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Democracy Lives to Fight Another Day
I woke up the morning of Nov. 9 feeling the exact opposite from how I had on election night in 2016. I went into the midterms this year expecting a catastrophe for the Democrats, and instead woke up pleasantly surprised.
The Democrats bucked the trend of midterm elections being a rout for the ruling party, kept hold of the Senate, and only lost a net handful of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. (As of this writing, it looks like the Republican Party will have, at most, a five-seat majority in the House.) Democrats also flipped at least three state legislative houses.
Which isn’t to say all the news was good; just that it was a lot less bad than we expected.
The good news is that, politically, things are going relatively well in the United States right now, with continued economic growth and the passage of major legislative victories, such as the Inflation Reduction Act (which is more about addressing climate change than decreasing inflation) and the upcoming Respect for Marriage Act, which, despite some drawbacks, requires states to recognize same-sex marriages. (It won’t force states to issue same-sex marriage licenses, but it will still extend equality under the law to all same-sex couples, no matter which state they tied the knot in.) Inflation is still a problem, but it’s dropped a little since September to 7.75%.
November’s biggest victory was for democracy in general, as every single election denier running to oversee state elections lost.
That isn’t to play down the less positive results. Election deniers won other offices—J.D. Vance will now be a U.S. Senator representing Ohio, and the House still has a sizable “sedition caucus” that will be enabled by the Republicans’ new majority. And, true to form, some local officials (particularly in Arizona and Pennsylvania) are refusing to certify election results, citing voter fraud theories that have no supporting evidence.
The 2024 presidential election isn’t going to be decided in advance, but it will still be an uphill fight to keep the forces of fascism at bay.
The new Republican House majority has made it known that its first order of business will be—drum roll—to investigate Hunter Biden, the troubled son of the president who is already under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ), by a prosecutor selected by the Trump administration.
And that’s before the House Judiciary Committee, soon to be chaired by Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, starts investigating anything and anyone it can subpoena to undermine the country’s current upward trajectory. Because the GOP’s top priority is going to be to cause damage to the economy so voters will return Republicans to the White House.
It’s not just the circus coming back into town that we need to worry about. The looming debt ceiling battle is likely to play out exactly as it did when Barack Obama was president: with Republicans holding the U.S. economy (and, by extension, the world) hostage to extract some significant legislative concession that would probably otherwise be unconscionable to most Americans.
And, of course, there is former President Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for president in 2024. America’s abusive ex not only wants to get back together, but has also followed us to the much nicer city we now live in and promises to bang on our front door every day at 6 a.m. until we just give in and admit we don’t deserve someone better.
Trump, by default, is the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination. And every other potential contender, including the ascendant Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is making the same mistake the Republicans did in 2015: pretending Trump doesn’t exist in the hope he goes away, but not attacking him in any manner. Which will allow Trump to pick them off in the primary one by one, and win the nomination with less than half of the overall votes. Again.
If we have learned anything over the past seven years, it should be that we should never underestimate Trump—or his appeal to millions of voters.
With just days before the Georgia runoff election to determine the final balance of power in the Senate, and a few weeks before the end of the year, time is running out for the Democrats to do something—anything—to undermine the damage Republicans are expected to inflict on this country once the new House majority comes in.
A law codifying abortion rights nationwide appears to be off the table, as are voting rights thanks to the Senate filibuster (and, specifically, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema joining with all Republicans in refusing to eliminate it). Congress could still vote to bundle the debt ceiling increase into the budgetary vote, assuming there are enough Republicans left in the Senate who don’t want to sabotage the U.S. economy. But again, some senators’ love for the antidemocratic filibuster is preventing us from having nice things.
President Biden could still reform the U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors to fire the Trump holdover, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
Attorney General Merrick Garland could bring charges against Trump, finally. His appointment of Jack Smith as a special counsel is, on the whole, a good thing, if only because special counsels are required to present their findings to Congress, even if no charges are brought. And despite the widespread frustration over the DOJ not charging Trump for the Jan. 6 insurrection, it’s worth remembering that it also took nearly two years after the Watergate break-in for the first of President Richard Nixon’s White House aides to be charged.
Plus, the Jan. 6 investigation has a lot more defendants—nearly 1,000 so far. And we likely will see the House Jan. 6 Committee’s final report before the end of the year, and before the Republicans shut down the committee next year. Let’s hope the committee also turns over its work documents to DOJ investigators, if not to the public as a whole.
So as we settle in for the end of the year and await the start of the new one, there are a few takeaways from this administration’s first two years.
1. Abortion and democracy are important to most Americans. They’re also winning issues for Democrats. Despite much hand-wringing over Democrats struggling to find a “kitchen table” message before the midterms, it turned out that many Americans were, in fact, talking about abortion and the survival of our democracy around the kitchen table. (Those are, of course, also financial issues—unwanted children are a huge financial burden, and nondemocratic countries tend to be poorer than democracies. People talk about all sorts of things over dinner, not just the price of gas.)
In all five states that had ballot measures addressing abortion rights, and in four out of six states with voting rights on the ballot, people voted to retain or enhance those rights, rather than chip away at or eliminate them.
The caveat is we can’t just rely on the Republicans to nominate their most extreme candidates, and hope that extremism is off-putting to a majority of voters. Democrats still need to give voters a reason to support them. This election showed them how.
2. Young people will show up to vote when their future is on the line. The younger generation did, in fact, show up to vote, although at lower levels than in 2018, according to some early estimates. It was the fact that they voted largely for Democrats by record margins that was most significant in preventing a “red wave.” This is the first generation that grew up in an environment of a rapidly changing climate, whose peer groups are more racially diverse and include many LGTBQ folks, and who are now entering their prime childbearing years just in time to see Republicans working against progress on all of those issues.
Big caveat: A majority of Gen Xers voted for Republicans, and unlike the Boomers, they’re likely to stick around for many more election cycles.
And so, dear fellow former latchkey kids, survivors of the Satanic Panic, inventors of role-playing and video games, who grew up swimming in polluted rivers and lakes and breathing toxic smog, whose awareness of their own mortality was cemented by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents (not to mention the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon), who were part of the first generation to not be doing better than their parents, and who watched the American Dream start to unravel in real time during the Reagan administration: We really should know better.
3. The U.S. is still a democracy. We still have problems, but we’ve forestalled disaster, one more time. The caveat is that the Republican Party is firmly in the grip of its neofascist wing, and so every election for the foreseeable future is going to be a referendum on whether we will continue this imperfect but enduring democratic experiment. That’s exhausting. Which is why, as we wind down the year, it’s worth taking a breather (unless you’re in Georgia; sorry, but we’re looking to you again). Because the fight’s just going to pick up again come January.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.