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Why Jan. 6 is (rightly) missing from the Dems' midterms message

Democrats know 'threat to democracy' is too abstract to base their campaigns on.
Photo Illustration: A donkey charm hands from a rearview mirror, reflecting a scene from the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol
Justine Goode / MSNBC / Getty Images

After devoting a great deal of attention to investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection this year, the Democrats have chosen mostly to omit the issue from their midterm campaigns and focus instead on issues like abortion and economic policy. That’s a shrewd move: The Democratic establishment is paying close attention to what’s top of mind for voters, and focusing on tangible matters is a safer bet than more abstract ones.

Some liberal and progressive commentators are dismayed that Democrats are not putting Jan. 6 at the center of their campaign strategy. “To neglect the role that Trump-aligned Republicans have already played in assaulting democracy is political malpractice,” warned John Nichols in The Nation, arguing that Jan. 6 is too important to set aside and that it could be a “potent” mobilizing issue. For much of this crowd, the notion that voters might be swayed by “kitchen table” issues like inflation and high gas prices seems ludicrous in light of the American slide toward authoritarianism. “The United States is facing the greatest danger to its constitutional system since at least the 1950s, if not the 1850s, and millions of people are like: Yeah, but gas, man,” The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols recently complained.

Democrats have decidedly come down on the side of setting aside Jan. 6 in their midterm pitch.

Initially, it seemed that the Democrats’ nine hearings on Jan. 6 this year were setting the party up to take their approach. But after some debate within the party and after the emergence of polls showing the hearings failed to change the minds of many voters, Democrats have decidedly come down on the side of setting aside Jan. 6 in their midterm pitch.

Politico reported in October that under 2% of broadcast television spending has gone toward Jan. 6-related ads in House races. “Taken in total, Democrats have aired just two dozen spots focused on threats to democracy this cycle, in roughly 16 different battleground districts,” the report notes. 

Instead, most Democrats have focused their campaigns on championing the everyday benefits of recent policy wins, like insulin price caps; warning about the Republican assault on abortion rights; and talking about how Republicans will be worse for the economy, with a focus on inflation. While many Democratic candidates list concerns about protecting democracy on their official platforms, it often isn’t a priority in their messaging or on their websites.

It’s not like Democrats didn’t try; they spent much of this year conducting high-profile hearings. And President Joe Biden hammered home the theme of democracy under siege in multiple speeches. The problem is that these effort didn't change many minds about the gravity of Jan. 6, nor did the hearings persuade most voters that another Jan. 6 is imminent.

Most polling shows that most voters are focused on the direction of the economy, abortion and crime, along with issues like immigration. Some analysts have expressed shock that voters rank “democracy” far lower than inflation in some polls where they’re compared directly.

But that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Political scientists have long pointed out that the conditions of the economy are some of the most powerful predictors of electoral outcomes in American politics. (However that dynamic tends to be more pronounced during presidential elections than midterms). Higher prices at the grocery store and the gas pump are some of the most easily discernible sources of pressure on the average American’s wallet — and that’s something Democrats need to be addressing in the run-up to Election Day.

Furthermore, “democracy” is a grand, abstract term. It’s hard to measure concern about it in polls, and it’s also hard to use it as a basis for mobilizing people because its degradation can take place across an enormous spectrum over a long period of time. Threats to democracy could be likened to the threats posed by global warming: They’re real, they’re existentially important, and people often feel overly comfortable putting off dealing with them until some undefined point in the future. 

One could plausibly make the case — which I’m sympathetic to — that this election could put American democracy dangerously close to a point-of-no-return scenario. If too many MAGA authoritarians take office, they can claim valuable turf to meddle with the 2024 results if a Republican doesn’t win the White House and set off a constitutional crisis. (Arizona, I’m looking at you.) But the reality is that concern isn’t registering as urgent for lots of folks. It’s evident many voters think about Jan. 6 as an aberrant, one-off event tied specifically to former President Donald Trump, who is no longer in office. 

Democrats deserve some share of the blame for that. In their Jan. 6 hearings, they fixated on the idea that Trump was exceptional in his party and even within his own White House in his refusal to accept the 2020 results, which in effect downplayed the complicity of the Republican Party. The Democrats’ laser focus on Trump as the lone culprit explains polling showing that Democrats view Trump as a much greater threat to democracy than the Republican Party. According to the Democrats’ own narrative on Jan. 6, it would be backward-looking to put Trump ties at the center of their case for the midterms, since he’s not on the ballot and he was the core problem.

Democrats should certainly continue to communicate about the Republican threat to democracy in the future, and the issue will immediately become salient again if Trump opts to run for president once more. But given what current polling and historical trends tell us about voter behavior, they’re better off listening to where the electorate is at right now in their closing midterm arguments. That means focusing on kitchen table issues and explaining to voters how Republicans are bent on eviscerating the social policies they rely on. It might not be addressing the democracy threat head on, but it could be the best way to keep election deniers out of office at this point in history.