Democrats Are Pursuing Another Noble Defeat

Republicans have a big advantage over the only other electorally viable party: They’re willing to win.

Democrats Are Pursuing Another Noble Defeat
"Checkmate" by Alan Light. Used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Edited by Sam Thielman

IF HALLOWEEN ISN’T SCARY ENOUGH for you, just remember that midterm elections in the United States are a week away. All Hallows' Eve’s bats and ghouls haunt us for one night a year; the terrors of Tuesday, 8 November are likely to shape the political landscape for the next decade, or even the rest of our lives.


The Democrats are one of two electorally viable US political parties, and the only one that expresses clear opposition to an increasing number of anti-democracy movements, and they have failed to present a united front. Modern Republicans clearly understand message discipline and the value of lining up behind their people—even those with glaring problems—and the roles that loyalty and discipline play in their long-term strategies to obtain and wield power. Republicans also invest in creating and maintaining powerful campaigning and organizing infrastructure in many states, while Democrats, frankly, seem to be half-assing it. That matters a heck of a lot in midterm elections, especially when the GOP seems willing to exchange any remaining commitment to small-d democratic processes for popularity among those rising anti-democracy movements mentioned above. And so here we are.

Right-wing politicians are branding themselves Christian nationalists, deploying divisive and racist rhetoric, and courting the most extreme internet-poisoned cliques in the Republican voter base. Many candidates on the ballot next week deny the 2020 election’s legitimacy and imply they’ll further deny that Republicans have lost any races they lose next week. Vigilantes marinated in conspiracy theories about voter fraud—originating with a once-reputable pillow salesman and pseudo-historian who personally pled guilty to violating campaign election law himself—have staked out ballot drop boxes and allegedly intimidated voters.

It all just might fucking work. I don’t know if the supposed “red wave” is coming, sweeping away Democrats for Republicans across the nation. It won’t be surprising if Republicans make gains in Congress or even flip the Senate; that scenario is pretty familiar from previous midterm elections. Far-right and election-denialist candidates will almost certainly do better than they would in a sane world, and the weeks that follow are sure to be full of talking heads on the TV theorizing over what went wrong. We should not let these folks overcomplicate things.

Tim Miller wrote a piece at The Bulwark called “Democrats Need to Know What Time It Is.” In it, he argues Democrats have failed to adequately fight against anti-democracy candidates, instead selecting candidates who aren’t up for inevitable dogfights, failing to support their people at full volume, and making apparent political calculations from a bygone era. It’s hard to disagree with much of that assessment! Here’s an excerpt:

In a different era, it was okay for a party to throw away four years in a random state governor’s mansion for the sake of intraparty comity and giving the next person in line a fair shot. It’s not as if the fate of democracy rested on the race between Jane Hull and Paul Johnson. But when one of the people on the ballot is the semi-fascist favorite of Steve Bannon, then it sure as shit isn’t the time to let a flawed candidate sleepwalk into an honorable defeat.

Democrats continue to underestimate how effective the GOP has been at transforming online cynicism and resentment into reactionary base support. Some of the internet’s most popular content is clickbait about how supposedly awful and deranged liberals are, and the folks producing this content are making a classic play: They find a random thing that evokes strong emotions of contempt, rage, or fear, and then they tell the audience that, whatever this thing is—a meme, a bizarre news item, an academic study—it represents an entire out-group. This strategy has bipartisan appeal; you can find it utilized across the political spectrum.

But the authoritarian Right has found it especially useful on issues of LGBTQ equality, abortion, race, and religion. Republicans have recognized the value in courting the audiences for this content and promising vengeance against Democrats who won’t protect them from LGBTQ people, nonwhite people, and non-Christians. They don’t have to argue policy; they just have to be the opposite of those freaks. Emotionally intense content also plays very well with major social media platform algorithms, which appeal to those sentiments to manipulate us into spending more time using them and thus giving those platforms richer data to sell.

Many Democrat-aligned campaigns have examined this ugly landscape and responded by emphasizing efforts to combat misinformation, which happens to be the field of research I do my day work in. They aren’t wrong to understand misinformation as a threat to democracy, but they may be wrong to take a defensive, rather than offensive, approach. I’d argue that in most cases, it’s not worth it to engage with bad faith actors on your tail. There are legitimate concerns about legitimizing and amplifying false information, but when the going gets rough, campaigns should stop curling into the fetal position, yelling for the teacher, and hoping the bullies won’t kick them as hard this time. Most fights aren’t worth it, but when the time comes to have one, Democrats ought to be fighting not just to win but to obliterate. It’s what their opponents are doing, and successfully.

President Biden experimented with a more combative stance a couple months ago in his speech about “MAGA Republicans,” stressing their indifference to democracy and the threat their agenda poses to freedoms everyone needs. It was the right move, but many campaigns failed to set their sails with that change in the wind. It was a missed opportunity to start talking about the situation in an honest way.

Instead, the lead-up to midterms saw Democrats making the same mistakes they always make. When it comes to so many pollutants in our environment—income inequality, climate change, healthcare, and housing costs—very few political leaders are able to find the courage to work for, or even promise, real change.

Democrats writ large have also failed to deliver a clear message beyond “vote.” Republicans have their activists swarming  municipal board meetings to proclaim the panic of the day, whether it’s critical race theory, COVID-19 mask mandates, or the existence of trans people. While there are certainly organizations attempting to lead coherent local efforts, they don’t receive the encouragement, engagement, or resources of their GOP counterparts. Democratic leadership has left a lot of these organizations to fend for themselves–a signal that they don’t understand what they’re up against.

There were countless missed opportunities this cycle, and every miss should be understood as a failure. I wrote this in my July 4 newsletter:

The good guys are losing this battle, not because of a single defeat but a series of small concessions over decades. Every instance of Democrats capitulating to the Right because it was an election year, or because they were worried about being accused of being radical, has culminated in the weakening of the Party’s practical power and its institutional courage. And because it is the only party that even nominally supports the very institutions of government, those institutions, too, have weakened. Despair and cynicism pervade popular Left movements, which prevents coalition-building and makes the possibility of a mass mobilization—which could potentially turn this awful tide—seem especially distant.

I wish that essay had aged worse.

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