It's Election Day: What in the World Are People Thinking?

by Neil H. Buchanan

My duties at the University of Florida include being the law school's Director of Global Scholarly Initiatives, which requires that I spend each Fall semester researching in a foreign country.  This Fall's home base has been Vienna, where there was a national election last month.  That election was completely unremarkable by 21st Century standards, with the Austrian neo-fascist right (the local version of Marine Le Pen's bloc in France) losing in a landslide to the center-left (former Green Party) president.  Election Day was barely noticeable, and other than very standard campaign posters (head shots of candidates above short slogans), one would not have known from walking around the city that anything was happening.

And then there is the United States.  Via the interwebs, I have been staying on top of the situation in my home country, where the situation looks quite grim.  I will write a column soon about political violence (and the likelihood thereof) in the US, but here I want to focus not on what might happen because of these midterms but on the mindset of people who are not voting against Republican candidates in today's elections.

To be clear, "not voting against Republican candidates" can mean either not voting for Democrats or not voting at all, which in turn means that there are at least two types of thought processes involved: (1) "I affirmatively choose to vote for this Republican," and (2) "I'm not going to bother voting."  In some contexts, that difference would matter quite a lot, because of course people can have only one or a small number of reasons to actively vote for Republicans but many reasons to be passive.

Here, however, I think that there is a surprising convergence between those two choices, because the stakes in this election are obviously so high -- and because President Biden and the Democrats have been very clear about what those stakes are.  When they have said that "democracy is on the ballot" or warned of a "path to chaos," they have been refreshingly blunt, and it becomes much more difficult to see how people can say, "meh, whatever," while choosing not to vote.  That non-vote seems more active and less passive.

In any case, I do think it is important to think about what might be going through people's minds when they have every reason to know that Republican success in these elections will lead quickly and inexorably toward high-impact disasters.  What are people thinking?  Or, to put the point more clearly: What are people thinking?

Tens of millions of people will pull the lever today for election-denying Republicans who are not even trying to hide their authoritarian plans, and tens of millions more will not bother to vote against them.  Why?

One simple answer is that many Americans approve of what Republicans are likely to do if put back in power.  What would that be?  Republicans will not solve any of the problems that they have hyped up over the last year, and they have not even pretended that they are going to try, but Republicans will certainly do all they can to take things away from needy and marginalized people while trying to turn the clock back to the 1950's on every social and cultural issue that they can think of.

Sadly, millions upon millions of Americans are happy with that.  But people like Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and the whole run of anti-Trump conservatives would have been perfectly happy to make that happen, too.  There has to be a reason that people are willing to ignore the fundamental threat of Trumpism to the constitutional order and the rule of law.  John Dean has co-authored two books arguing that something like 25 percent of Americans in fact want to live under an authoritarian regime led by a strongman who does their thinking for them; but whether or not one is persuaded by his arguments and empirical evidence (and, to be clear, I am), that still does not explain more than half of all people who will not vote Democratic in today's elections.

One way to think about this is that the people who are not in the Cheney/Kinzinger camp are simply more upset about things like gas prices (which have come down, and which are not within either party's control) or crime (which has gone up as much in Republican-controlled jurisdictions as elsewhere) than they are about the potential end of democracy.  A political cartoon in The Washington Post a few week ago captured that idea, showing a guy putting gas in his car in the near future and saying, "Come on, I voted for fascists, but the price of gas is still too high!"

Even so, it is extraordinarily difficult to imagine a person consciously thinking along those lines: Yes, if Republicans win, I will no longer live in a functioning democratic republic.  But hey, I have more important things on my mind!  Even if they end up making that implicit choice, I do not think it is giving people too much credit to imagine that almost everyone would honestly deny having made that choice.

I noted above that it is now difficult to separate the non-voters from Republican voters, because everyone has been given plenty of notice that this election is out of the ordinary.  Even so, there are plenty of people who genuinely do not pay attention, so even though everyone ought to be on notice about what is happening, many will nonetheless not have noticed.  Some will not vote, and many others will simply vote for whomever they would have supported in any other election.  So even the low-information and no-information categories include mixtures of non-voters, Republican voters, and even Democratic voters.  (The latter are not interesting here, because their habits point them toward the same path that they would have followed if they were paying attention.)

