Preparing for this year’s midterms, Democrats have been releasing ads in support of far-right candidates with the belief that these more extreme candidates will be easier to defeat than moderate Republicans. The Democratic Party released ads during the California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, and Pennsylvania Republican primaries. This tactic has the potential to undermine democracy by lending legitimacy to fringe actors and normalizing their platforms, and by potentially depriving independent voters of more preferred candidates. However, Democrats can use this strategy as an opportunity to publicly engage with such candidates through televised debates.
In their book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss how populists come to power through established political leaders. According to them, in order to maintain democracy, political elites must form alliances with their own rivals to support democratic candidates, keep potential authoritarians’ names off mainstream party tickets, and refuse to endorse these extreme politicians. Democrats are doing just the opposite – but with far-right figures. Many of the candidates Democrats boosted are election-deniers endorsed by Trump; such candidates threaten Americans’ trust in the democratic process.
Although Levitsky and Ziblatt’s piece is concerned with established political leaders aligning themselves with rising populist figures in hopes of building their own popularity, many of their arguments can be applied to this phenomenon as well. In both cases, existing political leaders seek to use outsider candidates to bolster their own careers, and in both cases, these leaders risk offering legitimacy to once-fringe platforms. In both cases, current leaders mistakenly believe that the extreme figures can be easily disposed of after they’re no longer of use. The key difference – whether established politicians are running with or against the fringe actors – only informs how high the risk/reward incentives are for the party that employs this strategy. This difference, as well as the distinction between populist and far-right, may make Democrats feel exempt from this fateful path, but the reality is much less certain.
Democrats have successfully used this tactic in the past, but rising polarization means Republicans are more likely to accept extreme views rather than exclude and/or denounce them from their party. The 2016 presidential election is a prime example of this changing environment. Clinton falsely assumed Trump would be an easy candidate to defeat, so during the Republican primary, she spent money to elevate Trump’s. Clinton’s plan backfired, and Trump went on to become the 45th president.
By supporting these far-right politicians, Democrats risk handing legitimacy and power over to political actors that alienate the majority of voters. Plus, regardless of general election outcomes, Democrats normalize far-right ideology within the Republican party, which could have long-term consequences for following elections, especially intensified polarization. In addition, Democrats’ actions exacerbate growing feelings among partisan leaners that no candidates represent their views well. In fact, the percent of Republican-leaning independents that hold unfavorable views of the Republican party recently surpassed the percent that held the GOP favorably. This can pose an additional challenge to Democracy, as disillusioned voters may turn to authoritarian leaders or true populists when they feel their voices are not heard.
In boosting far-right candidates, Democrats also undermine their more legitimate rivals. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has emphasized the need for a “strong Republican Party” over a “cult of personality.” However, campaigns smearing moderate Republican candidates only create more barriers to that goal. Because the success of far-right actors in the GOP normalizes a party to shift towards more extreme beliefs, Democrats are helping to further push the Republican party into the arms of the Trump-backed “cult of personality” they wanted to avoid in the first place. This movement means Democrats will more likely face these types of candidates in future elections, and be forced to work with them if and when some of them ultimately succeed.
Taking a step backwards and looking at this year’s elections, Democrats must stick to some key principles if they want to win their midterms against the far-right candidates who they lifted up. In debates, their arguments must heavily rely on research and cold, hard facts. They must listen to concerns brought up by their opponent and meaningfully address them. Muller warns in What is Populism? that political moderates must engage with populist outsiders in order to successfully fight them; Democrats must heed Muller’s words and engage with these far-right candidates as well. Doing so will show the far-right base that Democrats understand their grievances, and are willing to find solutions rather than dismiss them.
If far-right Republicans win, the responsibility to contain them falls on the GOP. The Republican party may celebrate its victory, but it must not blindly align with these extreme candidates. The GOP must hold members accountable for following democratic norms, spreading true information, and creating policies that reflect the majority’s stance. Otherwise, the Republican party risks falling further into a spiral of polarization and alienation from the moderate voter.