This Is What Decadence Looks Like

Saving democracy shouldn’t be the Democrats’ main pitch to voters.

An illustration of a fire extinguisher covered in "I Voted" stickers
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

Last week, in a much heralded-speech at Union Station in Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden reminded voters that in the upcoming midterm elections, “democracy is on the ballot,” and that they should punish those who engage in “political violence and voter intimidation.” Evoking Lincoln, he warned that “what we’re doing now is going to determine whether democracy will long endure.”

Call it the Cringe Gettysburg Address. The rhetoric of political extinction, originally written for those hallowed Pennsylvania pastures, was now repurposed to energize voters in a contest whose stakes are somewhat lower. The election is important, but for every voter who swoons at the Lincolnian rhetoric, there will be more who notice, even subconsciously, the mismatch, and react with skepticism. The setting alone is enough to make one wonder. Lincoln said the dead Union soldiers had sanctified the blood-soaked battlefield beyond presidential oratory’s “poor power to add or detract.” Anyone who has slumped against a sticky wall in Union Station while eating a Filet-O-Fish and waiting for a delayed train will certainly feel powerless to detract from that experience. Rhetoric should soar, but it should take care not to invite the wrong comparisons.

The decision to make the preservation of democracy the core of Democrats’ pitch to voters strikes me as a choice of the lofty over the effective. Voters simply do not care in large numbers about democratic norms. Around the time of the last federal election, I wrote about the research of Matthew H. Graham and Milan W. Svolik, who estimated that approximately 3.5 percent of voters will change their votes because one candidate followed democratic norms and another (otherwise preferable) candidate transgressed them. Elections are won by margins this small, but to bicker over such a principled minority seems like a gamble, especially in an election as important as this one.

I am not arguing that democracy is dispensable, or that a party that refuses to repudiate Trumpism is a responsible steward of it. Democracy can be in peril even if it is bad politics to make that peril the centerpiece of a campaign. Recognizing a threat to democracy is one thing, and making “democracy” one’s closing pitch is another.

Many Republicans running for office are either real threats to democracy, or pretending to be threats to democracy because they think their base finds those threats arousing. In either case they are unfit for office, and I hope residents of Arizona, for example, vote accordingly. Biden listed various attempts to intimidate voters and election officials. But the suggestion that these crimes have reached a magnitude that might threaten the American constitutional system is simply not borne out by facts or the experience of voters themselves—almost all of whom have more vivid personal experience of high gas prices than of being prevented from voting.

When I check in on the most contested states, I see voters bickering in a way that is still recognizably democratic. Early voting proceeded pretty much as one would hope, and campaigns are attempting to woo voters over issues that sound, on their face, reasonable—like whether one candidate is in a state of chronic delusionary psychosis, or the extent of another one’s recent brain damage. One would prefer other issues (inflation, a faltering economy, war in Europe) to make or break an election, but when voters are 51–49 over issues of candidates’ psychiatric and neurological fitness, democracy is not at stake. Democracy is just passing through a particularly decadent moment.

One might reasonably wonder whether any antidemocratic trend could be brought up profitably as an issue before voters. I tend to think not, at least not explicitly. “Vote for us, or it might be the last election you ever see” is a dramatic way to sell your candidates. But it implies that the details of those candidates and their positions do not matter, because the One Big Issue should determine your vote. On everything else, you just have to trust us. Few voters like to be spoken to in those tones, and Republicans need only point to a few places where that trust was betrayed to cast doubt on whether the One Big Issue was just a trick to win voters’ acquiescence to (say) social programs unacceptable to the median voter.

I take comfort in knowing that voters are such cynics when confronted with vague claims about the end of democracy. Americans are probably better off not willing to vote as if the political end-times are near, just because the president stands in a post-apocalyptic transportation hub and says they should, or an ex-president says something similar at a county fair. And my appreciation for this skepticism is deepened by the fact that democracy was, in fact, threatened and nearly subverted by the leader of the Republican Party. Subversion is harder, not easier, when voters are skeptical of their politicians’ rhetoric and instead demand tangible results. One interpretation of the haywire politics of the past decade or so is that politics have become too idealized, about “hope” and “change” and “greatness,” rather than about crime, kids’ math classes, gas prices, and preventing war. Three-point-five percent of voters care about democracy. I suspect that somewhat more care about earthbound issues.

The remedy for the rise of antidemocratic attitudes is, first and foremost, to beat the pants off the candidates who have these attitudes, by waging the better campaign and being more popular than them. It is possible for politics to slide in such an antidemocratic direction that the remedy is itself antidemocratic. You will know you have reached that moment, because you will again see a president standing in a hallowed, blood-soaked pasture, rather than near a Sbarro. We’re not there yet—not even close. In the meantime, I wish I were empowered to choose what issues voters care about, and then make the candidates fight over those issues. But I don’t get to choose, and neither does the president. The voters do. That is called democracy, available while supplies last.