Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Of Course Democracy Is on the Ballot

Giving more power to an authoritarian party is dangerous.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Over the past few days, conservatives thrilled to Elon Musk’s attempts to make Twitter’s content-moderation policies more friendly to the Republican Party, then agonized as a slew of corporations — fearing the site would no longer provide a congenial environment — withdrew advertising. In retaliation, a series of leading Republicans threatened to punish those firms. Advertisers leaving Twitter “are begging to sit in front of a House panel next year to discuss their company’s participation in leftist corporate extortion,” warned Josh Holmes, a lobbyist and adviser to Mitch McConnell. “Major corporate advertisers ought to think twice before entering the political arena,” added Senator Tom Cotton. Mike Davis, a conservative activist, proposed that an offending firm “should plan for intense congressional oversight in January, when Republicans reclaim the House and Senate.”

The episode illustrates two important things about the election. The first is how deeply illiberal ideas about government have penetrated the Republican Party. Not long ago, it would have been considered axiomatic that private firms have the right to spend their advertising dollars where they see fit. Now many conservatives believe the government can bully them into subsidizing friendly platforms. To be clear, they don’t believe the government has a general right to do this — they would respond volcanically if Democrats tried it — but instead believe their party does not need to follow any shared set of rules or norms. Davis, the former chief counsel for nominations to Charles Grassley (i.e., not some random crank), was asked what crime they would be answering for and replied menacingly, “That’s how principled conservatives (who love to lose) think. New Right plays by the Left’s rules.”

The second and more immediate ramification of this little set piece is a practical one. As Holmes and Davis note, it’s not until January that Republicans would not have the ability to punish firms that withdraw advertising from platforms controlled by their allies. As most observers expect, the midterm elections will hand Republicans control of one or both chambers of Congress, giving them this power. This is merely one very clear and immediate way in which the elections will help either stave off or advance the rise of authoritarianism.

The Democratic Party’s pleas that “democracy is on the ballot” has provoked a fair amount of sneering, including from conservatives who oppose Donald Trump. (It has also drawn eye rolls from Biden supporters who object that it’s an ineffective message. While I concede that it is, my job is not driving messages but describing reality as I see it.)

And it is true that democracy is not on the ballot in the sense of the election being a yes-no referendum on democracy versus dictatorship. But this is because the binary construct between democracy and dictatorship is a figment of the popular imagination. These forms of government exist on a continuum. And it seems highly obvious that the Republican Party’s success in the elections will push the country further along the continuum toward authoritarianism — perhaps just a little or, depending on the unpredictable course of events, perhaps decisively.

The most obvious ramifications for democracy lie in those races where Republican candidates for governor and secretary of state who openly support Trump’s election claims are vying for direct control of the election apparatus. It is difficult to predict the effect on 2024 of, say, a Doug Mastriano or a Mark Finchem having legal authority over the elections, but the downside risk is enormous.

The “democracy is on the ballot” skeptics are generally ignoring these contests and instead referencing races for Congress. But here, too, the elections pose a significant peril. The most obvious is that the 2024 election may again come down to a congressional vote to authorize the results of the Electoral College or to pick between competing slates of electors. In 2021, that vote was a formality, but a Congress controlled by Republicans would likely offer a Republican election challenge more than gestures of support.

More broadly, the split in the Republican Party right now is between candidates who loudly endorse Trump’s claim to have legitimately won the election and those who refuse to take any position on the issue. It is the nature of political parties to seek internal unity. They may not necessarily be controlled by their most extreme elements, but they are influenced by them and need to placate them. Over the past two years, the Republican Party has grown significantly more radical on the issue of democracy. The Trumpian belief that Democratic election victories are inherently illegitimate is now a foundational element of party doctrine.

Conservatives have become increasingly fond of repeating some version of the old reactionary formulation that the United States is “a republic, not a democracy.” Senator Mike Lee, for instance, has explicitly stated his belief that democracy is dangerous and bad. Lee happens to be up for election in Utah this year. At minimum, the skeptics ought to concede that democracy is on the ballot in the election pitting a democracy activist against a man who says, “Democracy isn’t the objective,” and warns that “rank democracy can thwart” liberty and prosperity.

Yet conservatives are somehow managing to simultaneously sneer both at democracy and at the notion that giving them power poses any threat to democracy. At a rally this weekend, Arizona attorney-general candidate Abe Hamadeh — an open supporter of Trump’s election lies — mockingly cited a Los Angeles Times story warning that the state was on the cusp of authoritarianism. “Good!” shouted one supporter. This kind of doublethink is a familiar element of the authoritarian style.

It is obviously true that politics won’t end if Republicans win the midterms. Nor will it end if they gain control of the government in 2024 and carry out their Orbanist blueprint. Yet sliding down the path to authoritarianism is nonetheless a horrifying prospect. And to fail to see how handing more power to an authoritarian party can pose a threat to the republic takes an almost willful blindness.

Of Course Democracy Is on the Ballot