By Thomas Charyton
A democracy can only really work if people believe in it. The nation’s faith in its institutions had not faced a threat quite like that which was the Trump presidency. Using several specific propaganda techniques, President Trump repeatedly attacked the press, Democratic party, and different minority groups in some subtle and not so subtle ways. He labeled them as dishonest enemies of the state, attacks which are expected from an authoritarian, populist leader (Dalio). Throughout this tumultuous time, scientists, pundits, and citizens alike wondered how these attacks would affect American institutions. The 2020 election is when much of the authoritarian propaganda was used, the biggest of which was the “big lie.” This conspiracy theory claimed that the Presidential election had been tampered with by Democrats to rig a victory for Donald Trump. It employed several racist tropes, like ballots made from bamboo set for Biden were sent in from China and many more. These propaganda tactics of making people doubt can do real damage to institutions. This ultimately culminated in the January 6th attack on our Capitol, which aimed to stop the certification of Biden’s electoral victory. This horrific event of national embarrassment displays the damage authoritarian propaganda can have on even the strongest democracies.
Looking forward, the next election will offer political scientists an insight on the strength of American democracy in its first national election since January 6th. Since the name Donald Trump will not be on any ballot and it is a midterm, there may be some effects in voter turnout. We saw some of this in the 2018 midterm, but this was before the worst of the attacks against our democracy. After he was defeated in 2020 by Joe Biden, Trump loyalists across state legislatures passed harsh voting restrictions. “As of January 14, legislators in at least 27 states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 250 bills with restrictive provisions, compared to 75 such bills in 24 states on January 14, 2021” (Brennan Center). They are codifying a fabricated doubt perpetrated by an unseated authoritarian. Not only does this negatively impact voters of color, but it also hurts the democratic process at large. In 2022, Democrats will have to face difficult odds that are compounded by these new laws. They will need to overwhelmingly come out to vote in order to show that democracy is on the mend. Otherwise, the midterms voter turnout will hint at a fragile democracy.
Trump mobilized many different groups of voters who are often disengaged in the political process, both for and against him. With Trump’s name not being on the ballot, will these voters stay at home come November 8th 2022, or will they remain loyal to the respective candidates in their district? There are four combinations that could offer us insight into the voter’s thought process going to the polls. First is if both of the aforementioned groups stay at home on election day. This could indicate that there is little enthusiasm, even for a midterm, surrounding these candidates and even the democratic process itself. Second is if only the non-Trump supporter base shows up. This would be a good sign for democracy, as Trumpian politics is often anti-democratic. The third scenario is if only the Trump base shows up. This hints that the Republican party’s shift is meaningful and could cause lasting negative effects on democratic institutions. Lastly, the fourth scenario is if both sides come out in full. This would mean that the country is in the same place as it was two years ago, which will only make it harder to repair many of the divides in our nation. Only time will tell what the midterms have in store for American politics.
This touches on a key factor in our current political climate. Negative partisanship is when one’s partisanship manifests itself not as support for their party but opposition for the other party. Many people believe many Biden voters were voting against Donald Trump rather than for Biden. If in 2022 there is a lot of turnout and an energized base that is voting for a candidate and not against the opposing candidate, we will know our democracy is healing. When the non-Trump supporter base shows out, it can be good in the sense that Trumpian politics is anti-democratic. But on the other hand, too much negative partisanship only expands the holes in democracy’s armor.
It is also important to note the extent to which Trump was and still is pressing the “big lie,” which may have an unintended consequence for Republicans. By insisting that the election system cannot be trusted, Trump may be disincentivizing his base from turning out. When people feel as though they are not being heard in the governing process, they will not engage with it. And when they feel robbed as a result of that broken system, they may be more inclined to seek to destroy said system. We saw this throughout the 2020 election, and its effects may not be over. If Trump oversells the doubt in the effectiveness of the democratic system, his base may not show up as forcefully in 2022 as they did the previous cycle.
Going into the midterms, it is not all bracing for impact. Just as voting rights have been attacked, there has been a countermovement to protect them. In fact, “[a]s of January 14, legislators in at least 32 states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 399 bills that expand voting access, compared to 286 such bills in 30 states on January 14, 2021” (Brennan Center). This goes to show that there are still those who are fighting for democracy. American democracy has certainly been tested over the last several years. It is every citizen’s responsibility to fight to protect their democratic ideals of tolerance for the dissenting side, inclusion of all citizens in the process, and diversity of meaningful representation. The best way to start is by voting.
Morales-Doyle, S., Waldman, M., Efrati, M., & Wilder, W. (2022, April 18). Voting laws roundup: February 2022. Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-february-2022
Dalio, R. (2021). Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. Simon and Schuster.