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This ugly and self-defeating impulse could be ruining Democrats' midterms chances

Democrats want to blame voters who choose their pocketbooks over threats to institutions. But the party itself has muddied the waters.
President Joe Biden as speaks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C.
President Joe Biden speaks to the media at the White House on Oct. 6.Drew Angerer / Getty Images, file

As Election Day approaches, Democrats are already crafting self-serving “precriminations” in the increasingly likely case they come up short. The blame-casting is omnidirectional: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and James Carville insist the party shouldn't have pushed all its chips in on the issue of abortion to the exclusion of pocketbook issues. Barack Obama told his former staffers on the “Pod Save America” podcast that Democratic “buzzkills” have alienated the typical voter by devoting too much attention to identity politics. Rep. Elise Slotkin of Michigan blames her party’s aged and disconnected leadership, which fails to “reflect the middle of the country.”

An increasingly popular excuse, however, is to blame the voters themselves. The stakes of this election are nothing short of existential, this narrative goes, but Americans are just too selfish to care. “There are a lot of voters who are more concerned about the price of groceries than whether our democracy survives,” scoffed author and The Economist data analyst G. Elliott Morris. “I don't know of anybody who will say they would rather pay $10, or even 10 cents or even 20 cents less per gallon and allow you to take my rights away,” House Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina marveled. “That’s a fool’s choice that we will not make.” Voters understand that democracy is at stake, “but saving it isn’t a priority,” The New York Times mourned.

The polls are clear: Democrats don't have a monopoly on the issue of "democracy."

This tidy explanation for Democrats’ woes absolves the party of its role in mishandling an issue it should own: the safeguarding of America’s republican traditions from those who unleashed the bestial passions that culminated in Jan. 6.

But the polls are clear: Democrats don’t have a monopoly on the issue of “democracy.” A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that while economic issues and inflation remain voters’ dominant concerns, “the state of democracy” edged out guns, crime, abortion, immigration, climate change and the pandemic as the third most important problem facing the country. But when respondents who said democracy is under threat were asked what they meant, 13% blamed “the government” or other “non-specific” leaders, 15% named Donald Trump or the GOP, and 12% pointed fingers at President Joe Biden or the Democrats.

The Pew Research Center produced similar conclusions: 70% of voters surveyed said the “future of democracy” is “very important.” But among them, only 46% backed Democratic candidates, while 40% supported Republicans. NBC News’ latest national poll tells much the same story. More voters say “threats to democracy” are the issue foremost on their minds ahead of November. But when asked what those “threats” were, respondents named Republican-led “voter suppression” efforts to “election fraud” to “political corruption.” That poll found that Democrats have an advantage on “democracy,” but only by 7 points. A full one-third of voters with concerns about “democracy” backed the GOP.

It's easier, and more psychologically gratifying, to berate foolish voters for failing to draw the same distinctions that tuned-in partisans draw. That impulse should be resisted, and not just because it is ugly and self-defeating. It represents a refusal to understand how the Democratic Party itself has muddied the waters.

Yes, there is asymmetry between the two parties. The Republican Party’s nationalist wing, in particular, is brazenly unguarded in its contempt for the popular will. Some Republican candidates aren’t even being coy about their intention to subvert the integrity of America’s elections in the name of “election integrity.” Castigating voters for putting their bank accounts first is, however, about as productive as yelling at the sun for rising in the East. And the size of the population expressing doubts Democrats' bona fides on democracy is far larger than the fraction of the Republican base that identifies as "MAGA." The simplest explanation is that the Democratic Party just has not practiced what it preaches. Voters are not fools for failing to treat “the state of democracy” as the issue to end all issues when even Democrats themselves don’t walk the walk.

Voters aren't fools for failing to treat "the state of democracy" as the issue to end all issues when even Democrats themselves won’t practice what they preach.

Recall the Republican primaries this year, when Democratic donations fueled the candidacies of so-called “election deniers” on the right. In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano benefited from $840,000 in Democratic ad spending touting his conservative credentials. In Arizona, the state Democratic Party intervened in the GOP primary to prop up Kari Lake. Democrats made similar efforts — some costing millions of dollars — in Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and New Hampshire. Yet many of those same voices who now berate voters for not valuing democracy enough were silent as Democrats played hot potato with deniers — some of whom, like Lake, are looking increasingly favored to win. Why shouldn’t voters see this as the party of democracy talking out of both sides of its mouth?

What about America’s governing institutions, the legitimacy of which the MAGA-flavored right has so recklessly attacked? Here, too, Democrats’ professed outrage is undercut by its inconsistent application. “American democracy only works only if we choose to respect the rule of law and the institutions that were set up in this chamber behind me,” Biden said in a prime-time address from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The following month, though, Biden attacked the Supreme Court — one of those very institutions — as an “advocacy group” rather than a neutral arbiter, while his administration has entertained efforts to pack the court with friendly justices.

The same kind of conditionality is seen in Democrats’ on-off efforts to abolish the Electoral College, but only after it produces unfavorable outcomes. And in Georgia, gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams has repeatedly denied the legitimacy of her opponent Brian Kemp’s election four years ago, mostly to the sound of silence from the party’s self-styled defenders of democracy. That is, when they weren’t actively promoting her baseless claims of electoral malfeasance.

Again, Donald Trump’s vanguard in the GOP champions the nonsensical notion that American elections are hopelessly corrupt. But if Democrats don’t understand why voters are split almost down the middle when it comes to the party that owns the issue of “democracy,” it’s because Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated that their affection for little “d” democracy is as conditional as their opponents’. It’s hard to blame the voters for merely being observant.