AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
There are still more than 72 hours before polls close on election night, but already, signs are that Democrats are making peace with the inevitable. President Joe Biden, returning from a trip to Florida where even Democratic insiders admit they face their worst defeat in 20 years, if not in history, intoned that “In our bones, we know democracy is at risk.” In the event the point was missed, Biden later stated, “We’re often not faced with questions of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy, but this year we are.” That Biden chose to make this his “closing message” and to deliver it at Union Station in Washington, D.C., a city where residents will not even be electing a Senator or voting member of Congress, is symbolic of how totally the “rule or ruin” conception of “democracy” has taken root within the Democratic Party. To them, whether democracy survives has nothing to do with whether or not tens of millions of Americans are able to cast their ballots Tuesday, but solely with whether or not at the end of the process, Democrats, or individuals deemed acceptable to Biden and a host of media personalities, emerge victorious.
For a number of months now, large segments of the Democratic Party, along with the media and former Republicans radicalized by their defeat in the battle for control of the GOP, have been defining “democracy” and “legitimacy” solely in terms of electoral outcomes. In many ways this phenomenon is a natural outgrowth of the “cancel culture” which has taken root in American colleges and corporate boardrooms, in which there is only one “right” position, and hence the legitimacy of any process can be defined solely in terms of whether it reaches that conclusion. A rigged process which produces the “correct outcome”, such as Affirmative Action, is inherently legitimate, whereas an impartial process which nevertheless produces an unwanted outcome, such as the Electoral College, is, to the left, illegitimate. If the Electoral College or the Supreme Court defend the “proper outcome,” as Democrats feel those institutions did during the 2020 election, then they are vital institutions of government, and any questioning of them amounts to a subversive attack on the Constitution and “democracy.” If, however, they produce the “wrong outcome,” such as when the Electoral College produced a victory for Donald Trump in 2016, or when the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the institutions have “discredited themselves” and “undermined democracy.”
It was inevitable that, having turned on the Electoral College and the courts, Democrats would not shy away from charging the voters themselves with “undermining democracy” by exercising their suffrage incorrectly. What is shocking is how blatant the shift has been. It is not just Biden who has adopted this language, or Hillary Clinton, still bitter over 2016, who told CNN that Republicans were “going after Democracy” and blamed the GOP for the attack on Paul Pelosi by homeless nudist activist reportedly present in the country illegally.
Barack Obama, who has of late tried to position himself as a critic of the party’s “extremism” on cultural issues, and the dangers of dividing Americans on the basis of identity, has abandoned any such nuance during a final campaign swing. Two weeks ago, he suggested that Democrats “get into trouble sometimes [when] we try to suggest that some groups are more – because they historically have been victimized more – that somehow they have a status that’s different than other people.” On November 3, in a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, Obama declared that “If you’ve got election deniers serving as your governor, as your senator, as your secretary of state, as your attorney general, then democracy as we know it may not survive in Arizona.”
Lest anyone think he was being anything less than literal, he added, “That’s not an exaggeration. That is a fact.”
The man who had only weeks earlier said that Democrats needed to avoid making those who disagreed on an issue or had said one “bad thing” feel that it was a mark on their character and value as a human being now stated that if anyone won an election without adopting his position on 2020, it would mean the end of democracy.
There was a further implication here. Obama was perhaps not trying to persuade, or not merely to do so. (The only people he might reach with this message would be Democrats uncertain whether they would vote.) Rather, Obama was setting up a challenge for the “election denying” Republicans he was campaigning against, especially Kari Lake, the former TV anchor who is leading the race to be Arizona’s next governor. Obama was suggesting that if she won, democracy would be over; unless of course, she was willing to affirm Joe Biden’s victory. If she would only do that, democracy could survive. If she did not and won, well, democracy was over.
What this test and challenge means was made clear during a rather stunning exchange on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” between Shadi Hamid and Mehdi Hasan over whether it would be “democratic” to accept Donald Trump’s victory in 2024 if he won fair and square. Mehdi Hasan repeatedly rejected the premise, insisting that there could not be a legitimate victory for Donald Trump due to “voting restrictions, changes in process, intimidation, [and] misinformation,” in effect suggesting that even if more people voted for Trump, it would not actually reflect democracy because someone somewhere might have voted against him, or because those who voted for him might have been “misinformed.” Despite being repeatedly pressed by Hamid, who rightly argued that this attitude was dangerous, Hasan rejected the idea that Donald Trump could ever be legitimately elected even if he received a majority of the vote.
