Has American democracy begun to turn a corner?

The midterms have shown voters value centrism over extremism, particularly of the kind fuelled by Trump

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The Tuesday night midterm election was arguably the best news American democracy has had since 2016. Republicans underperformed spectacularly even though they seem headed toward a narrow House of Representatives majority. And Democrats might pull off the near miracle of not losing, or even gaining, seats in the Senate during the first midterm of a new presidency and under the current dire conditions.

But the key takeaway is that on aggregate, with some exceptions, Americans largely rejected the most dangerous forces in their midst: Donald Trump-inspired extremism in general and election denialism in particular.

This is specifically true in several key swing states where Republicans supporting the former president were attempting to win offices that oversee elections and adjudicate results. These candidates insist that the 2020 election was somehow stolen, Joe Biden is an illegitimate president, and claim that state officials, agencies or legislatures can overrule the voters and determine the outcome of elections no matter the actual result (we shall return to this idea below).

Ali Alexander, a leader of the 2020 insurrection, explained it bluntly: “Any election I don't like is stolen. If I like it, it's not stolen.” This unconditionally self-serving attitude was also articulated by Mr Trump, saying if the candidates he backed in the midterms "win, I should get all the credit, and if they lose, I should not be blamed at all".

It’s the ethos of heads I win, tails you lose.

Unfortunately for Mr Trump, but very fortunately for the country, many of the worst midterm candidates embracing this sensibility he foisted on the Republican Party were trounced, while other Republicans had a much better night.

Among his more significant failures was the defeat of celebrity physician Mehmet Oz by Pennsylvania Lt Gov John Fetterman, which flipped a vital Senate seat to the Democrats. Dr Oz would have been the first Muslim-American senator, and to their credit neither Mr Fetterman nor other Democrats engaged in Islamophobic bashing (though they challenged his patriotism by noting that he served in the Turkish military and voted in its elections).

Former football star Herschel Walker failed to win in traditionally Republican Georgia, and faces a Senate run-off in December against a well-positioned incumbent Rafael Warnock. Depending on other outcomes, that might maintain the 50-50 Senate and, with the vice-presidential tiebreaker, Democratic control. Blake Masters appears set to lose to Mark Kelly in the Arizona Senate contest. Tudor Dixon and Kristina Karamo lost in Michigan for governor and secretary of state respectively, which will have a unified Democratic state government for the first time in 40 years.

Democrats also performed strongly in state elections in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts and, at time of writing, it would appear also in Arizona and Nevada, which are still tabulating results. Kari Lake, a former newsreader who has been widely likened to a female version of Mr Trump, is surprisingly still trailing her strikingly lacklustre opponent, Katie Hobbs, for Arizona governor.

So, under near-perfect conditions when historical patterns, the worst inflation since the 1970s, a potential recession, rising crime rates and an unpopular president all pointed to overwhelming Republican success, Mr Trump's wing of the party, with its open opposition to democratic elections, largely could not deliver. JD Vance, a former Trump critic-turned-loyal follower, was elected to the Senate in Ohio, and some other Trump acolytes won, but many more were soundly rejected by voters.

A supporter of former US president Donald Trump walks the ballroom floor at the Republican watch party in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Wednesday. AP Photo
Ironically, the next threat to democracy could come from the Supreme Court

The predicted “red wave” of overwhelming Republican victories did happen, but only in Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio resoundingly trounced two excellent Democratic opponents, former governor Charlie Crist and Representative Val Demings.

The distinctly unfavourable night for Mr Trump could hardly have been better for Mr DeSantis. Mr Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, the House in 2018, the popular and electoral college votes in 2020, the Senate in 2001, and has now authored the 2022 fiasco. Mr DeSantis lacks the former president’s mesmeric hold on his base, but he looks very much like a winner while Mr Trump has amassed an extraordinary record as a loser for both himself and the party.

He was reportedly planning a grandiose re-election campaign announcement on the assumption that Republicans would have a spectacular night – which by all rights they should, largely if not for him – and take credit for that as the springboard for his own magnificent comeback.

So much for that.

Mr Trump will surely announce a presidential run anyway, if nothing else than because he needs whatever informal protection political candidacy might afford him in pending criminal cases, particularly regarding classified documents he appears to have unlawfully pilfered and concealed from the government involving possible obstruction of justice.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with his wife Casey DeSantis speaks during an election night watch party in Tampa on Wednesday. AFP

Pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland not to criminally charge him will be somewhat eased because he’s no longer the incontestable leader of the opposition party. Besides, Democrats must now be salivating at the prospect of another Republican nomination of Mr Trump.

Voters said their number one midterm issue was inflation, but it was closely followed by abortion rights and protecting democracy. A key swing and independent bloc of voters seems to be sending a message to both parties that it values and rewards centrism on both sides (most data suggests the majority is essentially centre-left, though the political system structurally privileges the right), rejects anti-democratic, anti-election extremism, and – with many voters "ticket-splitting", and voting for Democratic and Republican candidates for different offices on the same ballot – is sometimes willing to vote for candidates rather than parties.

Ironically, the next threat to democracy could come from the Supreme Court, which could soon endorse the once-fringe "independent state legislature doctrine". It holds that the Constitution authorises state legislatures to control elections without any recourse or restraint. The forthcoming ruling in a case seeking to restore gerrymandered congressional maps in North Carolina that were disallowed by the state supreme court for giving an "extreme advantage" to Republicans could allow state legislatures to reshape election rules and procedures to produce whatever outcome they like.

If that sounds a lot like the wacky theories posited by election deniers described above, that's because it is. Four justices have already expressed sympathy with aspects of this dangerous idea.

American democracy is still under serious threat. But it just passed a major stress test surprisingly well, as a crucial guardrail – the much-maligned voters – unexpectedly popped up in front of the anti-elections faction, causing it to careen, crash and burn. American democracy just possibly may have finally started to turn a corner towards safety.

Published: November 10, 2022, 9:00 AM