November 9, 2022 - 10:45am

The apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding the midterm elections reached new heights in the final days of the race. On MSNBC, historian Michael Beschloss claimed that the midterm elections were a choice between a future in which America remains a democracy and one in which our children will be arrested and killed. Cable news host Mehdi Hasan argued that democracy was in peril because Donald Trump wanted to feed immigrants to alligators. In a speech supporting Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman, former president Barack Obama predicted that if Democrats didn’t vote for the nominee, it would usher in an authoritarian regime that would ban books and imprison journalists.

Today we learn that Fetterman has been elected as senator for the country’s fifth most populous state, despite having recently had a stroke. So did the apocalyptic “end of democracy” rhetoric shift the needle decisively in the Democrats’ favour? And if so, at what cost?

A recent New Yorker article helped explain the sequence of polling and testing that resulted in this choice of campaign rhetoric. After the Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade, Democrat “super voters”, or those who vote in every election, became much more likely to answer political polls. Trafalgar pollster Robert Cahaly told Maria Bartiromo that President Joe Biden’s “MAGA extremist speech” also made Republicans less likely to share their views with canvassers. Democrat pollsters spoke to the most activist segment of their base and created messaging to their taste.

This could have misfired as a strategy, as the less activist parts of a party’s coalition can be put off by appeals to the base, but in this case it looks like, alongside concern over the abortion issue and the looming presence of Donald Trump, it prevented disaster for the Democrats. But what longer-term impact does such “end of democracy” rhetoric have on democracy itself?

Recent years have not felt especially democratic, outside of splenetic biennial elections. For example, no Covid restriction was put up to a vote. The American system of government has started to feel increasingly theatrical. As the population becomes jaded about democracy, so their technocratic politicians resort to ever more explicitly demagogic rhetoric to get out their vote.

But if voters truly took the Democrats’ apocalyptic messaging seriously, then they would be obligated to do much more than vote. Wouldn’t election volunteers be justified in cheating to ensure Nazis don’t come to power? Biden gave a national address warning that if Republicans won in the midterms it would mean the end of the rule of law. If Democrats truly believe that, then should Biden assume emergency powers and disband the legislative branch? The rhetoric demands drastic action, and when that doesn’t come it will only demoralise Democratic voters more. What rhetoric will they need to turn out the vote in 2024?

The “end of democracy” election message may have been tactically successful for Democrats in this cycle. But the wise among them ought to take a moment to assess whether it is prudent to encourage citizens to participate in routine processes by constantly declaring an existential state of emergency. It makes it necessary for the rhetoric to ratchet up again next time round. If that is the case, then the 2024 election has the potential to break the types of things that can’t be fixed.

James McElroy is a novelist and essayist based in New York.