On 8 November 2022, two years after Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, Americans cast their ballots in a highly consequential midterm election. Although the final results may take days or weeks to be known, the vaunted ‘red wave’ that most politicians, pundits and prognosticators had confidently predicted ended up being merely a ripple. Predictions aside, though, perhaps the biggest relief of this election cycle concerned American democracy itself.
The red wave that wasn’t
Historically, the midterms tend to punish the incumbent party in the White House, but 2022 was a surprising exception. At the end of a campaign in which the fundamental conditions seemed ripe for Republicans to make substantial gains, the results so far appear well short of the unalloyed victory for the Republican party that many anticipated.
Joe Biden, a productive yet relatively unpopular president with approval ratings hovering around the 40s, seems to have beaten both history and expectations, scoring the best midterm result of any president in at least two decades. Republicans seem poised to win back the House, yet only with a wafer-thin majority, while Democrats will likely retain control of the Senate, although this may come down to the Georgia Senate runoff in December. This strong performance by the Democratic party was buoyed in part by a decision taken by the Supreme Court in June to overturn Roe v Wade, the ruling that made abortion a constitutional right, which fired up their base.
Of course, a Republican-controlled House will nonetheless cast a long shadow on the White House, constraining President Biden’s options from now on. Even the slimmest of majorities for the GOP will likely lead to grinding conflict and legislative gridlock, severely jeopardising many of the elements of the Biden agenda that remain unfulfilled, such as the commitment to expanding social spending while increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.
And while meaningful policymaking might come to a standstill, political brinkmanship won’t. However fractious their narrow House majority might end up being, Republicans are expected to use the full extent of their powers to launch a blitz of investigations into the administration’s present and past actions, including the Afghanistan withdrawal, congressional spending and the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter Biden. Democrats might have defied historical odds by minimising their party’s losses, but Tuesday’s result will not be devoid of meaningful negative consequences for the transformative agenda they have been pursuing.
An unexpectedly good day for American democracy
Yet, the most important result of the 2022 midterms was not about a single party, but about American democracy itself. Before the election, there was credible fear that had Republicans won decisively, what would have been an ordinary oscillation of power could have led the US to an extraordinarily undemocratic trajectory.
The reason is simple. For the first time in decades, a steady drumbeat of election denialism had spread wide and deep across the country, amplified by the percolation of conspiracy theories, primary among which that of the ‘Big Lie’ – that Trump actually won in the 2020 presidential election. As reported by FiveThirtyEight, 60 per cent of Americans had an election denier on the ballot this fall. What is more, mostly prodded by Trump, only 31 per cent of all Republican candidates acknowledged the legitimacy of the 2020 election in some form as part of the campaign. Many candidates, almost exclusively on the Right, proudly spread these falsehoods about alleged election fraud and peddled unsubstantiated claims to their own political advantage, even announcing their intention to defy election results they would find disagreeable.
Thankfully, voters had mostly other plans.
In the first national test of the political environment since the 6 January assault, the midterms did not reward most key election deniers and delivered no overall mandate for extremism. From Michigan to Pennsylvania, a series of Trump’s handpicked candidates, some of whom embraced and ran on a platform of illusory voter fraud, were also rejected. Most candidates conceded their races without calling into question the results. Similarly, many of the Republican gubernatorial nominees who refused to unequivocally say that the Biden election was legitimate will likely end up defeated. Trump himself is still nominally the chief Republican, but losses by so many of his endorsees meant that for the first time in years he has publicly come under fire from within the GOP.
This might have been a ‘good day for democracy’, as President Biden said in his first press conference after the midterms, but does that mean that threats to it have receded? Certainly not.
Trump remains the front-runner in a party that has increasingly embraced a toxic combination of nationalism, nativism, and violent extremism. Even if he ends up not being the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election, his brand may be tarnished, but it still retains immense staying power. Far more importantly, as things stand now, hundreds of election-denying Republicans have been elected or re-elected to consequential congressional, state, and local offices, which puts many of them in a position to control and determine the conduct of elections in the future.
In this sense, the midterm election results are an occasion to rejoice only in that the worst possible outcomes have been avoided. This was relieving news for Democrats and for American democracy alike, yet ominous signs still abound.
Now, the hope is that more democrats, and not simply mostly Democrats, redouble their efforts to buck the negative trends affecting the quality of US democracy after the cautious optimism this election unexpectedly offered. Within but also beyond US borders, democratic citizens, organisers, and would-be future leaders should be reminded once again not only of how fragile democratic institutions are but also of the perseverance it will need to continue defying expectations and deliver on stopping this dark, undemocratic path.
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