The Democratic Party’s message ahead of the 2022 midterms appears to be simple: Vote for us or democracy gets it.
“I’m worried that if Republicans win in the midterm elections, that voting as we know it in this country will be gone,” warned California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell during a recent MSNBC appearance. “This is not only the most important election. If we don’t get it right, it could be the last election.”
Across the progressive Democratic messaging infrastructure, the party and movement have rebranded themselves as the protectors of the democratic ideal, which, in their telling, is on the verge of extinction.
President Biden has warned that GOP election laws that would, among other things, require voters to write down their state ID number on absentee ballots, are the equivalent of “Jim Crow on steroids,” while more or less comparing Virginia’s Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin to a Capitol rioter.
Heads of influential progressive political action committees worry aloud that we will see a swing of “power to Republican politicians, which ends American democracy.” Liberal opinion columnists lament that the GOP is plotting to “take control of more and more of the apparatus of voting to ensure that Republicans can never lose.”
But if you sincerely value liberal democracy—not just majority rule but open debate and the protection of individual and minority rights—it can be hard not to notice the irony: A political movement that has worked so hard to censor and marginalize its opponents in virtually all institutions is claiming that it now represents the vanguard of democracy.
I’m not pointing this out to prove to progressives that they are just a bunch of hypocrites who don’t really value liberal democracy.
I’m writing this because I am worried about democracy in the United States. I won’t validate Biden or Swalwell’s outlandish claims about democracy ending in the next election or Jim Crow reasserting itself in GOP-run states, but I do think it’s deeply unhealthy that so many people in our country distrust the news media, public institutions, and their elected representatives.
Take Swalwell, who ominously predicted that a GOP victory in the midterm elections—leaving the Democrats in control of the executive branch, of course—would mark the extinction of American democracy.
When Twitter decided to ban Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene because she espoused skepticism toward COVID vaccines, genuine advocates for free speech and open debate were outraged. How can a private company that runs the modern public square, the equivalent of a public utility, unilaterally decide to silence an official elected by the people?
Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been skeptical of bipartisan congressional oversight of Silicon Valley, criticized Twitter for shutting down what he called “constitutionally protected speech.” But Swalwell was unsympathetic to Greene losing her right to speak on the platform. “Kevin McCarthy hates free markets. He wants government to have absolute control over private businesses,” he thundered. “Is there a word for this?”
Suddenly, the defender of democracy transformed into an advocate for corporate control of public debate, using an argument that wouldn’t be out of place in a Milton Friedman tract. As hypocritical as it was, it was hardly surprising.
Last year we saw Twitter work with Facebook to suppress the spread of a New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The announcement that the story would be throttled on Facebook came from Andy Stone, a Facebook communications staffer who previously worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
No prominent Democratic elected official protested the suppression of the story, which quickly became a bigger story than the content of the Post article itself. And why would they? It was clear that, in this case, the Democrats weren’t after democratic legitimacy but political hegemony. They stood to benefit more from having the world’s most powerful digital communications companies actively suppress speech that could assist their political opponents than from standing by the principle of freedom of expression.
It was hardly the only anti-democratic move that benefited the Democrats in 2020. Just ask the Green Party. The minor left-wing group fielded its own presidential candidate that year, a trade unionist and environmental activist named Howie Hawkins.
In state after state, Hawkins and the Green Party faced legal challenges from Democratic Party-linked operatives and attorneys trying keep him from even appearing on the ballot. With a 5-2 Democratic majority, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a Republican judge’s ruling that Hawkins could stay on the state’s ballot, due to Hawkins’ “failure to closely follow nomination procedures,” according to CBS. When I asked Chris Robinson, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Green Party whether they thought the Democrats were sincere in their embrace of democracy, I got a brief response: “The answer is, ‘No!’”
One piece of evidence the Democrats use to claim that democracy is on its death bed and the Republicans are to blame is the widespread conservative denial of the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory. It’s certainly true that former President Donald Trump unleashed and perpetuated a storm of falsehoods about the integrity of Biden’s victory. There were not mountains of fraudulent ballots cast in the 2020 election.
But denying the legitimacy of the elected president is a more common partisan feature of America’s messy democracy than Democrats would like to admit. A University of Massachusetts Amherst/YouGov poll from December 2021 found that just 21% of Republicans believed that Biden’s victory in last year’s election was “definitely” or “probably” legitimate. Overall, 68% of Americans shared that view (and 91% of Democrats).
But a July 2001 Gallup poll found that just 48% of Americans believed Bush won the 2000 race “fair and square”; among Democrats, that number dropped to 15%, and among African Americans, it fell to 8%. Democratic rejection of the legitimacy of the incoming Republican president skyrocketed again after the election of Trump. Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis said in January of 2017 that he didn’t consider Trump a “legitimate President.” The same month, millions of Democratic-leaning Americans launched a “resistance” movement designed to urge their elected officials to obstruct Trump. By November 2018, YouGov found that two-thirds of Democrats believed that it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President.”
