Yes, Elections Have Consequences

And today’s voters hold America’s entire future in their hands.

An illustration of a ballot box teetering on the edge of a plank
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

Americans reputedly have short attention spans. But their decisions have long fuses. People vote for reasons that may be quite contingent, even temporary or incidental, but that seem compelling in the moment—with effects that detonate long afterward.

Republicans won a remarkable nine seats in the U.S. Senate in the elections of 2014. That sweep empowered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court. McConnell held the seat open until a Republican president could fill it—setting us on the path to a conservative supermajority on the Court that this year reached a 6–3 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

What enabled the Republicans’ extraordinary showing in those midterms? Good evidence suggests that the GOP owed its sweep to an event almost forgotten in this decade that is now so defined by the COVID-19 pandemic: the panic in the fall of 2014 over the Ebola virus.

The first American Ebola case was reported on September 30: A Liberian man sick with the disease had flown into the U.S. seeking care. Though uninsured, he received treatment at a Dallas hospital but died a week later—having infected two of his American nurses. (They recovered.) It was exactly the kind of story, freighted with fear and resentment, to supercharge Republican voters.

ABC News reported in October 2014:

With less than three weeks before the midterm election, Ebola has emerged front and center in stump speeches, on the debate stage and even some campaign ads as it’s turning into one of this election’s most unexpected, yet hottest campaign issues.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week found that 65% of Americans are concerned about an Ebola epidemic, and four in ten Americans are worried they or an immediate family member might catch the disease.

When political scientists studied the numbers more closely after the 2014 vote, they found that Ebola fears correlated closely with an increase in support for Republican candidates. Given that 2014 was a low-turnout election (the lowest since 1942), an issue such as this—that energized Republicans without much affecting Democrats—could convert the governing party’s usual midterm losses into a wave election.

The episode has largely slipped from public memory because the Ebola epidemic of 2014 was snuffed out the next year by effective international public-health intervention, and the weeks of terrifying coverage by CNN and local news stations vanished into the video archives. But the political legacy of that terror lingers: The Republican voters’ enthusiasm that year lit the fuse that led to the demolition eight years later of a half-century-old abortion precedent.

The lesson for the 2022 cycle is that the issues that seemed most salient as voters went to the polls will probably be long-forgotten in a few years’ time—but their choice will have had a huge bearing on what becomes of the United States. Voters can’t be expected to apprehend the longer-term consequences of the votes they cast. But their votes have consequences.

Ahead of this year’s elections, voters seem motivated above all by cost-of-living issues, with additional concerns about crime and illegal immigration, and possibly cultural issues such as transgender teen athletes seeking to play in girls’ sports leagues, also factoring in. Voters are not much preoccupied by threats to democracy.

People with bills to pay and families to raise have to think about their immediate concerns. If your mortgage payments have spiked because of higher interest rates, or your car was stolen during the post-2020 crime wave, those shocks will, of course, be top of mind. Yet even as voters attend to the immediate, they are also casting a ballot on three issues that may seem remote but have enormous import.

The first is whether former President Donald Trump will face the same legal consequences as any other citizen for his frauds and crimes or whether his party will create a new right of impunity for ex-presidents. The second is whether Republicans will return to their 2011 strategy of using congressional leverage over the debt ceiling to threaten U.S. financial default as a bargaining tactic in budget fights. The third is whether the U.S. will continue to stand by Ukraine as it resists Russia’s invasion.


Impunity

The ex-president is at the center of so many civil lawsuits and criminal investigations that keeping track of them all is challenging. The idea that the suits and investigations are improper and must be stopped is one thing that unites Trump’s party. If Republicans gain one or both houses of Congress, they will exert pressure to halt all process of law. President Joe Biden’s judicial nominations may be obstructed, and officials at the Department of Justice and from the FBI may be summoned before committees to face abusive questioning.

