The Problem With 'Pro-Democracy' Rhetoric
You can't extol the importance of democracy while also pursuing no-choice politics.
I have a rant.
Six days before the midterm elections, Joe Biden will give yet another speech about “democracy.” I don’t care for this. First of all, as a political matter, Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini is right: This is a message of primary interest to the most core voters in the Democratic Party coalition. They are sure to vote for Democrats already — in fact, many of them have already voted. The idea that telling voters about January 6 one more time would help anything is just crazy.
But the other problem is that the message makes no sense on its face.
When Democrats talk about “democracy,” they’re talking about the importance of institutions that ensure the voters get a say among multiple choices and the one they most prefer gets to rule. But they are also saying voters do not get to do that in this election. The message is that there is only one party contesting this election that is committed to democracy — the Democrats — and therefore only one real choice available. If voters reject Democrats’ agenda or their record on issues including inflation, crime, and immigration (or abortion, for that matter), they have no recourse at the ballot box — they simply must vote for Democrats anyway, at least until such time as the Republican Party is run by the likes of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.
This amounts to telling voters that they have already lost their democracy.
In countries where there is a real cross-ideological coalition to protect democracy, this is not how it works. In Israel and Hungary, coalitions of ideologically diverse parties have set aside their differences to run on very narrow governing agendas that are essentially about keeping the other side out. This approach has worked in some elections but not in others, but it hasn’t involved the Labor Party in Israel telling various right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties they must sign onto a full spectrum of left-of-center issue positions to share a coalition. This is how such coalitions engage in democratic accountability — if you’re going to tell people they must vote for your side to keep a dangerous authoritarian out, you also do what you can to make them feel ideologically comfortable within the coalition on issues besides elections themselves.
We have seen in recent years how no-choice politics works out. If your message to voters is that they have no choice but you, you had better make yourself a palatable choice — otherwise, they are liable to defy you and choose what you claimed was unthinkable. But Democrats have not governed like they had better win the widest swathe of voters possible, as they would if they really believed our democracy is at grave risk if the other side wins.
First of all, they have been insufficiently attentive to economic factors they now acknowledge are likely to drive this and future elections. Joe Biden knew that world events beyond his control could spike gasoline prices, yet his fear that voters might punish him for this did not give him pause when he pursued an agenda from day one that discouraged North American production of oil and gas, including pausing drilling leases and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. He was blasé about the risk that the American Rescue Plan would overstimulate the economy and spur inflation, ignoring the warnings of mainstream Democratic economists like Larry Summers. He spent much of 2021 trying to get Congress to approve a multi-trillion dollar package of new social spending that would have been even more inflationary. He approved an extra-legal cancellation of hundreds of billions of dollars of student loan debt in a manner never contemplated by Congress (so much for democracy!). His party has coalesced around increasingly rigidly progressive positions and rhetoric on issues including abortion, sex and gender, and immigration, and Biden himself moved in a more extreme direction on abortion by rejecting the Hyde Amendment, which he had long supported — hardly an effort to broaden the coalition.
And — most demonstrative of all of the fact that the “threats to democracy” rhetoric is not serious — Democratic campaign committees have spent millions of dollars trying to elevate Republican candidates who are objectively more threatening to democracy than their primary opponents were, on the theory that those candidates were less likely to win general elections. That theory is correct, but the odds of those candidates winning is still not zero. The necessary implication is that the risk of those candidates winning is an acceptable one, part of the ordinary course of two-party democracy, rather than an existential threat to the institutions we hold most dear.
There is nothing inherently wrong with pressing your advantage in an election you won narrowly to achieve as much of your agenda as you can. The idea is that you might lose the next election, but at least you’ll leave behind some durable achievements. The Affordable Care Act was worth losing the 2010 election over. But that’s the implication — that this is a normal election, you win some and you lose some, and life goes on in a democracy.
If Democrats truly believed differently, they would have governed differently. You can see from their actions that they are not actually serious about the arguments they’re making now, and I for one am sick of the disingenuous speechifying.
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