In all the talk about the issue landscape for 2022, there’s a glaring anomaly, which I wrote about at New York:
The astonishing endgame of the 2020 presidential election happened less than two years ago. After news outlets from the AP to Fox News, plus 50 state governments, certified Joe Biden’s victory, Donald Trump made an unprecedented attempt to overturn the results and stay in power. This culminated in a day of violence when Trump’s supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the final confirmation of the election by Congress. In case anyone managed to forget these shocking events, the House select committee on January 6 has held an impressively produced series of made-for-TV hearings in recent months detailing the postelection coup attempt.
So what has been the ultimate effect of all this high-visibility evidence of a rogue president gone insurrectionist? Well, the number of Republicans who agree with Trump’s “stolen election” fable has almost certainly gone up rather than down. The 45th president remains the leader of his party by any reasonable definition and is unquestionably the front-runner for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination if, as expected, he chooses to run. He actually leads Biden in averages of 2024 trial heats.
And the best efforts of the House select committee have failed to make the events of January 6 a significant campaign issue in the 2022 midterms. You can, if you wish, blame some of that on Democratic campaign wizards, as Politico recently noted:
“Overall, less than 2 percent of all broadcast TV spending in House races has gone toward Jan. 6 ads, according to ad-tracking firm AdImpact — or just $2.7 million of $163 million. Taken in total, Democrats have aired just two dozen spots focused on threats to democracy this cycle, in roughly 16 different battleground districts.”
But some unusually deep polling by the New York Times and Siena College about whether voters care about “threats to democracy,” and how they understand that term, might justify Democrats’ focus on other issues.
That recent survey asked an open-ended question about the “most important issue facing the country today.” Just 7 percent cited “the state of democracy.” That’s nothing compared with the 26 percent who offered “the economy” or the 19 percent who volunteered “inflation or the cost of living.” But concerns about democracy did top “abortion,” which was cited by 4 percent, and “crime,” which was called a top issue by 3 percent. Moreover, the pollsters later asked whether American democracy is “currently under threat,” and 71 percent said yes. That’s a big deal, right?
Maybe not. It’s when the pollsters dig into what people mean by “threats to democracy” that any focus on January 6 gets lost. Far and away the most popular complaint was about politicians and government generally being “corrupt.” Nate Cohn tried to explain the responses:
“When respondents were asked to volunteer one or two words to summarize the current threat to democracy, government corruption was brought up most often — more than Mr. Trump and Republicans combined.
“… One said, ‘I don’t think they are honestly thinking about the people.’ Another said politicians ‘forget about normal people.’ Corruption, greed, power and money were familiar themes.”
This sure sounds a lot closer to MAGA folk calling Washington a “swamp” than it does to members of Congress expressing shock at the desecration of “the temple of democracy” on January 6.
Voters perceiving a “threat to democracy” are nearly as likely to view Biden as a “major threat” (38 percent) as Trump (45 percent). Forty-nine percent call “electronic voting machines” a major or minor threat (as opposed to no threat at all), and 54 percent feel the same way about voting by mail. The claim with the strongest bipartisan support is that “mainstream media” are a threat to democracy: 84 percent of respondents, including 83 percent of self-identified independents, consider the media a major or minor threat to democracy.
Democracy itself is broadly perceived as so broken that Trump’s deliberate effort to break it by an act of insurrection is being accepted by an alarming percentage of the population as just another warning light. They see it as no more significant than ineffective anti-inflation policies rather than as a unique threat to our system of self-government that must be condemned, punished, and prevented from ever happening again. If Trump’s Republican Party makes the gains so many expect in November, it will be a green light for authoritarianism in the future, even if Trump himself exits the political scene and gives way to another demagogue.