The best explanation for everyone else, I think, is simple denial.  People do not seem capable of believing that an American version of fascism is a real possibility.  Such denial, moreover, affects people who might be quite engaged with the political system.  I have noted in various columns over the years that a lot of very smart people seem positively determined to deny reality.  In the years prior to January 6, when my public lectures in the US and abroad were filled with warnings that something like January 6 was a very real possibility, even my most sympathetic listeners asked questions and made comments that boiled down to saying that I was being an alarmist.  I can still see looks of incredulity on the faces of my listeners and hear them saying that Trump would never go that far, that American institutions are strong, and on and on.

That, however, is only one form of denial.  Beyond not allowing ourselves to believe that something unthinkably horrible could ever happen, we humans can always tell ourselves that that unthinkably horrible thing is not in fact all that bad.  That is, even someone who might consciously admit that failing to stop the Republicans now will cement one-party rule for the indefinite future might think, "Yeah, and ...?"  Not having to worry about whom to vote for in future elections might even be an attractive feature, especially for someone who has been convinced that "they're all the same, those politicians."

Other than knowing that fascism is bad in some abstract sense, however, what do people think their lives will be like in a post-democratic world?  Some will engage in that next level of denial, not allowing themselves to believe what fascism would really mean for their lives.  They might imagine that they have nothing to fear, because they are straight, White, Christian (at least of the "Christmas and maybe Easter" kind), and in every way "normal."

And to a large degree, most such people are not wrong in thinking that they will be safe.  That is, while some are denying that their lives will become affirmatively worse (when, for example, they learn that their local government has been taken over by kleptocrats), large numbers of people truly will just float along, happily ignorant of what is happening to trans people, perhaps even relieved when they see that same-sex marriage has been re-criminalized, and so on.  Yes, when Social Security and Medicare are slashed and then privatized, they will not like it, but they will readily believe that both of those programs were "bankrupt" and that it was the Democrats' fault.  And if they do not believe that, what can they do but accept their fate?

As an alternative to denial, there is always deflection.  A particularly offensive example of that phenomenon was offered last week by a conservative pundit, who argued that Democrats should somehow be faulted for telling people that they have to vote for Democrats to save democracy.  Does this not mean, he asked with all the snark that he could muster (quite a lot, it turns out), that Democrats do not believe in giving people a choice in elections, either?  If people have to vote for one party over the other, he said, then Democrats do not want them to have freedom of choice, either.  (See NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie's response, which includes direct quotes from the pundit in question, whom I have decided not to cite here.)

Under that logic, however, no party could ever claim that the stakes are high or that the choices are clear, regarding democracy or on any issue.  It would apparently be an insult to democracy to say: "My party wants to remain independent, but the other party wants us to become a vassal state of Russia under Vladimir Putin.  There really is only one choice in this election!" or "My party wants to fight a pandemic, but the other party wants to allow it to decimate the population.  There really is only one choice in this election!" or "My party wants to invest in all of our children's future, but the other party wants to have some of our children offered as tributes in annual hunger games.  There really is only one choice in this election."  Sometimes, there truly is but one acceptable choice.

Saying that there is only one choice is not to say that we have already lost our democracy, only that if democracy is important to us, we should understand that only one party is committed to maintaining it into the future.  We still have a choice, but only one of the two alternatives will guarantee that we will have choices in future elections.

Finally, I should note that I have written many times over the last several years that it is already too late for American democracy, which would mean that a person could be very upset about our situation but has rationally given up hope.  But as I have also argued, we do not know that it is over until we have tried everything, including trying to win the midterms and undoing the damage that has already been done.  I cannot, however, blame anyone for thinking that even a big Democratic win today will not be enough.

If the polls are right, then this will be a very bad day for Democrats.  Even if that does not happen, tens of millions of Americans either want it to be a bad day for Democrats or do not care either way.  Some of them will be perfectly happy with the outcome, but others are in denial and will come to regret it.  The rest of us can only hope.