Democracy on the Ballot
Top Stories of the Year: #2
In my countdown of the top stories of 2022, I just dealt with the worst contribution this year from the left: the return of inflation, thanks to years of preposterously out-of-control federal spending, combined with blinkered denial.
Today, let’s look at the right’s worst contribution, which is #2 on the countdown: They put representative government itself on the ballot—and fortunately, they couldn’t get the American people to vote against it.
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The usual way of expressing this point is to say that “democracy is on the ballot,” but I struggled this year over the use of that word, “democracy.” As I observed when President Biden kept making this case, it can be an equivocal term.
Democracy just means “rule by the people,” without specifying how the people rule or any limits on their power. There has certainly been a modern attempt to create a collectivist concept of democracy in which a majority vote represents a mystical “general will” which overrides the rights of individuals.
On the other hand, the “consent of the governed”—the idea that politicians have to answer to the people in regular, free elections—is essential to a free society, as a way of controlling and reining in the power of ambitious leaders.
I eventually acquiesced to the use of the term, particularly in today’s context, in part because for once, people are “using the word to refer precisely to the part that I agree with: a representative government where leaders answer to the people and can be kicked out of office.”
This was the year in which preventing a leader from being kicked out of office became a core part of the Republican Party’s agenda. I noted very early in the year that Republicans had gone all in on “stolen election” conspiracy theories.
The investigation into Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results has revealed more and more of the plot, including an attempt to have the federal government seize voting machines on the pretext of looking for fraud. See a good overview here. But on one level the investigation is unnecessary because Trump has just admitted openly that he wanted Mike Pence to “overturn” the election.
So naturally, Republicans in Congress have chosen to denounce the only two of their colleagues who have been honestly facing up to these facts: Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. They were censured by the Republican National Committee simply for agreeing to participate in the House investigation into the events of January 6, which it describes as “a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” That is their description of a violent riot: “legitimate political discourse.”
Republicans have been offered multiple chances to break away from “stolen election” conspiracy theories and authoritarian fantasies of a president seizing voting machines and declaring himself the winner. But they couldn’t do it. They, too, live in fear of a fanatical base mobilized through social media and (because they tend to be older) cable TV. I don’t think all Republicans wanted to do this, any more than I think all Democratic Senators really want to live in terror of the woke brigades all the time. But the point is that they didn’t have the courage to say “no.”
The Republican stance on this is not just rhetoric but consists of practical measures to undermine free elections.
Remember that in 2020 it was local election officials, often Republicans, who frustrated the efforts of Trump partisans to block the certification of the vote. Trumpists are trying to transfer that authority to those who they hope will be more reliably partisan. They are also passing laws to enable bogus post-vote “audits” that will also function to cast arbitrary doubts on the results.
Five bills moving in three states (Arizona, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) would initiate biased, suspect reviews of elections and election results. These reviews would lack transparency and fail to satisfy basic security, accuracy, and reliability measures.
But the larger effort is to put election conspiracy theorists in positions where they can block the certification of legitimate votes.
This threat has been underscored by new information this year about how deeply the Republican Party was involved in mounting a coup attempt in January of 2021 to keep Donald Trump in power. Consider a recently released trove of text messages from prominent Republicans to Trump’s chief of staff, in which many of them call for the imposition of martial law, which they hilariously call “Marshall law,” as if they think it is going to be administered by federal marshalls. Well, it’s hilarious in retrospect, given that they failed. But calling for the implementation of tyrannical measures without even knowing what those measures are or the right word for them sums up the kind of people we’re dealing with as the new leadership of the Republican Party.
This last point is what led me to make my most controversial election recommendation ever: to vote for Democrats in order to keep Republican officials from being in a position to undermine free elections. As I said at the time, “I never expected to make such a recommendation, because I never expected representative government itself to become a partisan issue. Yet here we are.”
If Republicans were hoping to use stolen-election conspiracy theories to overturn the results in 2024, they simply will not have the people in office who can actually do it. They won’t have them as governors and secretaries of state. They won’t have them in key legislatures: Both chambers of the Michigan Legislature flipped back to Democrats for the first time in 40 years, and Pennsylvania’s house may also tip, scuppering hopes for the “independent state legislature theory.” And Republicans probably won’t have a majority to challenge the election results in the US Senate.
So this election will have an immediate, direct and practical effect in securing the next one. But it also will have an effect by its example. In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. If key election deniers get wiped out this year, fewer Republicans will be willing to emulate them.
That was my immediate post-election impression, but further analysis has borne it out. Here is a recent overview at Persuasion.
The midterm scenario that perhaps most terrified democracy defenders was a wave of election deniers winning Secretary of State races, seizing control of election apparatuses, and throwing future elections to Trump and his allies. Nevada’s Jim Marchant not only ran for Secretary of State on an election denialist platform, but led an “America First Secretary of State Coalition” of like-minded candidates, with several in presidential swing states. At an October rally, while standing next to Donald Trump, Marchant pledged, “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.” With the exception of Indiana’s Diego Morales, he and his entire six-candidate slate lost.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates who refused to push Trump’s election hoax performed as one might expect them to in a midterm election with an unpopular Democratic president, rising inflation, and a generally unhappy electorate.
