By Justin Kempf
Did Voters Just Save American Democracy?
Already many on the left have applauded the outcomes of the American Midterm elections because the most catastrophic outcomes did not come to fruition. Many races still remain undetermined so the final repercussions remain unknown. However, it appears the Republicans will have a slight majority in House, while the Senate remains up for grabs. But the major takeaway for many was the poor performance for what many call election deniers. The candidates who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election underperformed and often lost competitive elections. Meanwhile, candidates from the same party who accepted the outcome of the 2020 elections performed better and frequently won competitive elections.
The issue at hand, of course, is not whether officeholders will overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Rather many worried whether those candidates would manipulate future election outcomes. For example, Republican candidate for Governor in Wisconsin, Tim Michels, said he would ensure Republicans never lost again in his state if voters elected him. Notwithstanding Michels’ insistence that the the media took this comment out of context, he lost the election. Meanwhile, the more moderate Republican Ron Johnson won reelection to the Senate. The difference between the two was about three percentage points.
So, the takeaway for many is voters stood up for democracy. They punished Republicans who many saw as threats to democracy. But they also rewarded Republicans who showed a commitment to democracy in their rhetoric and their actions. At the same time, partisanship trumped civic duty for many voters. Even worse, some voters actually want officeholders to use their authority to keep the other party out of power. In other words, this election did not resolve the concerns of many about the future of American democracy.
Democracy is Not Doomed
At the same time, democracy has proven far more resilient than many anticipated. While various indicators from Freedom House and V-Dem show a deterioration in democracy around the world, aspiring autocrats find it difficult to consolidate power in countries with long-standing democratic traditions. Recently, Jair Bolsonaro agreed to a peaceful transition to power after losing his bid for reelection in Brazil. Many worried whether he might attempt a coup, because he frequently praised the former military dictatorship and questioned the fairness of the electoral process. Indeed, he did not admit defeat nor say the election was free and fair, but he did accept the outcome.
Jason Brownlee has pointed out on the podcast that democratic backsliding rarely leads to complete breakdown. Indeed, many cases of breakdown occur suddenly, without any longstanding symptoms of democratic erosion. Democracies may wax and wane, but it has proven time and time again to have a surprising resilience. Moreover, the most common challenges to democracy come from uncomfortable questions about the nature of democracy itself. Michael Ignatieff describes this tug and pull as “an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be.”
Now I don’t want to dismiss genuine threats to democracy. But I don’t want to overreact either. When we convince ourselves democracy is lost, we become the threat to democracy. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey consolidated autocratic rule, because the opposition staged unsuccessful coup attempts to remove them from power. This past election voters rejected the most outrageous election deniers. However, what if they didn’t? Election outcomes should not cause us to lose faith or hope in democracy. We cannot save democracy unless we trust democracy.
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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