Lurking in the background will be an implicit deal: Allow a Trump exception and let him off the hook, or we’ll blow up the whole functioning of federal law enforcement. The House Judiciary Committee could well be chaired by Jim Jordan. More than a vehement Trump partisan, Jordan was an active participant on Trump’s behalf in the events of January 6—but that potential conflict of interest would not prevent him from running interference for both Trump and himself.

The impunity that Trump allies seek for him relates not only to acts undertaken in some presidential capacity, such as claiming sensitive classified documents as his personal property, but also to his actions as a private businessman, such as allegedly cheating on taxes and lying to his banks. Above all, Trump and his allies seek impunity for their parts in the effort to overthrow a U.S. election.

Most Republican lawmakers do not believe Trump’s Big Lie about the 2022 election. But they recognize that to stay in good standing with the party, they must commit to protecting Trump from any consequences for his “Stop the Steal” plotting.

This will not be an electoral issue for most voters, but equal justice under the law, even for the most powerful, is on the ballot in November.


Government Default

Many Republican candidates have spoken enthusiastically about using the impending debt-ceiling deadlines to force their budget priorities on the Biden administration. Minority House Leader Kevin McCarthy endorsed the idea in a mid-October interview with Punchbowl News. This was a technique that Republicans deployed seriously in 2011, and again, less seriously, in 2013. In 2011, the stunt cost U.S. Treasury bonds their cherished triple-A rating.

None of the players in these crises wants to force a default that would have global economic effects. As in a game of chicken from an old hot-rod movie, they each count on the other to swerve aside first. The more responsible party loses the game. But the risks of miscalculation and miscommunication are huge.

The world veered toward catastrophe in 2011 because Republican House leaders were too weak to veto the wild ideas of their members. Those leaders are weaker still today, and the members likely to be elected in 2022 will have even wilder ideas. Even if a deal is somehow negotiated, will a Speaker McCarthy have the moxie to enforce it within his caucus?

In other words, within weeks of a new Congress being seated, the U.S. and the world could be on the brink of a global financial crisis triggered by the ideological extremism of the Republican House caucus and the breakdown of its leaders’ authority.

As with Trump’s impunity, global financial stability may not be an electoral issue for most voters, but it will nevertheless be on the ballot in November.


Abandoning Ukraine

Ukraine has solid friends on the Republican side of the aisle. In May, Minority Senate Leader McConnell traveled to Kyiv to confer with President Volodymyr Zelensky, and praised Sweden and Finland as “important additions” to NATO; he also gave his firm backing to their applications when the matter came up before the U.S. Senate.

But some GOP House and Senate members are hostile to Ukraine. In order to placate them, McCarthy issued his warning of no “blank check” to Ukraine if Republicans win the House. He left himself some room for maneuver, by insisting that “Ukraine is important.” But McCarthy is not a leader who can carry his caucus anywhere it does not want to go. Many on today’s political right have internalized the Trumpian idea that Ukraine is a woke cause, and that authoritarian Russia is the proper ally for conservative Republicans.

This idea is spreading far and fast through right-wing media. Putin’s noises about nuclear war excite them—not as a real-world security challenge but as material for a domestic cultural war, a stick with which to beat ideological enemies who disrespected Trump. These Republicans will have no compunction about shutting off aid to Ukraine and ending cooperation with NATO.

Peace and democracy in Europe will be on the ballot in November too.


Voting is always an individual act. Each voter decides for themselves how and why to use the tremendous power of the franchise. Many Americans saw 2014 as the Ebola election. Then, as events unfold, the results of our collective action at the polls are felt—and we discover that, with hindsight, 2014 was really the abortion election.

This year, voters would do well to consider not only their immediate discontent but also how their vote will reverberate through the years. If the new Congress cuts off Ukraine and puts the world on the path to greater economic instability, to constitutional crisis and political violence, and to nuclear blackmail, that’s what will be remembered about the election of 2022—not what the price of gasoline was that November.