Democracy didn’t die. Of course it didn’t. The existential angst of the past few weeks seems quaint in retrospect. Was the panic real or was it more a matter of romanticism run amok — of wanting to feel like a revolutionary in a country where revolutions don’t happen?
To be sure, election anxiety is a real thing, and it can be difficult to avoid entirely. In a bygone era, I struggled with this. On the night of Trump’s surprise victory on November 8, 2016, what started as gallows humour transformed into sheer panic. My brother called me at midnight. “I’m not so much worried about us. I’m worried about mom and dad,” he told me. I started to tear up — the first (and last) time I ever cried about politics. Since my mother wears the headscarf, she is visibly and obviously Muslim in a way that I am not. And Donald Trump had spent the previous 12 months demonising Muslims, a relic of a time when Islam and Muslims had become something of a national preoccupation. In addition to his vaunted “Muslim ban”, Trump had expressed support for registering Muslims in a database and refused to disavow the internment of Japanese Americans.
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I feel a bit sheepish for crying, not because men shouldn’t cry — they probably should, at least occasionally — but because no one should cry about an election. In a democracy, elections can be cause for disappointment and even anger, but they shouldn’t be an occasion for despair. As I discuss in The Problem of Democracy, to contest a democratic election is to know that there are no final victories, merely provisional ones. The worst thing about elections is losing, but the best thing about losing is that you live to fight another day — through the ballot box in the next election. It does require patience, however. It also requires that the losers come to terms with losing and think about how they might win. There is always hope, in other words. This doesn’t mean that things will get better, but it does mean that citizens, activists, and political parties have avenues of redress available to them.
Intellectually, I knew these things. By then, I had already become a firm believer in the notion that democratic outcomes — especially the ones that seem most threatening to us — must be respected. But in the heat of the moment, it was hard. It was a long night. My parents, who care about politics but care less than I do, went to sleep before Donald Trump altered the course of American history. They woke up to a new world. Yet when I spoke to my father that morning, he seemed oddly relaxed, taking it in his stride. He had grown up under an authoritarian regime. Because he had seen the alternative, he had an intuitive grasp of what made democracy — and specifically American democracy — strong. If enough Americans had voted for Trump, they must have had a reason for doing so. It was their choice, and what was democracy if not the right to make the wrong choice? This wasn’t the end of the world. There would be another election.
America muddled through then. And it has muddled through yet again.
Could democracy have died, or at least begun dying? In politics like in life, anything is possible. But black swans, by their very nature, are extremely unusual occurrences. To preoccupy ourselves with them is to orient our politics around the least likely scenarios. As The Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg and I discussed recently, apocalyptic rhetoric about democracy’s imminent death is the Democrats’ version of the “Flight 93” argument that America’s fate hinges on one election. That’s not to say that they are morally equivalent. But it is to say that they play on the same notes of overwrought existential dread.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It’s also a thrilling one. Might you be more willing to vote if you think America as you know it is about to end? Perhaps. I’m willing to concede that catastrophism serves a mobilising function in particular instances. However, one can easily imagine such rhetoric losing its incantatory power. Either way, if electoral mobilisation depends on perpetually framing politics as an existential battle — even if it’s not — then it’s hard to see how that level of intensity and angst can be maintained indefinitely.
As arguments go, “democracy will die if we don’t act” is also unfalsifiable. If the Democratic Party outperforms expectations, then catastrophists can say that they pre-empted the fall of democracy by spurring people to action. But if Republicans win, they can just as easily point to those victories as evidence that the threat remains. The easy resort to rhetorical alarmism also captures a certain way of thinking about politics. It treats language as a substitute for politics. For some, such an “angle” may be purely cynical, but once words are uttered with enough frequency, it becomes easier to believe them.
And they shouldn’t be believed. An argument about democracy’s imminent death is not an argument about facts. It’s an argument about something that, in a very literal sense, hasn’t actually happened yet. As it turns out, it’s challenging to engage in reasoned analysis about something that may or may not happen at some unspecified point in the future. The future, perhaps more than the past, is disagreeable. And if reasonable people can disagree on the future, then they can — and should — disagree on otherwise wild claims that we may be witnessing the end of America as we know it.
For American democracy to have died after the Midterm elections, or for it to die in 2024, an unlikely confluence of several unlikely events would need to happen in a particular order and within a fairly narrow timeframe. In a country as large and unwieldy as ours, as evenly divided as ours, with as much separation of powers as ours, with enough federalism as ours, and with a media as vigorous as ours (against Republican overreach), the notion that democracy would die or even that it could was a nightmare. The good thing about nightmares is that you wake up from them.
To say nothing of its effects on politics, panic and fear are also bad for your health. They’re certainly bad for your relationships with other human beings. If you come to believe that your opponents are “fascists”, then they are no longer mere opponents. They are transformed into enemies who must be defeated. Being in such a state of alarm — and wanting to be alarmed — is probably a thrilling way to live, but also probably exhausting.
The highly-educated — particularly writers, intellectuals, and poets — are susceptible to this sort of political romanticism, which is why having the “right” education and the right information will not save you. After all, a well-educated, bored person is a frightening thing to behold, as Charles Fain Lehman recently observed. The political theorist David Runciman said of the romantics that “they want something, anything, to happen, so they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things”.
But you and I are not at the heart of things. Politics should not be anyone’s primary focus or vocation, unless, that is, your life literally depends on it. Since America is still a democracy, for all its faults, your life almost certainly doesn’t. That is something worth appreciating, at least for a moment. You are not a revolutionary — and you probably never will be.