Much has been made of the riots of Jan. 6. While these riots did in fact represent a deadly rejection of the results of the 2020 election, the way some Democrats responded exemplified the anti-democratic, pro-hegemonic tendencies of the party. Dozens of Democratic members of Congress backed a resolution to expel House Republicans who voted against certifying the election results—an anti-democratic move aimed at taking away the right to choose one’s federal representative from the citizens of those districts.
What was long understood as a symbolic protest vote suddenly became tantamount to treason, provided that it was Republicans doing it this time rather than Democrats—some of whom voted against certification of the Republican president-elect in 2000, 2004, and 2016.
Even the Democrats’ much-touted voting reform bills—which they say are essential to keep Republicans from suppressing votes and ending democracy—would do little to enhance participatory democracy in the United States. A bigger problem in the U.S. system than access to voting polls is that the major parties are both deeply unpopular; the 2016 election featured two of the most unpopular candidates in modern history.
One solution to this would be to move to a multiparty system. Some type of proportional representation system would allocate seats to parties based on the percentage of the vote they get in elections. Germany’s notably consensus-driven system, which is based on mixed-member proportional representation, allows voters to cast two votes: one for a political party and one for the legislator of their single-seat constituency. You could easily imagine a Congress made up of five or six parties under such a system. The Democrats could choose to support a shift to proportional representation, yet doing so would reduce the party’s own power. There is a bill in Congress that would at least make it a little easier to start new parties: the Fair Representation Act. As of this writing, it has just eight sponsors (all House Democrats).
Again, if the goal is hegemony rather than democracy, all this makes sense. The Democrats are more than happy to push for things like giving Washington, D.C. statehood in the name of democracy because it will give their party more seats in Congress. They are less likely to support democratic reforms that could benefit parties other than their own.
Following Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the Democrats and their allies in the media had an opportunity to celebrate the democratic process. Anger about schools policy had helped drive large voter turnout during an off-year election; the opposition party was able to win a clear majority and mandate for governing.
The Republicans broadened their electoral base and built a multi-ethnic ticket; Virginia’s new lieutenant governor will be a Jamaican American immigrant named Winsome Sears and its attorney general a Cuban American named Jason Miyares.
Yet the immediate response from progressives was to try to delegitimize the electorate that brought Youngkin, Sears, and Miyares to power. Progressive pundit Michael Eric Dyson appeared on MSNBC to lament that Sears just gives Republicans what they really want, which is “white supremacy by ventriloquist effect.” Sears, viewers were told, is an example of a “Black mouth moving” to communicate a “white idea.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who spearheaded the 1619 Project, was embittered by the parent-led movement that objected to critical race theory-infused curricula in Virginia schools.
“I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught. I’m not a professional educator. I don’t have a degree in social studies or science. We send our children to school because we want them to be taught by people who have expertise in the subject area,” she said during an NBC appearance.
The idea that schools are accountable to their communities is one of the oldest democratic concepts. Public education has always been governed by a social contract between parents and the government. Hannah-Jones, one of the leading progressive minds in the country, doesn’t see the value of participatory democracy in this arena. Education should be the purview of experts—and only as long as they agree with Hannah-Jones and other progressives.
This elitist and anti-populist ethos increasingly permeates virtually all institutions that progressives control in the United States.
From The New York Times—which doesn’t employ a single opinion columnist who openly supported Trump, who received 75 million votes in 2020—to America’s universities, where liberal faculty outnumber conservative faculty by as much as 12 to 1, progressive organizations often don’t practice what they preach when it comes to pluralism, liberalism, and democracy. They are set up as lopsided organizations that represent just a small sliver of American public opinion.
This ideological rigidity is enforced by a progressive turn against freedom of speech, the cornerstone of liberal democracy. In 2018, 40% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans believed the government should work to restrict false information online; by 2021, 65% of Democrats agreed that the government should do so, while just 28% of Republicans did. An even higher percentage of Democrats (76%) now agree that tech companies should restrict false information, whereas 37% of Republicans agree.
But the way to bridge our deficits of trust isn’t to censor and repress. That will just push people to seek out other avenues of expression and organization. Do we really think that conservatives who admire public figures like Greene or Trump will just change their worldview after they’re booted off social media? Won’t they just follow them into even more niche channels where they get even less exposure to other points of view?
The way to enhance our democracy is to make it more inclusive and more representative. That means that the leading newspapers in the country shouldn’t be virtually devoid of nonelite views. It means our social media platforms should embrace free expression and open debate. It means Congress should pursue electoral reforms that open the system to more voices and more choices rather than simply promoting whatever bill will help the party in control get the most seats. It means we must stop trying to delegitimize the victories of politicians with whom we disagree, whether it’s Biden, Trump, or Youngkin. It means listening to parents who are interested in what their children are taught in school.
Liberal democracy is a fragile system because it rests on the principle that we will respect the right of democratic representation even for those with whom we strongly disagree, and even for those who say things that are demonstrably false. In today’s America, progressives are failing that test as much as conservatives are.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.