democratic votes, it is not true that this is due to rigged ballots. The effects of his statements were obvious: Trump supporters outside of ballot counting locations shouted to “Stop the Steal,” and several states tried to contest the results of the election because they believed changes made to increase mail-in voting were illegal. While DeJoy’s interference and Trump’s lies certainly had some effect on mail-in voting, it was not enough to change his doomed chances at winning; this didn’t stop Trump’s voters and supporters on Capitol Hill from continuing to fight against the election, culminating in the deadly insurrection on January 6th, where cries of “Stop the Steal” could be heard from the crowd.
These actions point to a larger problem the country is facing, that of rising political polarization. While an increase in difference between the two parties has been growing since the 1970s, the population has become even more divided since 2008, with Republicans pulling farther to the right much faster than their Democratic counterparts . While political discussions of the past might have been resolved with an “agree to disagree” kind of approach, the current political climate simply doesn’t allow for mutual understanding. One of the effects of extremist rhetoric, oft employed by reactionary media figures and President Trump himself, is that members of opposing political parties start to see each other as irreconcilable enemies. This can easily be seen in the Qanon conspiracy theory, which purports that Democrats and wealthy (AKA, Jewish) elites are in fact parts of a Satanic, pedophilic, cannibal cult; it’s easy to see how someone who believes this kind of rhetoric wouldn’t be open to making compromises with Democrats. The effect of conspiracy and extreme language is that it turns political differences into a battle for the survival of the nation and the world; in this sense, this language is anti-pluralist, it rejects the possibility of different viewpoints. The growth of social media has allowed these messages to spread rampantly across the nation, fueling increased polarization and limiting the ability for meaningful political discussions and compromises, both of which are vital components to a functional democracy.
Even though Biden was elected in November, these challenges to democracy persist. Following the election, multiple states, such as Georgia  and Colorado, have enacted or are trying to pass bills aimed at limiting voting hours, cutting polling sites, adding stringent voter ID requirements, and many other measures designed to decrease minority and Democratic voters from casting their ballots. And while social media’s efforts to remove or otherwise restrict harmful rhetoric from their platforms, such as Twitter permanently suspending Trump’s account, there has been a worrying increase in the amount of seemingly political or racially-motivated attacks in the country, including assaults and mass shootings. While I don’t mean to paint a hopeless image for the future, I think it should be obvious that one election was not enough to solve our problems of polarization and voter restrictions; we must look ahead to 2022 and beyond in order to truly shore up our democratic institutions, reverse harmful actions made in the past, and prevent future attacks on democracy.
Your post was fantastic! I very much agree with your evaluation of our current political climate. It is evident that mutual tolerance has all but been eroded. While both Republicans and Democrats have contributed to this erosion, it is the GOP and its extremist wing which deserve most of the blame. As seen in their storming of the capital and their underhanded efforts to infringe on the voting rights of minorities, many members of the GOP, both officials and citizens, have shown a willingness to do away with democratic norms and a desire to delegitimize the competition. Your post accurately explains the importance of the 2022 election, as the results could have drastic consequences on the durability of our democracy. I think it is important to examine why and how this nationalistic, populist wing of the GOP has become such a threat to our democracy. Understanding their motives and rationale may aid the Democrats in their effort to retain control of Congress and sustain our democracy.
Why are so many Republicans willing to disregard democratic norms? The polarization causing this is rooted in fear. Members of the GOP believe the Democrats are the ones who will tear our democracy apart. Fueled by fake news and new forms of conspiracy, many are convinced that Joe Biden is a “trojan horse” for a socialist agenda. Q-Anon peddles theories of high profile Democrats being literal pedophiles, and Trump, along with a terrifyingly large portion of the elected GOP, spouted unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in the 2020 general election. If one believes all these lies, it is understandable that they would do whatever it takes to, in their eyes, preserve the soul of our nation. Many of these fears, purposefully bolstered by the GOP elites, are absolutely unfounded. There are some fears held by these people, however, that are based in reality and absolutely contribute to the hostile nature of the GOP.
