Blaming the Victims in America's Crisis of Democracy

by Neil H. Buchanan

There might not be much more to say about the 2022 midterm elections, although I do believe that the most important fact about our current situation -- that Democrats lost the House because of gerrymandering, full stop -- has been almost completely missed by the usual suspects.

In any case, now that everyone is turning their attention to 2024, it is somewhat surprising that there was an almost ho-hum attitude in the press about Donald Trump's official confirmation of the obvious: that he is running for president again.  I knew that he had been hyping an official announcement on Tuesday, but I was not near a screen during his speech, and when I opened the apps for the The New York Times and The Washington Post at about 11am on Wednesday morning, reports on Trump's event were something like ten or twelve stories down the page.

That does not mean that people will continue to ignore Trump, and it definitely does not mean that someone else will be the Republican nominee in 2024.  Even so, this was indeed a surprise -- and a pleasant one at that, especially in light of my Verdict and Dorf on Law columns yesterday arguing that any not-Trump Republican nominee is less likely to end US democracy than Trump is.  (Not unlikely, just less likely.)

With 2022 out of the way, then, attention should turn to whether the rule of law in the United States will survive past 2024.  Things are off to a bad start, however, given that the editorial board of The Times (as I noted yesterday) has already decided to pretend that dangerous Republican presidential aspirants are non-dangerous and "have demonstrated a commitment to the rule of law and an ability to govern."  There is evidently no bottom to the well of studied obliviousness from which the respectable press draws.

In any event, I want to make this column relatively short, focusing on two particularly galling arguments from the non-Trump right that blame Democrats for "putting democracy on the ballot."

The Times columnist Jamelle Bouie's writing has been particularly strong lately.  In a column published on election day, he quoted and criticized two bits of snark posing as political analysis:

(1) "When Democrats talk about 'democracy,' they’re talking about the importance of institutions that ensure the voters get a say among multiple choices and the one they most prefer gets to rule. But they are also saying voters do not get to do that in this election. The message is that there is only one party contesting this election that is committed to democracy — the Democrats — and therefore only one real choice available."

(2) "If Dems were serious about a pro-democracy agenda, they would have tried to build a broad cross-ideological coalition that included GOP voters. Instead they lumped together Dobbs as part of democracy's death, even though restricting abortion is about liberalism not democracy."

The first quote is from a reliably annoying right-wing bro who used to be a Times business columnist, and the second is from a complete unknown.  If the first one looks familiar, it is because I already noted it and offered one response to it in my column last Tuesday.  Bouie's response was a polite version of: "Yes, and ... ?"  My response was that such reasoning would serve as blanket protection from any claim that "there is no choice" in an election.  "The other party has explicitly said that it will release face-eating leopards into your neighborhood, so you have no choice but to vote for my party"?  Not allowed.

And as framed, argument (1) is meta, saying that Democrats are being non-democratic by telling people that they have no choice but to vote for democracy.  Again, Bouie's response was to say that it is in fact true that only one party supports the rule of law and free elections, and the only question is whether we are going to admit it out loud and ask people to support that party.

Here, I want to offer a different (not mutually exclusive) response to (1) and then extend that response to (2).  Imagine that someone is running down the street carrying expensive items that he just removed from someone else's home, with the homeowner running down the street after him and yelling, "That person stole my stuff!"

A believer in (1) says: "Well, it's only 'stolen' stuff if you call it stolen and press criminal charges.  If, instead, you shut up and let it go, then nothing was stolen.  You're at fault for making this a crime.  Just try to be persuasive and get the person to give your stuff back, or get other people to stop him for some other reason -- but don't offer them a reason that's too persuasive, because then they'll feel like you're not giving them the choice not to stop the person you're calling a thief."

A believer in (2) says: "Hey, it's a bummer that someone took your stuff, and I even could've jumped out in the street and stopped him, but what have you ever done for me?  Sure, he might come back for my stuff, but I'm only going to help you if you give me everything that I've ever wanted, no matter how much you don't want to do that.  Besides, I kinda like seeing you harmed, and he even promised as he ran by that he'll do a bunch of things that I've always wanted to have done."  In the end, this argument means that the person who says that democracy is in danger first loses, and everyone else is then allowed to force complete capitulation from that person.

In any event, as the political conversation turns toward the next election, there will continue to be people whose entire purpose in life is to shift blame to the Democrats.  When democracy does die and Democrats are prevented from winning meaningful elections in the new one-party autocracy -- as I have argued before, the permanent ruling party will probably continue to run elections for appearances sake, and there will surely be some offices that Democrats will be allowed to win -- it will supposedly be their own darned fault.

I am not at all saying that Democrats are pure as the driven snow, or even that they are politically savvy.  It is true that they outperformed any realistic expectations under the very trying circumstances that they faced this year, but they also do very stupid things on a regular basis.  (Another but-for cause of their loss of the House, even taking the but-for ultimate cause of gerrymandering as a given, is that Democrats managed to lose four seats in New York.  New York, for heaven's sake!)

Moreover, there is always the center-right caucus telling Democrats not to act like Democrats.  The Democrats' biggest problem is that they seem to be scared of their own shadows, and the centrists' response is to shout: "It’s not a shadow, it’s a monster!"

Notwithstanding Democrats' obvious flaws, there is in fact exactly one party that gives us what little hope we have right now that democracy can survive.  When people say that that party should not even describe the problem or should stop caring about its own agenda, then the fault for democracy's imminent demise does not lie with the Democrats.  It lies with those who blame the victim.