Many Democratic candidates seem to share the Mehdi Hasan understanding of democracy, in which the actual number of votes cast does not endow democratic legitimacy, but rather, how well the views of the winner align with the views of the political and media establishment. In this version of democracy, when voters vote the “wrong” way, the election doesn’t count because they have been duped by “misinformation.”
Remarkably, these are the same people going around calling everyone else “election deniers.”
Kathy Hochul, New York’s Democratic Governor, provided insight into why she is locked in a tough battle for reelection when she all but accused voters of negligence for prioritizing concerns about rising crime rights over abortion or “January 6,” suggesting it was a conspiracy. “These are master manipulators, Hochul said. “They have this conspiracy going all across America trying to convince people in Democratic states that they’re not as safe. Well guess what? They’re also not only election deniers, they’re data deniers.”
Meanwhile in Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams responded to incumbent Brian Kemp’s endorsement by 107 of Georgia’s 130 county Sheriffs by declaring, “I’m not a member of the good ole boys club. So, no, I don’t have 107 sheriffs who want to be able to take Black people off the streets, who want to be able to go without accountability.” Traditionally, politics has been about trying to win votes. If a voter or group does not support a candidate, that candidate tries to figure out why. Instead, Democrats have responded to backlash to their policies by all but declaring that they are above even wanting the votes of anyone who might disagree with them.
Joe Biden, who was nominated in large part because he appeared to be a throwback to an earlier era of a less culturally extreme Democratic Party, even if it was the era of Obama rather than Bill Clinton, has shown little interest in conciliation. His reaction to concerns about the sanctity of biological women’s spaces in sports, accommodations, and society has been similar to Kathy Hochul’s reaction to New Yorkers’ concerns about crime. Biden has portrayed the entire issue as some sort of Republican conspiracy and utilized the Justice Department to go after parents who have expressed concerns. He has also defended those promoting experimental treatment for children with gender dysphoria and aggressively weaponized Title IX guidance to force the integration of transgender individuals into women’s sports. This culminated in Biden responding to the backlash against Dylan Mulvaney, a former Broadway star of the Book of Mormon who came out as transgender less than a year ago and launched a TikTok channel called “days of girlhood”, parlaying it into millions in sponsorships, by inviting Mulvaney to the White House for a televised discussion. Mulvaney had been slammed by many, including Caitlyn Jenner, for referring to women’s genitalia as “barbie pouches.”
It is interesting to contrast Biden’s approach with that of the British Labour Party and its leader Sir Keir Starmer, who granted an interview to the feminist website Mumsnet the same week Biden met with Mulvaney. Starmer, who has daughters, expressed horror at the idea of schools enabling children to transition without parental knowledge, and said he felt sports should be able to segregate participation on biological lines if they chose. Starmer’s positions were mealy-mouthed in some ways, in that he did not specify what he would do on those issues if in office as opposed to offering an expression of personal unease, but nonetheless, the interview was an effort to talk with those who had concerns and indicate he respected and shared many of them. There may be a reason why, even with a new leader, the Conservative Party continues to trail Labor by 17 percent in the polls.
It is easy to imagine Bill Clinton or Barack Obama imitating Starmer, and meeting with concerned parents of kids who were encouraged to transition, or with parents upset about their schools being shut, or employees fired for refusing to comply with vaccine mandates. Clinton and Obama would have expressed the deepest sympathy, pledged to look into it, and then in all likelihood continued the policies they had followed up to that point. But they would have made the gesture of pretending to listen, of pretending to care. Democrats today do not even bother to pretend.
That, more than anything else, is what the “rule or ruin” approach has done. Its impacts will be felt not just on Election Day, when Democrats will meet the consequences of their refusal to ask for votes, but going forward, when they declare that the legitimacy of those elected will depend solely on their willingness to do what Democrats consider correct.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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