The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We may not be facing apocalypse, but the near future doesn’t look good

A person wearing a Proud Boys jacket at a march and rally for President Trump in New York City on Sunday. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
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We all now seem to be in agreement that the cliche we hear every four years, that “this is the most important election of our lives” is, in this case, probably true. We also seem to agree that it’s so important not because of the potential for great things happening if our preferred candidate wins, but because of the guaranteed disaster if the other side prevails.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Democrats and Republicans are looking at this election in equal and opposite ways. In fact, the futures they fear are very different.

The Post’s Marc Fisher explores this question:

But now, the worry on the right that a Democratic win would plunge the nation into catastrophic socialism and the fear on the left that a Trump victory would produce a turn toward totalitarianism have created “a perilous moment — the idea that if the other side wins, we’re in for it,” said Peter Stearns, a historian of emotions at George Mason University.
“The two sides have come to view each other not as opponents, but as deeply evil,” he said. “And that’s happening when trust in institutions has collapsed and each group is choosing not to live near each other. It seems there’s no middle ground.”

One can, without doubt, hear exaggerations of the apocalypse to come from both sides. But that does not mean they are equally unhinged. To take just one example, Democrats decry President Trump’s corruption, his debasement of political discourse, and his authoritarian impulses. But they don’t claim he’s at the center of a satanic pedophile conspiracy that kidnaps children to drink their blood.

Yet a recent poll found that 50 percent of Trump supporters believe that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings,” one of the core elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory that now pervades the GOP. QAnon supporters have won Republican nominations for seats in the House and Senate this year.

Even if we set that dangerous lunacy aside, Republicans believe that a Democratic takeover of power in Washington will cause a cataclysm, despite the fact that they quite recently survived an eight-year Democratic presidency that at the time they cried was bringing Stalinist tyranny to America.

But they’re not worried about the survival of democratic institutions; quite the opposite. What worries them is democracy itself.

Republicans look across the aisle at the Democratic Party and see a group of Americans who have profoundly different values and seek a profoundly different future for the country. Liberal immigration laws, racial diversity, inclusion for LGBTQ people, enhanced workers’ rights, universal health coverage — to many conservatives, all these things feel like a broad rejection of them and what they stand for, bolstered not only by the pop culture industry but by the inexorable evolution of society itself.

That feeling may manifest in loony ways — in Fisher’s story, an Ohio pastor predicts that if Joe Biden wins, the result will be that “somebody can marry a cow and have perverse sex with them” — but at its heart it isn’t completely wrong. If you’re a social conservative, society really is rejecting your values, more all the time. The fact that the other side includes a growing majority only makes the sense of being surrounded worse.

For the past four years, the government has felt like a bulwark against all that change. You may have to put up with seeing gay couples on TV, but you’ve got a president who hates all the people you hate, and isn’t afraid to strike out at them on your behalf. But what if that gets taken away?

Those on the right can take some solace in the fact that the system is stacked in favor of the GOP, from the electoral college to the Senate’s overrepresentation of conservative states. But now Democrats are threatening to take that away, too. Just when your side has built a supermajority on the Supreme Court — a week from now you may be able to say that, despite losing the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections (if Biden wins), you still enjoy a 6-3 majority — Democrats are talking about expanding the court to rebalance it.

Just as they are talking about getting rid of the filibuster, and passing a new Voting Rights Act. For conservatives, these things are all terrifying, precisely because they mean a more small-D democratic system they might no longer be able to dominate despite their smaller numbers.

And what about Democrats? They aren’t afraid that society is rejecting them. They’re afraid for democracy itself, that Republicans will succeed in degrading the system to the point where Democrats will be shut out of power for the indefinite future even as their numbers continue to grow.

In fact, they’re worried about that even if they do win, because of the stranglehold the right now has on the courts.

There’s another important difference to understand: If Democrats win, they will reach out to the people who didn’t vote for them. Unlike Trump, they will try to improve the lives of people in red states, because that’s what they always do.

From the beginning of this campaign, Biden has been saying he wants to unify the country. As he said at the last debate, “I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me."

But Democrats know something else: Biden’s words, which he will continue to repeat, will fall on deaf ears. There will be an angry backlash to his presidency, one likely to turn violent. At its extreme fringes, it may even seek an overthrow of a system that seems too democratic. It will be encouraged by Republican members of Congress and conservative media who will say that every Democratic initiative, no matter how modest, represents the end of America as we know it.

So yes, this is a terrible time. If only there were reason to think it will get better.

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