This Is Uncharted Territory
If one of two major political parties no longer believes in free and fair elections, how can democracy still function?
Written by Molly Jong-Fast and published in The Atlantic 10/14/2022 .
Wait, What? covers the right from over on the left.
Yesterday, following a months-long investigation, The New York Times published that “more than 370 people—a vast majority of Republicans running for these offices in November—have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 election despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported similar findings: More than half of all Republicans running for congressional and state office this midterm cycle are 2020 election deniers. Forty-eight out of 50 states have Big Lie supporters running for some kind of office, from governor on down.
Since former President Donald Trump took control of the Republican Party, the party’s platform has evolved into a bizarre hodgepodge of election denialism and owning the libs. The owning-the-libs part is annoying but probably not terminal. However, the election denialism could, if left unchecked, end American democracy.
That isn’t hyperbole. The stakes boil down to a single basic question: If one of two major political parties no longer believes in free and fair elections, how can democracy still function?
It feels like we’re on the precipice of a disaster. And yet, the tone of most mainstream political coverage rarely reflects the terrifying possibilities implicit in the very news they’re covering. As the former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan told me, “The mainstream press doesn’t seem to quite get that American democracy is on the brink, or be willing to clearly state who’s driving that movement.” Should an election where one side no longer embraces democratic norms be treated like business as usual?
Whatever the case, this election season is very much not business as usual. Take, for instance, Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State candidate Jim Marchant, who told the crowd at an October 8 rally that he would “fix” elections if he wins his race. He added, “When my coalition of secretary-of-state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”
Of course, it’s been well established that the 2020 election was completely fair, and ditto its outcomes. But in the alternative reality of election deniers, is it possible that people will believe it’s not cheating if they interfere with election results they disagree with? Will they think that stealing an election is well within their rights—or, perhaps, that doing so is merely making the results fair? These are terrifying considerations to draw from a political candidate’s speech just weeks before a major election. Yet, as Media Matters pointed out, Marchant’s remarks went all but ignored by Nevada news outlets.
One of the most worrying election deniers on November ballots is the Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Essentially a female Donald Trump, Lake is already famous to many Arizonans from her time hosting Fox 10 local news. And also like Trump, Lake has a knack for stoking feverish support among her party’s base; she’s currently polling neck and neck with her Democrat opponent, Katie Hobbs. An Arizona Republican operative told The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey, in an article published last week, “[Lake] could talk about lizard people and you’d be like, ‘What is up with those lizard people? That is a great point!’” What happens when a truly magnetic politician is elected governor of a swing state on a “Stop the Steal” platform? How will someone whose entire campaign has hinged on election denialism help administer fair elections?
In September, President Joe Biden tried to highlight the election-denialism problem and gave the GOP an opening to answer these questions. Speaking in Philadelphia, Biden told the gathered crowd that he believes “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution … [or] the rule of law.” He continued, “They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
But instead of sparking bipartisan dialogue, Biden’s speech “for the soul of the nation” was met with Republican fury. The party’s response was swift—in fact, it began before Biden’s speech even started. Citing Biden’s recent remarks declaring Trumpism a philosophy of “semi-fascism,” GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a pre-buttal to the president’s Philadelphia address, stating, “When the president speaks tonight at Independence Hall, the first lines out of his mouth should be to apologize for slandering tens of millions of Americans as fascists.”
The message from McCarthy and his ilk, both before and after the speech, was clear: How dare you accuse us of doing what we’re doing. Hell hath no fury like a Republican called out for something they’re doing—such as denying the basic premise of the democratic process. Media outlets covered the GOP response; there was little reflection on its effect. We’re now just a few weeks from the midterms, and Republicans are continuing their election denialism with zeal. So we find ourselves in a country where one party no longer trusts our electoral system. This is uncharted territory.
Can democracy work if only one party upholds its tenets? We simply don’t know. The American democratic system has been through a lot, but it’s never sustained a prolonged period of attack by a significant number of elected officials and candidates running for offices across the board.
Now, less than a month out from the 2022 midterms, mainstream-media narratives are still approaching the upcoming election as though today’s political landscape reflects more or less the same stakes as a pre-Trump America. Meanwhile, ‘Big Lie’ Republicans are playing by their own truly scary rules. They are obsessed with changing the very system that has given us peace and prosperity for so many years. We know that these midterm elections will be fair—but will they be our last?