The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Inflation could put election deniers in charge of our democracy

Prices for gas at an Exxon gas station in D.C. on March 14. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
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Elections are decided by the issues on voters’ minds, not the issues many of us might wish were on voters’ minds.

This lesson was brought home forcefully by the juxtaposition of the Federal Reserve’s big rate hike on Wednesday with the victory of Trumpist “big lie” candidates in primaries the day before — and the work of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

The Fed’s decision to raise interest rates by three-quarters of a point — the largest single increase since 1994 — put the economy smack in the news cycle while underscoring how little control President Biden has over what happens to costs between now and November.

Sebastian Mallaby: With Powell's interest rate hike, the inflation fight begins in earnest

Meanwhile, the House committee investigating Jan. 6 continued its effective work in calling attention to just how off-the-charts dangerous and egregious Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election were. Its hearings have shown how close we came to a democratic meltdown, how complicit — often through their silence — many Republicans were with Trump’s schemes, and how the threat to our democracy is ongoing.

Analysis: Six takeaways from the Jan. 6 committee's prime-time hearing

Yet none of this could matter on Election Day.

If Republicans up and down the ballot win this fall because so many voters choose to punish Biden and the Democrats for high prices, the GOP sweep would carry into office outright election deniers as well as politicians too timid or too opportunistic to challenge them. As Amy Gardner and Isaac Arnsdorf reported in The Post, more than 100 GOP primary winners backed Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

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Tuesday’s primaries underscored Trump’s ongoing power to defeat decent Republicans and bully others into submission.

In South Carolina, Rep. Tom Rice, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, managed just one-quarter of the vote and was rebuked by a 2-to-1 margin. Rep. Nancy Mace, who was critical of the former president in early 2021, defeated a Trump-backed candidate with 53 percent of the vote. But she survived only by turning hard toward sycophancy, casting herself as a longtime Trump loyalist.

The most troubling result for friends of democracy came in Nevada, where GOP voters nominated Jim Marchant, a devout trumpeter of the former president’s election falsehoods, for secretary of state. Marchant has said he would not have certified Biden’s victory in the state.

Inflation, of course, has nothing to do with the secretary of state’s job, but the trend toward straight-ticket voting means that a revolt against Democrats at the top of the ballot could put management of the 2024 elections in the hands of the same sorts of people the Jan. 6 committee is exposing as dangerous frauds.

The potential for an economy-led GOP landslide is high. As Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones and Lydia Saad reported this week, data from a May 2-22 survey found that only 41 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing, 18 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, 16 percent are satisfied with the way things are going in this country, and just 14 percent rate current economic conditions positively.

“Voters tend to vote on the immediate, particularly in midterms,” said Jim Kessler, vice president at the Third Way think tank. “Their long-term worries are back-burner. And inflation is immediate.”

This points to several imperatives for not just Democrats but anyone who wants to protect democracy.

Especially in state and local races that affect election administration — think secretary-of-state positions and governorships, particularly in swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — voters angry about the price of gas and groceries must be persuaded not to let their rage translate into support for Republicans who would throw sand into the gears of our democracy. Much will depend on moderate independents and Republicans being willing to put free elections first.

Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chair in Wisconsin, also sees Trumpists’ obsession with the “big lie” as a potential opening for his party. “Republicans are so tied around the axle of trying to relitigate the 2020 election,” he told me, “that they’re leaving a lot of room for Democrats to demonstrate that we are trying to bring down costs for people while they’re concerned with locking in their power.”

This points up the need for Democrats, especially Biden, to try to cut their losses on inflation by arguing their proposals to reduce costs are more credible than anything Republicans are offering. It won’t be an easy sell, but Biden took a decent shot at this with a rousing speech to the AFL-CIO on Tuesday.

But there is no substitute for trying — however hard it will be — to make the preservation of democracy a much higher priority for voters. Their ballots won’t cut prices at the pump or what they pay for groceries. But they will determine the future of our experiment in self-government.