There is a weird disconnect in American politics. Democracy has never been so threatened, the warnings about its demise so numerous, but the looming danger is not motivating voters to change the dynamics of the midterm elections. Republicans are a clear and present danger to democracy. However, they remain poised to perform very well in the upcoming elections—setting themselves up to topple America’s increasingly unstable presidential democracy.
This means that voters don’t grasp the threat Republicans pose to America’s constitutional order, or they’re in denial about it, or they don’t care. Whatever the cause, that disconnect should lead to deep introspection by the media about how they determine the information voters receive and how they shape the national discourse.
Put more crudely, nonpartisan media should be informing voters so the midterm elections are not decided by a few persuadable voters’ reactions to gas prices, when higher fuel prices are not the fault of Democrats, such hikes are a global phenomenon, and Republicans have no real plan to lower them. This November, the stakes are not temporary gas price fluctuations but the country’s survival. If Trump-aligned Republicans take over Congress and state-and-county-level positions that control the mechanisms of elections, they will be poised to unilaterally deliver a soft coup to Republicans in 2024 by suppressing votes, refusing to certify Democratic victories in blue counties, and sending Republican slates of Electoral College electors regardless of the actual popular vote in those states.
It has become depressingly familiar in elite political circles, from pundits to political scientists to even elected officials, to declare that voters don’t care about preserving democracy compared to so-called kitchen table issues. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself recently told her conference, “Voters will not cast their ballots based on January 6 and the events that led up to that deadly day,” adding “voters will judge the party on the cost of food, gas prices, and what the party is doing to help families.”
But evidence suggests that voters do care about democracy but that their views about what constitutes a threat have been warped by partisanship and false information. About 60 percent of Americans say that democracy is in crisis. Still, the voters most worried about threats to democracy are, ironically, Republicans, most of whom believe the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election. Democrats, meanwhile, tend to be reassured about democracy’s fate because Democrats control Congress and the executive branch. The party’s core, working-class persons of color, is struggling with day-to-day necessities and social oppression too much for these loftier concerns to have become a driving force. The same is true for college-educated and young Democrats who retain an unshakeable faith in the permanence of our institutions.
Even so, a recent poll indicates that 6 in 10 Americans want Trump charged for the January 6 attack—the surest indication that protecting democracy and holding its assailants accountable remains a majoritarian position. And yet, the Party of Trump is poised to take over Congress. The usual thermostatic patterns of midterm malaise for the ruling party remain unaltered. How can this be?
Some say that left activists have pushed the Democratic Party too far left for the median voter. But this complaint has been a common refrain of political centrists going back to Richard Nixon’s election, if not earlier. There is no reason to believe that what’s been called the “popularist” view is any more accurate in 2022 than it was in 1994, when Bill Clinton and the Democrats were routed at the polls, not because they were leftists giving progressives everything they wanted. Left activists have always existed, pushing America toward inclusivity, and engendering backlash from the status quo. That’s how activism works, and the party of social progress has always reaped both reward and punishment from that dynamic. It doesn’t explain the current impasse.
A growing chorus of scholars and commentators attribute the problem to media coverage that treats anti-democracy authoritarians as typical political actors. Molly Jong-Fast in The Atlantic describes the situation well, noting that the media determines common perceptions and warning that “the mainstream media must not cover these midterms as business as usual, because business as usual could end democracy.” The media scholar Jay Rosen and the journalist Dan Froomkin have long argued that if members of the press want democracy to survive, they must stop describing politics in horse race terms and start portraying politics as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman have been on the case here as well. As Sargent recently noted, disaster looms ahead when one party is committed to authoritarianism but pays no real price. American voters have indeed become intensely polarized and partisanized. But the polarization is not so intense that media coverage cannot have significant effects on persuadable voters and thus on election outcomes. Voters tend to tune out issues that seem to be framed as “partisan bickering”: This can become downright dangerous when cataclysmic policy issues like climate change become reduced to a both-sides argument. When stories are framed as “Democrats say they are trying to protect democracy, but Republicans say they are making voting more secure,” voters with no partisan stake throw their hands in the air, assuming that it’s just politics as usual. If the goal of media is to inform, then it must change its approach so voters understand the stakes.
And, of course, there is the problem of Fox News and Facebook. That Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg have such sway over Americans is a danger to democracy. Social media algorithms that prioritize engagement over truth have amplified right-wing conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric—primarily on Facebook and other social media outlets. Policy makers must do whatever they can to correct these errors.
Otherwise, America’s democracy is likely to fall into the same disastrous pattern as Latin American nations, where authoritarian leaders take advantage of divided populations and ineffectual media ecosystems to install themselves as dictators—leaving social and economic disasters in their wake.