The Electoral-Industrial Complex and Shiny Distractions

by Neil H. Buchanan
This has been one of the more active weeks of the 2022 midterm election season, with primaries held in key states and pundits reading the tea leaves and offering hot takes on what it all means.  Will Trump's endorsed candidates win?  Mostly yes, but not for any reasons that add up to a lesson of any significance.  Are insurrectionists and election deniers doing well?  Again yes, because that is the reality of Republican politics this year.  I guess it would be biggish news if the craziest of the crazies were losing in significant numbers, but mostly there is not much interesting happening.

Even so, there are people who are both professionally obligated and clearly personally invested in making this all seem breathlessly important.  Unlike so many things in American life in the 21st Century, that is very much an all-sides-do-it phenomenon.  Almost completely empty horse-race coverage dominates American political discourse, but the deeper problem is that the people who spend their time talking about it have every incentive to pretend that what is truly happening is not happening.  What is happening?
Democracy is bleeding out, and for at least a year, it has been obvious that it is too late to save it.  But seemingly every columnist and pundit from MSNBC to Fox to the major papers and even higher-brow magazines is committed to pretending otherwise.  I have, of course, written about this issue at various times, and I have conceded that there might be good reasons to deny reality -- in particular that there is an outside, outside chance that things are not as dire as they so obviously appear to be, and maximizing any remaining chance of redemption requires people not throwing up their hands and quitting.  If so, why not talk about the current situation in the terms that voters are expecting, with appeals to get out the vote and all that?

I have also, however, argued that when the Republicans sweep the midterms later this year -- thus putting in motion the last steps toward the end of American constitutional democracy -- the people who talk about these things for a living will not admit what is happening.  Instead, as I wrote almost exactly a year ago:
In 2022 and 2024, the real story will be: "This was all baked in during the 2021 orgy of post-Trumpian 'voter security' laws."  Nonetheless, I will be stunned if the dominant stories are not based on the claims that: (1) the Democrats "have a wokeness problem," (2) the economy was too weak (or the Democrats underplayed its strength), (3) Democrats did not sufficiently rebuke BLM/antifa/defund people, (4) the Republicans' "ground game" was better, (5) Republicans fielded stronger candidates, or any of a list of other well-worn explanations that explain nothing.

Pundits have reliably short memories, and in any event they hate to be accused of discussing something that is so five minutes ago.  Anyone who tries to remind them that these are no longer free and fair elections will be met with eye rolls, some condescending and dismissive agreements, and suggestions that Democrats are sore losers.
The idea is that muscle memory will kick in, and it will be all too easy to say that Democrat X in State A lost because she was too progressive, while simultaneously assuring us that Democrat Y in State B lost because he was centrist but uninspiring.  Anyone who speaks the truth -- that this was never going to be anything but the inevitable result of decades of intensifying disenfranchisement and gerrymandering -- will be viewed suspiciously as an apologist or a conspiracy theorist.

While I see no reason to change any part of that argument, I do think it is useful to add to it, because the problem involves more than the three elements that are embedded in what I self-quoted above: groupthink, bothsidesism, and aversion to repeating "old news."  There is, for example, the simple matter of being in denial: "This can't be happening, so I insist on believing that it isn't happening."  A person can adopt that attitude even if she is not under the sway of groupthink or any of the other cognitive biases identified above.  In good faith, many people believe that the United States is special, that our democratic institutions are strong, and that even though particular electoral outcomes can deviate from democratic ideals, the overall outcome of elections is somehow truly the will of the people.

That is increasingly untenable, of course, but the tendency to fall into that line of thinking is evidently quite strong.  The mystical power of American democracy infuses much navel-gazing analysis, among the most absurd being descriptions of the American voter as having consciously decided to thread needles by "supporting divided government."  There is supposedly something good about having Democrats control, say, the House while Republicans control the Senate, maybe because stasis is arguably better than extremism.  Even if that were true, however, we end up with divided government not because some subset of voters wisely thought to themselves that they need to split their tickets but for structural reasons, including the limited effect that wave elections can have on the Senate, where only one-third of seats are contested in any election cycle.  But "the people spoke" sounds so much better.

Like the people I am critiquing here, I spend a lot of time writing about American elections, political strategies, and so on.  I do not, however, have any personal or professional reasons to pretend that elections are fairly democratic when they are not.  I will most likely continue to write post-mortems for American democracy for many years to come, because there is a lot to say about a country that has fallen into an authoritarian, post-democratic dystopia.

