Last Wednesday, President Joe Biden delivered a major address on the threats to American democracy. It was the second time he had taken the podium to sound these themes in the past two months and can be seen as his closing argument to voters for the 2022 midterms. Biden started by speaking about the assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which the president plausibly connected with the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. As Biden noted, the alleged attacker reportedly shouted out, “Where’s Nancy?” This was also the cry of the insurrectionists on January 6.
Biden fortrightly declared, “The extreme MAGA element of the Republican Party—which is a minority of that party…but is its driving force—is trying to succeed where they failed in 2020 to suppress the rights of voters and subvert the electoral system itself.” He blamed these MAGA Republicans as the source of violent threats to election officials as well as lies about election results and the reliability of the system. Biden was at his best when describing actual examples of the electoral system being subverted. Given the real violence that has lately been visited upon members of Congress, their families and their staff, as well as electoral officials trying to do their job of counting the vote, it’s hard to deny Biden’s contention that “democracy is on the ballot this year.”
Biden is betting that the democracy issue is important enough to settle the midterms in the favor of the Democrats. It’s true that voters do tell pollsters that they care about the issue, although whether that concern adds up to more votes for the Democrats is uncertain. According to a Pew poll conducted in October, 70 percent of voters listed democracy as a top issue, putting it second only to the economy (listed as important by 79 percent of voters). This result is less impressive if one considers the breakdown: 70 percent of Republicans list democracy as a top issue, as do 80 percent of Democrats. Those Republicans presumably believe some version of the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. In other words, they believe the threat to democracy is the Democratic Party. Making the election a referendum on democracy does nothing to win those voters over and merely replicates the existing partisan divide.
Democracy is an issue that mobilizes partisan Democrats—but doesn’t necessarily win over even independent voters, let alone Republicans. Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent notes that “messages about the threat to democracy mean different things to different voter groups, which means they help Democrats in some ways but not in others.” Sargent cites the research of Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who in focus groups found “something troubling for Democrats. Swing voters aren’t moved by these topics, Lake says, because they see both parties in a similar light: They think both manipulate democracy to their advantage, and they see the 2020 urban unrest amid police protests as akin to Jan. 6.”
Lake’s findings make intuitive sense. Swing voters, by definition, are those who define their political identity in opposition to partisan loyalty. Therefore they are the voters most likely to be wary of Democratic claims that MAGA Republicans are a unique threat to electoral democracy, and most receptive to the claim both sides are to blame.
The fact that the pro-democracy message is weak among swing voters might not matter if it mobilized enough of the Democratic base, which has a record of sitting out midterms when a Democratic president in the White House. But it’s worth noting that the pro-democracy message as formulated by Biden seems designed to sideline other issues the Democratic base cares about.
In a key passage of his speech, Biden said, “I know there is a lot at stake in these midterm elections, from our economy to the safety of our streets, to our personal freedoms, to the future of healthcare and Social Security and Medicare. It’s all important. But we’ll have our differences. We’ll have our difference of opinion. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. But there is something else at stake: democracy itself.”
By this formulation, disagreement about abortion or Social Security are mere “differences of opinion” as against the fundamental issue of democracy. Biden in effect is disconnecting the GOP’s substantive policy agenda from its subversion of democracy. This rhetoric seems designed to win over fence-sitters and moderate Republicans, who might not agree with the Democrats on issues but are worried about the MAGA threat to democracy. The problem is, as we’ve seen, these middle-of-the-road and conservative voters are already not sure the Democrats are better than the GOP on democracy.
If Biden had wanted to just mobilize the Democratic base, he could have connected the pro-democracy message to the broader Democratic agenda. He could, for example, argue that the authoritarian GOP, which is clearly working to govern as a minority party free from checks, could push through a radically unpopular agenda that includes a nationwide abortion ban as well as cuts to Social Security and Medicare and a rollback of civil rights.
Imagine a presidential election in 2024 where Trump or another Republican gets a minority of the vote but is brought to power by state legislatures overturning the electoral results. As president he could govern with a Senate and House where the GOP has a majority of seats though winning only a minority of the vote, thanks to gerrymandering in the House and the overrepresentation of small states in the Senate.
That scenario would be horrifying not just because it would be antidemocratic. It would also be a disaster in policy terms, because the GOP would then be in a position to push through the many wildly unpopular policies it supports on abortion and economics. A post-democratic America would be one with a nationwide abortion ban, Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, and civil rights rolled back.
As the midterm results come in on Tuesday and in the following days, we’ll get a sense of whether the Democrats made a wise gamble in playing up the threats to democracy. If they fall short, the lesson should not be that they should avoid talking about democracy in the future. The GOP in its current form is genuinely hostile to democracy—and that has to remain an issue. But Democrats might need to reformulate their case by arguing not just for democracy but also making clear all the harmful policies that an autocracy can enact. The threat to democracy is not just an abstract matter of civic procedures or of threats to government officials. It also has very real consequences for the economic and social issues that shape everyday life for ordinary people. That’s the message that the Democrats haven’t yet been willing to make.