I have to admit that I got one thing wrong: Voters acted more rationally than I expected them to. In advocating a vote for Democrats across the board, I overshot the mark, because I had been expecting that we would have to counteract the effect of a “red wave” in favor of Republicans. It seemed plausible that Republicans would do well in November, because Democrats certainly had done plenty—particularly in regards to inflation—to deserve a walloping at the polls.
But the voters were more selective, defeating election deniers in key races even when they clearly did not approve of Democrats generally.
The immediate threat of an attempt to overturn election results has passed, and probably for a long time. But the wider problem with contemporary conservatism remains: what I called a convergence or an illiberal synthesis, in which the right borrows from the left in a “weird combination of the conservative culture war and…anti-capitalist conspiracy theory.”
Conservatism is nationalism now. That is the dominant wing of the movement and it is quickly becoming the overwhelmingly dominant wing. If we don’t fight it early and with everything we’ve got, we’re going to find that we let our guard down at a crucial moment in the defense of freedom.
In the next year, one big story is going to be how conservatives deal with the collapse of Donald Trump. He continues to pile embarrassment on top of embarrassment for his party, from hoarding top secret documents, to dining with Nazis, to asking Vladimir Putin for political favors (again), to an NFT launch so pathetic that one of the January 6 rioters lamented, “I can’t believe I’m going to jail for an NFT salesman.”
Republicans have been trying to break away and look for some alternative, but Trump’s grip is tight, and he will not willingly relinquish it. You can see this is the power the craziest Republican members of Congress are now exerting in the House, with crackpot congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene using the midterm loss to increase her influence.
Many Republicans have blamed her wing of the party—the election-denying, unabashed Trumpists—for dragging down what they had expected to be huge gains for the GOP. And yet the narrowness of the new Republican majority means that [incoming Speaker Kevin] McCarthy can’t afford to alienate too many members if he wants to win the gavel when Congress convenes January 3.
That has created an opening for Greene, who spent her first term on Washington’s fringe, to attach herself to McCarthy and make her play for more influence
There is a phenomenon you sometimes see in cults where the failure of a charismatic leader’s big prediction—the end of the world refuses to arrive—seems like it ought to disillusion his followers but ends up making them more dogmatic. The reason is that anyone with a modicum of individual thought leaves the movement, so only the truest of the true believers remain, with no spark of intellectual independence to moderate their fanaticism.
Something similar is happening to the Republican Party. November’s result should spur them to make a clean break with Trump, but it also leaves them so weak, so dependent on their crackpot fringe, and with such pusillanimous leadership that they are actually less likely to do so.
There is an attempt underway to substitute Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for Trump as the party’s standard-bearer. I have expressed skepticism about whether this is all that much of an improvement, since DeSantis has embraced some of the nationalist conservatives’ illiberal synthesis.
I’ll have more to say about that soon, but this will be the big battle and the big choice for Republicans in 2023.
Meanwhile, in this era of growing conservative hostility to individual liberty, it would be nice to know that we could count on the Libertarian Party as a counterbalance, however small.
Instead, in a sign of the times, they got taken over by alt-right trolls.
The argument back in the day was that Libertarianism would be more effective because it was more of a “big tent.” Why? It had no specific philosophical outlook and welcomed people of all ideologies, while Objectivists demanded agreement on a whole detailed worldview. In practice, this was never quite right, because libertarians ended up insisting on a super-narrow political orthodoxy of their own, as when they booed Gary Johnson for not opposing government-issued drivers’ licenses. But the lack of a philosophical foundation is coming back to bite the libertarians. I remember years ago a prominent libertarian boasting that he could even convert neo-Nazis by convincing them that freedom was the best way to reach their goals. It was a bit of a joke at the time, but that turns out to be exactly what libertarians are attempting.
Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to the debates among Objectivists, you’ll notice that there is a faction of them who have gone along with the whole MAGA worldview and there is even a small and despised faction on Facebook that has been trying to cobble together an alt-right version of Objectivism. So another part of the story here is that libertarianism is a relatively small movement, and Objectivism is an even smaller movement, and they both tend to get dragged along by the cultural and ideological fads that run rampant in the larger culture.
You need a very strong and well-understood philosophical framework to resist these fads, and to some extent, the libertarians based their movement on rejecting that.
This reminds me that this is the year I released my book on the philosophy of history. In it, I attempt to revise the Objectivist theory on exactly how big philosophical ideas effect the course of events and move history, but I very much affirm the need for such a “strong and well-understood philosophical framework,” which you will find behind every edition of The Tracinski Letter.
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I will return next week with an overview of the top story of the year—which is obviously the war in Ukraine. In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas.