As midterm election season began in September this year, President Biden gave a speech that strove to unite the rest of the country against Trump and MAGA Republicans, and to disavow political extremism in a well-crafted delivery that closely parallels the course literature. While President Joe Biden’s speech from early September does a masterful job at drawing a hard line against political extremism, his efforts are undercut by Democratic candidates funding far-right campaigns for the 2022 midterm elections, giving more political exposure to the people that Biden is arguing should not be given political power.
Levitsky and Ziblatt state in the first chapter of their book How Democracies Die that “whenever extremists emerge as serious electoral contenders, mainstream parties must forge a united front to defeat them.” Biden adheres close to this theory, giving a rousing call to “Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans” alike to “be stronger, more determined, and more committed to saving American democracy than MAGA Republicans are to destroying American democracy.” He is able to reconcile with non-extremist Republicans by stating that he has been able to cooperate and work with them, and encourages the listening body to put aside differences in opinion or belief in order to prevent the extremist Republicans from gaining further power.
Similarly, Biden works in his speech to unite the American people through a shared identity. One repeated motif that he emphasizes in his speech is this idea of a national unity, of a singular identity marked by Americans utilizing the pronoun ‘we.’ For example, the phrase “We, the People” is central to US history – it evokes the first words of the US Constitution. Biden repeats this phrase ten times throughout his 24-minute speech as an appeal to the shared identity of Americans, to further delineate the harsh divide between “us” as Americans, and “them” as extremist Republicans. Biden states that “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution,” creating further contrast and further isolating extremist Republicans as enemies of the state.
Biden also establishes that in order to have democracy in the United States, one must be able to accept that elections are valid even when one’s supported candidate loses, and to support the country as a whole regardless of an individual political outcome. This parallels another claim Levitsky and Ziblatt make in the fifth chapter of their book: the respecting of the political norm of “mutual toleration” – the understanding that political rivals are legitimate despite disagreeing with their policies. This policy can even be observed being practiced live at his speech. Hecklers interrupt Biden at several points during the evening, and in response to one, Biden says that “they’re entitled to be outrageous,” demonstrating a tolerance for opposing opinions that some political commentators argue would not be present in Republican extremists. This toleration of opposing beliefs, Biden argues, is violated when far-right extremists undermine the integrity of election outcomes, and is another core facet of his speech.
Biden’s speech makes good use of the theories put forth by Levitsky and Ziblatt on how to deal with political extremism. He isolates them and disavows them from being accepted in the sphere of American politics. Simultaneously, Biden unites the remainder of the population, demonstrating a willingness to step across partisan lines in order to make progress and further cut off the extremist Republicans from having political impact. His efforts to mitigate the impact of MAGA Republicans at the national level, however, are undermined by the actions of Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
In 9 separate states, Democratic campaigns spent money pushing advertising that favors opposing extremist candidates. This practice, according to the campaigns themselves, makes their midterm elections more secure. This elevation of far-right candidates has so far proven to be somewhat successful: 4 of the campaigns that Democrats have funneled money into promoting far-right candidates have ended up with those candidates winning the primaries. In each instance – Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – these extremist candidates are indeed polling behind the Democratic candidate. However, this involvement of Democratic campaigns in the 2022 midterms elevating extremist candidates to give themselves a better position in the election is a worrying precedent and incredibly counterproductive for Biden’s messaging.
Primarily, this elevation of far-right candidates gives their extremist beliefs a more visible platform. With this increased exposure comes both more indoctrination into these extremist beliefs, and further entrenching Republicans within these beliefs, emboldening them with the assumption that their preferred extremism is the best representations of their party. This elevation of pro-Trump, extremist candidates undermines the process that Democrats have undergone over the last few months to try and keep Trump accountable for his crimes and out of power by systematically ousting some of the very Republicans who cross the party line to hold Trump responsible, the vert people Biden defends in his speech. For example, in Michigan, a Republican candidate who had previously voted to impeach Trump lost his primary campaign to a pro-Trump candidate, all because of Democratic spending.
This support of “weaker” candidates in order to achieve electoral victory places said victory above the stability of democracy, and this is no better than decrying an election as fraudulent to dismiss a political defeat. If both parties, in the future, fund and advance extreme campaigns on opposite sides in order to make the election itself seem ‘easier’ for them, it only adds to the intense polarization that already exists within US democracy, leading to a death spiral of partisan polarization. Levitsky and Ziblatt even mention in their book that politically legitimizing extremist candidates were attempts by elites to bring these extremist politicians under control that ended with those very extremist candidates wresting power away from democratic institutions.
Thus, this empowerment of extremist candidates fundamentally undermines what the current Democratic party leader has advocated for by ousting the Republicans who assisted in anti-Trump sentiment and elevating extremist candidates to worrying levels of publicity and power. And although, at the moment, these strategies seem to have worked, polls are not a definitive indication of how elections will proceed in a few weeks, potentially leading to more pro-Trump politicians in power. This strategy not only has the vulnerability of disastrous potential outcomes, but the precedent of electoral meddling to this scale is a worrying precedent for the future of already divisive American politics.
You set forth a strong argument describing how some Democratic candidates have resorted to funding far-right extremists with the thought that they could never win. But, as you note, this is a dangerous strategy which could backfire by elevating these extremist candidates and thus perpetuating their anti-democratic ideologies. This is completely in opposition to President Biden’s strong message calling for unification between parties to marginalize extremist candidates who pose a great threat to democracy. This raises the question, is it undemocratic for Democrats to promote a candidate which they believe cannot win for the advancement of their own party? At best, it is against the spirit of democracy for Democrats to manipulate elections in such a direct way by pouring money into an opposing party’s campaign which they want to defeat to secure victory for themselves. I would go so far as to argue that it is very undemocratic to meddle and attempt to change the outcomes of elections in this way, as it has a direct impact on the power of the people’s vote. Although the ideologies of these right-wing candidates are detrimental to democracy, the Democrats, when behaving in this manner, are also undemocratic. How can you claim that you are trying to protect and preserve democracy if you are committing undemocratic actions yourself? As you mentioned, we can see that this behavior has already had a negative effect, in fact promoting and potentially providing far right-wing extremist candidates with the visibility they need to win. Democrats should indeed follow President Biden’s lead, and, as Levitsky and Ziblatt note, work to unite across party lines to oppose the emergence of extremists versus marring their own reputation by engaging in undemocratic behavior.