My point, then, is not that there is a problem with political wonks wanting to continue to be political wonks.  It is that so many of them are showing that they want to continue to act as if the system as we have known it is not already doomed, preferring to do what they have always done, no matter the facts.  It is not easy to adapt, especially when one's expertise is based on knowledge and experiences that are unique to pre-authoritarian realities.  The urge to say that "Democrats lost because Democrats deserved to lose" can be based on the larger idea that our democratic system is Good in a larger sense, but it can also be simply the safe and comfortable thing to say.

More than that, however, the entertainment value of election coverage is itself an addictive kind of wonky fun.  For example, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki has in recent years become semi-famous for his amped-up nerd cred, becoming something of a sexless sex symbol in khakis.  That is another reason that it will be possible for people to continue to deny that democracy is dead even after it dies, because admitting the truth would mean that we would lose a form of entertainment.
I have predicted that Republicans will run sham elections after they regain power, even though the outcome will be knowable in advance.  Even so, I strongly doubt that Republicans would find it in their interest to run elections that are Putin- or Kim-style joke elections in which the outcomes show the Dear Leader winning 99 percent of the vote.

Elections are shiny distractions, allowing Republicans to point to villains and imagine things like "caravans of migrants invading from Mexico," to excite their most ardent supporters.  Being able to plausibly deny that elections are meaningless will be valuable to the authoritarians who might otherwise be expected to solve problems as they arise.

Elections can thus be seen as the "circuses" part of "bread and circuses," where Republicans notably are not at all interested in giving anything so substantive as free bread to the masses.  (Even the least extreme conservatives in Congress, most notably Mitt Romney, still sneer at the idea that helping struggling people is "buying votes.")  Put differently, keeping in place our current never-ending election-industrial complex is valuable not only because it might keep the public distracted but because it gives the pundits and political animals what they want, which is continued relevance.  Changing the metaphor, one could view the pundit/hack class as toddlers sitting in car seats fitted with steering wheels that do nothing, but it sure is fun to pretend to be driving.
I will note here a recent datum that seems to contradict my analysis but in fact reinforces it.  In this morning's Washington Post, one of their occasional contributors who specializes in election law wrote a column with the title: "How our system of primary elections could destroy democracy."  Clearly, this does not comport with my claim that pundits in the major papers are in denial about the possible death of democracy.  But the substance of the piece, which is especially surprising in light of the author's generally trenchant analyses for The Post over the years, is almost bizarrely empty.

The complaint is that many primary elections in this country do not have runoffs, which means that people are winning nominations in some cases with only 30 percent of the vote in crowded fields.  That's not majority rule!  Yet it is difficult to see exactly why this is worth thinking about as a systemic problem.  Sometimes, the winner of the plurality would surely lose a runoff (as can happen when the White vote is split among multiple candidates while a sole Black candidate comes in first place), but other times, the plurality winner would surely win big.  For example, there is no reason to think that the guy who won Ohio's Republican Senate primary would lose a runoff against the second-place finisher.

But even if that could have happened, why is that a problem?  In the high school civics version of this, a party that -- no matter its selection process -- nominates a weirdo will lose in the general election when voters abandon that party.  That that is not happening anymore is not because of nomination rules but because Republican voters will vote for their nominee no matter what.  And weirdos like that will win general elections in many more places than they otherwise would, because of voter suppression and gerrymandering.

In short, it is absolutely appropriate to predict the end of democracy, but the reasons matter.  No-runoff elections might be problematic in theory in general elections, but even there, being the most popular candidate would have some legitimacy, at least if voting were not suppressed.  Democracy is being destroyed, but our system of primary elections has nothing to do with it.

Even so, it is this insider style of wonkiness that attracts certain people and induces them to pretend that there are not larger problems.  (Insert reference to arranging deck chairs on the Titanic here.)  Critiquing primary voting patterns is not "old news" in the narrow way that news organizations would currently dismiss a critique of the filibuster, which is why voting reform laws have not been enacted.

Continuing to hold elections, and to talk about them in a way that makes it seem that "our system is strong," is manna from heaven for people who think about these things for a living.  A lot of such commentary amounts to pointing to a paper cut on a patient's finger while the person bleeds to death from a severed carotid artery.  (Even by my standards, this column is heavy on visual imagery!)

In a different context, I noted recently that "USNews soon learned that it could further increase profits by making sure that there is movement within the rankings from year to year, to generate interest and legitimacy.  Even so, they cannot allow the rankings to change too much, because that would make people think that the rankings are volatile and unreliable." And so it will be here, with Republicans finding it useful to tantalize us with the idea that future elections might go either way, to keep everyone interested and invested in the system.  But it will be a sham, because once they have seized power, Republicans will not relinquish it.