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If you aren’t feeling a sense of dread on the eve of the midterm elections, you haven’t been paying attention.
We can talk about the conventional stakes of these elections — their implications for economic policy, major social programs, environmental policy, civil liberties and reproductive rights. And it’s not wrong to have these discussions: Life will go on whatever happens on the political scene, and government policies will continue to have a big impact on people’s lives.
But I, at least, always feel at least a bit guilty when writing about inflation or the fate of Medicare. Yes, these are my specialties. Focusing on them, however, feels a bit like denial, or at least evasion, when the fundamental stakes right now are so existential.
Ten or 20 years ago, those of us who warned that the Republican Party was becoming increasingly extremist and anti-democracy were often dismissed as alarmists. But the alarmists have been vindicated every step of the way, from the selling of the Iraq war on false pretenses to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Indeed, these days it’s almost conventional wisdom that the G.O.P. will, if it can, turn America into something like Viktor Orban’s Hungary: a democracy on paper, but an ethnonationalist, authoritarian one-party state in practice. After all, U.S. conservatives have made no secret about viewing Hungary as a role model; they have feted Orban and featured him at their conferences.
At this point, however, I believe that even this conventional wisdom is wrong. If America descends into one-party rule, it will be much worse, much uglier, than what we see in today’s Hungary.
Before I get there, a word about the role of conventional policy issues in these elections.
If Democrats lose one or both houses of Congress, there will be a loud chorus of recriminations, much of it asserting that they should have focused on kitchen table issues and not talked at all about threats to democracy.
I don’t claim any expertise here, but I would note that an incumbent president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterms. The only exception to that rule this century was in 2002, when George W. Bush was able to deflect attention from a jobless recovery by posing as America’s defender against terrorism. That record suggests, if anything, that Democrats should have talked even more about issues beyond economics.
I’d also say that pretending that this was an ordinary election season, where only economic policy was at stake, would have been fundamentally dishonest.
Finally, even voters who are more worried about paychecks and living costs than about democracy should nonetheless be very concerned about the G.O.P.’s rejection of democratic norms.
For one thing, Republicans have been open about their plan to use the threat of economic chaos to extract concessions they couldn’t win through the normal legislative process.
Also, while I understand the instinct of voters to choose a different driver if they don’t like where the economy is going, they should understand that this time, voting Republican doesn’t just mean giving someone else a chance at the wheel; it may be a big step toward handing the G.O.P. permanent control, with no chance for voters to revisit that decision if they don’t like the results.
Which brings me to the question of what a one-party America would look like.
As I said, it’s now almost conventional wisdom that Republicans are trying to turn us into Hungary. Indeed, Hungary provides a case study in how democracies can die in the 21st century.
But what strikes me, reading about Orban’s rule, is that while his regime is deeply repressive, the repression is relatively subtle. It is, as one perceptive article put it, “soft fascism,” which makes dissidents powerless via its control of the economy and the news media without beating them up or putting them in jail.
Do you think a MAGA regime, with or without Donald Trump, would be equally subtle? Listen to the speeches at any Trump rally. They’re full of vindictiveness, of promises to imprison and punish anyone — including technocrats like Anthony Fauci — the movement dislikes.
And much of the American right is sympathetic to, or at least unwilling to condemn, violence against its opponents. The Republican reaction to the attack on Paul Pelosi by a MAGA-spouting intruder was telling: Many in the party didn’t even pretend to be horrified. Instead, they peddled ugly conspiracy theories. And the rest of the party didn’t ostracize or penalize the purveyors of vile falsehoods.
In short, if MAGA wins, we’ll probably find ourselves wishing its rule was as tolerant, relatively benign and relatively nonviolent as Orban’s.
Now, this catastrophe doesn’t have to happen. Even if Republicans win big in the midterms, it won’t be the end for democracy, although it will be a big blow. And nothing in politics, not even a full descent into authoritarianism, is permanent.
On the other hand, even if we get a reprieve this week, the fact remains that democracy is in deep danger from the authoritarian right. America as we know it is not yet lost, but it’s on the edge.
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