November 7, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Democracy is not on the ballot, but some democracies are

Let’s stop talking as if there were a singular national democracy – as if there were a singular national America – in these United States.

Chris Hayes.
Chris Hayes.

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Look, you should vote for a Democrat. There’s no question in my mind. The worst Democrat is better than the best Republican. That is, if you want a government to govern, if you want leaders to lead, if you want policy solutions responsive to policy problems. If you don’t want any of those things, well, be my guest. Vote for a Republican.

That said, democracy is not on the ballot. It’s more accurate to say criminals are on the ballot. Many Republicans, perhaps a majority of them, won’t swear to live by the will of the people. People who say they can be trusted only if they win are blackmailers, extortionists and thieves. As “winners,” we can trust them to defy the rule of law.

Talking as if a political fiction were real only helps the criminals who are on the ballot.

But if criminals are on the ballot, doesn’t that mean democracy is, too? No, and you better understand what that is. It’s Democratic propaganda. Propaganda has its uses, good and bad, but let’s remember that it’s a tool of politics, not politics itself. Tools are means of achieving ends. They are not ends themselves. Not if you’re someone who wants a government of, by and for the people.

Democracy is not on the ballot, because democracy does not exist in America in a singular national form. There is not one democracy, just as there is not one America. There are Americas packed into these United States. There are democracies packed into them, too. (There are literally governments packed into them, not a big-g government.)

“Democracy is on the ballot” is true if and only if we are one people, united. Do I need to explain why that has never been the case?  

“Democracy is on the ballot” is good for two groups. One is the Democrats. They must drive voters to the polls. More power to them, I say. The Democrats should use all the forms of propaganda that are available to them. Here’s House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn: 

This country is on track to repeat what happened in Germany when the greatest democracy going elected a chancellor who then co-opted the media, like this past president who called the press the enemy of the people – that’s a bunch of crap and we know it. That’s what’s going on in this country.

But are we really on track to repeat the fall of the Weimar Republic? I don’t see it. Again, there are Americas, there are democracies and there are myriad governments packed into these United States. 

Our system is centralized at the federal level and decentralized at the state level. Such redundancies prevent, or at least minimize, the chances of one layer dominating and suppressing the other. Federalism has its downsides, for sure. But there are upsides, too.

As long as there is a democratic people willing to use democratic institutions – like state governments – to achieve democratic ends, democracy as it applies to those democrats will keep muddling along. 

However, if there is an authoritarian people willing to use democratic institutions to achieve authoritarian ends, democracy won’t muddle along. It will function as those authoritarians want it to function.

That’s how it’s always been. Why?

Because we are not one.

With these distinctions in mind, it should be clear that headlines like this one from the Post are just silly – “Midterms pose fresh test for American democracy after two years under fire.” 

Yes, the Washington press corps is the other group benefitting from “democracy is on the ballot.” That’s conflict, drama, nail-biting suspense! (“You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll hurl!”) But c’mon. A test?! 

Even Chris Hayes, who was good till MSNBC ruined him, said: “What [Democrats are] saying is, ‘If you don’t elect us this time, if you don’t keep them out of power, you may never be able to elect us again.’ Or in short, ‘Vote to preserve your right to throw the bums out.’”

Please, come on, Chris. Please!

The midterms are many things, but indicators of success and failure aren’t among them. In some parts of the country, it could turn out to be impossible to throw the bums out. In other parts, though, it will still be.

Hayes and the Post – the entire press corps, really – talk about the midterms as if a political fiction were real – as if these United States were a singular national democracy. Why do I need to explain to educated people who know better that that has never been the case?  

In the American system, democracy won’t pass or fail. 

It will turn liberal or illiberal, though. It will be helpful or harmful. 

It will become good or bad.

That’s why the worst Democrat is better than the best Republican. 

Even the best Republicans wishes harm on a political majority for the benefit of a political minority that believes in democracy as long as democracy serves them. Even the best Republican vows to protect the political advantages of white power, even to the point of insurrection. 

We should ditch these political fictions – or at least stop believing our own propaganda – because after the midterms, when it becomes clear that democracy did not collapse, what are we going to say?


“Democracy is on the ballot” is good for two groups – partisans and press people. It is not good for democracy. Talking as if a political fiction were real only helps the criminals who are on the ballot.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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