In the last two weeks of the election cycle, as the news seemed to be getting worse and worse for Democrats hoping to avoid a historic midterm election shellacking, party leaders opted to go all in on one particular theme—that democracy itself was on the ballot. Here, voters had a historic choice to make: Vote to save the republic, or squander it. Across the aisle, the GOP had marshaled an army of candidates behind election denialism and a vision of an illiberal United States. In his final campaign speech, President Joe Biden told the crowd assembled at Bowie State University in Maryland that the country was at “an inflection point.”
“We know in our bones that our democracy is at risk, and we know that this is your moment to defend it, preserve or protect it, choose it,” he said.
It was a tall order. And let’s face it, it was a little bit belated. As we’ve chronicled on these pages, Democrats haven’t always spent the past two years as democracy’s most ardent defenders. Too many senators preferred to keep the filibuster rather than get rid of it to pass the laws necessary to confront a well-organized and well-funded effort among Republicans to curb voting rights across the country. Even the Biden administration seemed dismissive at one point, referring to voting rights as just one more niche issue among many.
But when Democrats finally put the defense of democracy front and center in their midterm messaging, the wave of skepticism from the media wasn’t rooted in any past failures or prior fecklessness. Rather, it was spawned by the pundit class’s disbelief that demonstrating fealty to the ideals of our Founders was the correct thing to do to win an election.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza called Biden’s defense of democracy oration a “head-scratching” speech and “a strategic blunder given what we know about the electorate and its priorities.” Meanwhile, Politico’s Playbook called it “important” but “puzzling” and gave a wide array of voices the freedom to criticize the decision on various grounds, from the fact that the president had already given a widely reported speech on the same subject some weeks before to the concerns of Democratic strategists like David Axelrod, who thought that “as a matter of practical politics, I doubt many Ds in marginal races are eager for [Biden] to be on TV tonight”—the idea being that his poor approval ratings made him a dubious messenger in any event.
In truth, you wouldn’t be thought entirely daft if you fretted that Democrats were, at the very least, talking over the heads of the electorate. Polls ahead of the midterms consistently showed that matters such as the January 6 attacks weren’t foremost on people’s minds; democracy defense seemed like a bad bet. But the exit polls told a different story. Per Axios: “National polling showed abortion and democracy turned out to be big issues with voters. Coverage in the run-up to midterms had focused heavily on pocketbook issues.” In other words, the Democrats’ plan worked, and the media whiffed badly in their read of the electorate’s mood.
For all the anxiety over Biden’s approval ratings, no one seemed to have considered whether the vision of the future of democracy that the GOP spent the year articulating wasn’t even more toxic. This is a party that’s embraced book bans and LGBTQ discrimination, bomb threats at children’s hospitals, and Proud Boys terrorizing drag performers. They’ve discarded the legal roots of the right to an abortion and are eyeing doing the same thing to contraception and marriage equality. Republicans have embraced violent QAnon adherents and become Viktor Orbán fanboys. Does any of this sound like the stuff normie America wants?
And if you want to talk about polarization, let’s talk about how polarizing young voters found the GOP’s message. According to exit polls, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 broke for Democrats by a margin of 63 to 35. This makes sense: Every conservative denunciation of “wokeness” is, at bottom, a proclamation that Republicans shall not allow the youngest Americans to live the lives they want; their massive effort to suppress the vote is, in the end, just a plan to deny the youngest Americans their right to shape the nation they’re inheriting just as they’re becoming regular voters.
Still, I think a lot could have gone wrong with the way Democrats messaged around a defense of democracy. When Biden trotted out “ultra MAGA” some months ago, I worried he was more likely to energize the opposition than rally his own troops. But more recently, I heard one of Pennsylvania Governor-elect Josh Shapiro’s final campaign speeches, and I realized just how much power this closing argument could marshal.
I’m not letting Doug Mastriano take away your vote.… That is not how things work in this commonwealth or in this country. That’s not how our democracy works, and that’s not what freedom is all about.
This guy loves to talk a good game about “freedom” all the time. Right? We’ve heard that. Let me tell you something: It’s not freedom to tell women what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. Right? That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell our schoolchildren what books they’re allowed to read. That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell workers they can work a 40-hour workweek but they can’t be a member of a union. That’s not freedom. And it sure as hell isn’t freedom to say, you can go vote, but he’s gonna pick the winner. That’s not freedom. That’s not how we do things here in Pennsylvania.
This is the way to talk about democracy: not as something that only started mattering because Donald Trump came along to piss on it but as the great provider of the gifts of the good life—prosperity, stability, and dignity. Democracy is also something that has enemies, who should be cheerfully and confidently named and shamed.
Obviously the fight is far from over; lots of illiberal Republicans won this week. And now that democracy is “off the ballot,” Democrats need to help everyone who cast a vote to preserve democracy find new and creative ways to tend to it in all the days that come between elections. But we can put any skepticism about the “message” to bed. The fight for democracy is a good fight, and it’s good that the right people found a way, while facing long odds, to draw a line in the sand and punch the bullies in the mouth. More of this, please!
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.