Democracy is at stake in the 2022 midterms. Why aren’t more Democrats saying it?
A year ago, I wrote that Trump’s involvement in the 2022 midterms may be a boon to Democrats. But after being banned from Twitter, relegated to sending out press releases via email, and limiting his appearances to far-right networks and his own political rallies, Trump has slowly faded from view, to the detriment of Democrat’s electoral prospects. Though a potential 2024 candidacy hangs over the country, many have used the respite of the Biden presidency to ignore the growing dangers of an anti-democratic movement and tune out politics entirely. Even the near coup of January 6 has been consigned to a mere Congressional investigation and is otherwise treated as old news. Without any new developments, historical trends indicate that the President’s party will lose seats in Congress, and likely, control of the entire chamber. But this represents an unprecedented threat to the American voter; one that every Democrat needs to emphasize for the next six months.
Midterm elections are often portrayed as referendums on the President, with candidates of his party seen as his stand-in on the ballot. Given how often the President’s party loses in midterms, it would seem that American voters are almost always dissatisfied with the incumbent’s job performance. I would argue that the midterm elections are more about the psychology of the electorate. Voters aligned with the incumbent’s party are less likely to turn out because their party holds the White House. With their party in a prominent position of power, they are generally satisfied with the state of the country and have less incentive to cast a vote. Voters in opposition to the incumbent are likely to be much more motivated, given their anger over the outcome of the last election. The midterms are a way to strike back and excise built-up indignation through the ballot box. Thus, opposition voters are more inclined to turn out. Without a major alteration to this basic framing, it will always be the opposition that holds an advantage in the midterms.
Prior to 2018, the outcome of the midterms did not necessarily portend the end of the American experiment. Unfortunately, that has changed. With the anti-democracy movement taking over the Republican Party, every election is an existential election from now on. The moment opponents of democracy take power, democracy ends. This is especially true in 2022. Most Republicans have been unable to accept their loss in 2020, instead casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election. This is not only due to the unhinged claims of one former president, but by the general notion that an election cannot be legitimate if they don’t win. In response, they have already gone out of their way to make it harder or even impossible for certain constituencies within the Democratic Party to vote in states where they hold unchecked power. It is not hard to imagine them going even farther in the future if they are unable to achieve their desired outcomes.
With democracy itself on the line, one might think Democrats would be warning the public about what may happen on a daily basis. Instead, outside the occasional mention of January 6, Democrats are hardly bringing it up. While they may have figured out that running away from the President is not a successful strategy for the midterms, some believe running on their successes might help them hold onto Congress. Except, there are no successes significant enough to alter the historical pattern. While the American Rescue Package and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill are indeed legislative victories, they are hardly a basis for a campaign message. When President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, the most important healthcare reform bill in generations, it actually diminished the Democrats’ prospects in the midterms that year. Talking about legislation that’s already been passed, no matter how momentous, will not provide the incumbent party an advantage. In fact, their success is enough to drive the opposition to the polls.
If Democrats hope to have any chance of holding onto their majorities in Congress this year, they need to go on the offense against a party that has given them plenty of material to work with. Not a week has passed when Republicans haven’t pushed some law attempting to limit the right to vote, ban certain books, outlaw the right to choose, and roll back hard-fought protections granted to the LGBTQ+ community. Democrats need to convince their voters that the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been and that they can’t sit this one out because Joe Biden is President. That requires consistent messaging about the dangers of a Republican majority and ignoring issues being framed by both the far-right and their stenographers in the mainstream media. Democrats should not talk about what Republicans want them to talk about any more than they should mention some bill they passed months ago.
Aside from presenting evidence of the Republican Party’s anti-democratic efforts, Democrats can offer specific warnings about what a Republican majority would mean for the current president and the 2024 Presidential election. Concerning the Presidency, Democrats should let the electorate know that a Republican House will very likely impeach President Biden. This should not be treated as a hypothetical but as a certainty, and Democrats should force Republicans to go on the record about it in every campaign. If Democrats know that their party leader is at risk, that may drive more of them to the ballot box. Yet it’s not just the fate of Joe Biden’s first term at stake, but possibly the next. 147 House Republicans voted to overturn the last Presidential election. The next Congress may have enough votes to deliver the presidency to Trump once more, even if he loses the 2024 election by every other metric. Again, Democrats cannot shy away from this possibility. It is too likely, so they need to bring it up again and again so it can’t be ignored.
It takes earth-shattering developments to break the modern pattern of midterm election turnout and results. The last time it was done was 20 years ago, when George W. Bush and his Republican Party injected the September 11th terrorist attacks into their campaign against the Democrats. Though politics is less predictable than ever these days, it is unlikely that any single event will allow Democrats to defy the odds. Maybe the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Maybe Trump gets back on Twitter. Maybe Putin attacks a NATO country and World War 3 begins. Yet none of those guarantee Democrats favorable results in the midterms. They have to campaign on what they have now, and what they have is an existential threat to American democracy. That should be enough, if only they realize it.