Democrats must tread carefully with their newfound power, as certain actions could have the consequence of emboldening the radical right and vastly increasing Republican turnout in the midterms. Approaching the 2020 election, many Republicans shared their fears of a fully Democrat-controlled government. They feared the Democratics would do away with long-standing norms and traditions by eliminating the filibuster or packing the Supreme Court. Originally dismissed as paranoia, it appears as if some Democrats actually wish to go through with these actions. Democrats have introduced a bill to expand the Supreme Court from 9 to 13 justices, and just as you mentioned in your post, some are considering the elimination of the filibuster in order to more easily pass bills that will “protect our democracy”. Now, the likelihood of these efforts actually passing both chambers of Congress is slim. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, and an even smaller one in the Senate. Whether or not you believe eliminating the filibuster or “packing” the court would improve our democracy, there is no denying that going through with these actions would reinvigorate the right, propelling them to retake perhaps both chambers of Congress in the coming midterms.
As explained in the original blog post, the importance of the 2022 midterms cannot be understated. The Democrats must retain control of both chambers if they want to prevent the GOP from further abusing their power and eroding our democracy. It is, therefore, best to not implement such drastic policies in these next couple of years in order to prevent a Republican resurgence. Demonstrating respect towards the norms of our democracy may assure members of the GOP that the Democrats do not seek to destroy our democracy and corrupt our nation. I recognize the irony in this strategy, as much of the Republican Party has shown little adherence to democratic norms in the past decade. However, I believe this approach has a decent chance of rebuilding trust between Democrats and Republicans, at least among some of the moderates. If this mutual tolerance can be regained, perhaps the far-right will fade in power as the Republican party turns its back on Trump-style populism and nationalism.
This is a rather simplistic and optimistic way of thinking, but the alternative is not a viable option. If the Democrats were to go “full-on nuclear”, eliminating the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, and implementing policies with wide-sweeping changes, they would only embolden and invigorate the radical right. It doesn’t matter what the Democrats’ intentions are. Even if their legislation was completely honorable, with the intention of making voting easier and more accessible for all, their actions would be twisted into something malevolent. A demagogue similar to Trump would spout accusations of abuses of power and reinforce the “us” vs “them” narrative so popular in the Republican party today. Any chances of mutual tolerance would be lost. Perhaps the extinction of the filibuster would allow Democrats to pass meaningful legislation at a faster pace, but if a radicalized GOP were to reclaim control of the Senate, they could do serious damage without that obstacle. While enacting strong, extensive policies utilizing their full control of Congress may seem beneficial to the Democrats in the short-term, it is imperative that they hold themselves back, at least until they have attained larger majorities in both houses.
The main motivator of the radical right is fear. They fear their democracy will be taken away by the Democrats, not realizing that they themselves pose the greatest threat to its erosion. This extremist faction of the GOP did not go down with Trump. If the Democrats are not careful, this wing of the party could be reinvigorated with a vengeance during the 2022 midterms. If a radicalized Republican Party were to regain control of both, or just one, of the houses of Congress, our democracy could be headed towards disaster. As seen since the 2020 election, the radical right is willing to go to extreme measures to “protect” our democracy from the Democrats. In order to prevent a resurgence of the far-right and ensure a victory in the 2022 election, the Democrats must attempt to rebuild trust between parties by respecting democratic norms and demonstrating a commitment to bipartisanship.
Shania Darla Soriano
Hi Tucker this was a wonderful post. I liked how you mentioned Trump’s anti-democratic and populist rhetoric transformed the Republican party into the “Trump party”. Now that Trump lost his re-election bid, the Republican party and its constituents continue to believe he was “cheated”, with some outright losing their confidence in the country’s democracy and democratic institutions. Like what you wrote, this has clear implications over the succeeding elections and the country’s democracy. The 2022 Midterm Elections will surely be democracy’s battleground and Democrats shouldn’t be comforted that they’ll win since they won the Presidency.
I also think that the elections happening around the world in 2022 is a referendum on their respective country’s democracy. The populist Presidents of the Philippines, Kenya, Brazil, and more are working towards continuing and consolidating their power. Like Trump, their anti-democratic and populist rhetoric left a huge mark in their parties and countries, to which I worry. This mark may impact voter decisions to continue populist rule than to regain democracy. The results of these elections then will be a testament to the strength of political parties and civil society in protecting their country’s democracy.
Joshua Emmanuel Ramos
A well-argued write-up! First, the Republican Party’s attempts to revise election laws to their advantage are truly undemocratic. Schumpeter’s conceptualization of democracy involves a competition for elective offices. The weaponization of the law in order to create an unfair and skewed electoral playing field such as suppressing voting rights or putting in additional barriers to voting violates the aforesaid Schumpeterian definition of democracy. This is because in a skewed election, there is no competition at all! In fact, it can also be said that in such a case, uncertainty in the outcome of the elections is absent since in a gerrymandered area or a jurisdiction with severe voter suppression, one will most likely be certain about who the winning candidate will be.
I agree that the Democratic Party must do its utmost in countering these stealth authoritarian moves by the Republican Party. I describe these as “stealth authoritarian” because by trying to revise laws – to revise what is “legal” – they are attempting to mask undemocratic rules with a veil of legality. But both parties should be looked out for. We must recall that VP Harris, in the Vice-Presidential Debate in 2020, refused to answer the question on whether the Biden administration would pack the Supreme Court. Packing the Court would set a bad precedent as it will interfere with the independence of the judiciary.
Finally, the last question – “Is our democracy worth it?” – is truly worth asking. Svolik in a 2019 article proves that in a polarized setting, some voters will sacrifice democratic values for the sake of partisan interests. So, I, too, wonder whether, when push comes to shove, the American people would willingly vote for democratic and anti-Trump leaders even if they do not subscribe to these leaders’ visions for America.
Tucker, your insights and analysis of the ongoing crisis democratic backsliding in America are much needed and highly important! The Biden-Harris administration certainly renewed hope for the immediate stability of American democracy, though as you point out, what still festers under the surface is a crisis decades in the making. The rise of the Tea Party, culminating in the 2009 midterm elections that saw massive gains in their representation in congress, underscores the severity of what we may be presented with later this year as the new midterm elections enter full swing. With the Tea Party came a wave of far-right leaders entering the mainstream political system, empowering an ideology that has only intensified in the years that followed. As soon as Tea Party leaders entered the mainstream political discourse, the process of normalizing anti-democratic, illiberal brands of politics in America was championed by the likes of Fox News and far-right news media pundits that had 24/7 access to a nationwide audience. What they enabled was mass radicalization that intensified to its most dangerous extend under the Trump administration. Evidence of such can be seen in the steadily increasing rates of hate crime, anti-democratic statements of GOP candidates, and, of course, the January 6th attacks on the Capitol. Trump’s ability to secure the Republican presidential nomination and the presidency has its roots in the decades of anti-democratic behaviors of the right-wing. Whether it be restricting voting rights through the expansion of voter ID laws or gerrymandering congressional districts, the right-wing in America has sourced its power through anti-democratic measures that contradict the founding principles of a free nation. Therefore, I agree with your assessment that the 2022 midterms will be a referendum on not the Biden-Harris administration or the Democratic Party but on American democracy. After failing to hold anyone accountable for an attempted coup and allowing extremists to walk the halls of congress as elected representatives, America finds itself in a very precarious situation. The nation’s ability to maintain its democratic institutions will be dependent on whether it can successfully and intentionally meet the threats posed by the far-right. Unfortunately, the nation appears to be missing the mark at each opportunity.