A big win for democracy? Not so fast: This was a welcome reprieve — but that's all

Yes, the Republican fascists have suffered a major setback — but don't let anyone tell you the struggle is over

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 13, 2022 12:23PM (EST)

Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Like so many Americans, I was deeply stressed out and full of anxiety about last Tuesday's midterm elections. Instead of the much-discussed "red wave" or red tsunami, I conjured up images of horses in a burning barn, bewildered and running in panicked circles, unable to escape their doom. 

That was not the fate that awaited the American people. Just enough Americans had the good sense and genuine patriotism to reject Trumpism and the Republican Party and stave off a full-on disaster, for now.

Although it still appears likely at this writing that Republicans will win a slim majority in the House, that is not certain. In either direction, it will be one of the narrowest majorities in congressional history. (Perhaps the narrowest since 1930, when Republicans won a 218-216 majority.) After their late wins in Arizona and Nevada, Democrats will hold at least their current de facto majority in the U.S. Senate, and may win an outright majority of 51 if Sen. Raphael Warnock defeats Republican challenger (and professional buffoon) Herschel Walker in the Georgia runoff election next month. 

There was plenty of other good news. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was re-elected in the key battleground state of Michigan, as was Gov. Tony Evers in Wisconsin. Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature in Michigan and Minnesota, while a number of other legislatures remain undecided. All the major "election denier" candidates for secretary of state positions were defeated, although we can expect some to protest that they were cheated. 

In a positive sign for the future of American democracy and society, voters under 30 (especially Black and Latino voters) overwhelmingly supported the Democrats. In initiatives across the country, voters chose to protect women's reproductive rights and freedoms on the state level virtually across the board, and to enact other progressive legislation as well. 

In a series of emails, the Defend Democracy Project summarized the results of the 2022 midterms by saying that voters had "rejected Trump and his allies' criminal conspiracy to overthrow the will of the people":

Across the country, democracy won and MAGA election deniers were defeated. Overall, Americans rejected MAGA ideology's threat to our basic freedoms. But Donald Trump and his hundreds of followers headed to Congress continue to pose a very real threat to our hard-won freedoms. 

It's understandable that many Democrats and liberal commentators feel immense relief. But it's a mistake to view these midterm elections as a great victory for the Democratic Party and, by extension, democracy itself. This outcome, while unexpected by most observers, offers only a brief reprieve in what will likely be a decades-long fight against American neofascism. Democrats defied historic trends, conventional wisdom and the predictions of the Church of the Savvy and larger pundit class, and that in itself was remarkable. But we still need to face the fact that in some ways the Democrats just got lucky.

Democrats defied historic trends, conventional wisdom and the predictions of the Church of the Savvy, and that's remarkable — but in some ways they just got lucky.

It appears likely, although not yet certain, that Republicans won the overall popular vote in Tuesday's election. In a reversal of recent trends, they "wasted" votes in places like Florida and Texas where they won by large margins, while losing numerous close races in battleground states. This phenomenon is related to the geographic "sorting" of voters in recent years, and has more often been a problem for Democrats, who run up huge margins in large cities and coastal states but often lose elsewhere.

Polling and other data suggests that the Democrats were saved by millions of voters who are upset about inflation and disappointed in both President Biden and the overall direction of the country but were even more disgusted and afraid of the Republican Party, Donald Trump and the danger they and their followers represent to the country.

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Luck, by its very nature is not something that can be preordained or controlled. It is not a repeatable strategy when it comes to defeating the Republican fascists over the long term. Ultimately, "We did better than expected," is not a winning strategy.  

The Democrats must improve their messaging and brand identity and unapologetically embrace a more progressive, social-democratic agenda. (Public opinion polling shows that, contrary to the broken conventional wisdom, America is not a "center right" country.) They must be willing to put forward a bold vision with specific proposals to improve the lives of the American people. They must be willing to attack Republicans with the truth, and point out that the Republican Party, with or without Donald Trump, stands for values and policies that will cause great pain and damage to the vast majority of Americans, whatever their skin color and wherever they live.

Despite the immense relief around the 2022 results, America's political culture nonetheless remains deeply ill.

Whatever befalls Donald Trump amid intra-Republican squabbling, in the medium term Trumpism and the Republican fascist movement will not be deterred by the results of the midterms. They will retreat and reconsider and then renew their attacks, continuing to gnaw at the vulnerable spots in America's political and social institutions with the eventual goal of overthrowing democracy. 

Despite the many Democratic victories, across the country, more than 200 Republican supporters of the Big Lie were elected to public office. Despite the egregious and literally criminal record of the Trump regime and the Republican Party through the COVID pandemic, the coup attempt of Jan. 6, the reversal of Roe v. Wade and numerous other misdeeds both large and small, Republican candidates remained highly competitive across the country, winning many key races on the state, local and federal level.

In a reasonable society, the Republican Party would have been utterly vanquished or driven to the political margins, but instead it retains its cult-like hold on tens of millions of white Americans. The midterms represented a welcome setback for their movement, but have not altered that fundamental fact. 

Throughout the Age of Trump and beyond, the mainstream American news media has largely failed in its responsibility to bring clarity to complex events and hold the powerful to account. The midterms were no exception to that pattern. Many mainstream media pundits responded to the midterm results by pronouncing that "democracy won." But what sense can we make of that, after many millions of voters supported Big Lie and election-denying candidates in the face of their obvious mendacity?

Mainstream media pundits responded to the midterm results by pronouncing that "democracy won." What sense does that make, after many millions of voters supported Big Lie and election-denying candidates?

If Republicans end up in control of the House, even with a majority of only a few votes, their caucus will be overwhelmingly controlled by ardent Trump supporters and aspiring fascists. Their attacks on democracy will not stop, and to suggest that anything meaningful has been "won" is irresponsible.

Even the barest of Republican majorities will be able to obstruct any and all Democratic legislation, and perhaps to force a government shutdown over the debt ceiling. It will launch endless kangaroo-court hearings into Joe Biden's son, his Cabinet members and ultimately the president himself, who may well face impeachment proceedings rooted almost entirely in Donald Trump's lust for revenge.

Republicans will also do everything they can to destroy the American economy if they believe it will damage Biden and the Democrats leading into the 2024 election. The congressional investigation of the Trump cabal's crimes on Jan. 6 and beyond will end immediately. Social Security will be targeted, stealthily or otherwise, as part of a larger plan to further degrade or destroy what remains of the social safety net.

As voting rights and other experts have pointed out, many of the races that Republicans won in these midterms were the result of gerrymandering and other voter suppression and voter nullification techniques. They will owe their majority to those tactics, thanks largely to redistricting in Florida and New York, and will surely seek to expand such efforts to avoid the kinds of electoral losses they suffered on Tuesday.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was re-elected by a massive margin, confirming that his formerly purple state is now under solid control of Republicans. DeSantis rejected federal oversight of the midterm elections in his state, in an apparent violation of civil rights and voting rights laws. He appears to be modeling a 21st-century Jim Crow-style racial-authoritarian state — which including his own "election security police" and posses of right-wing street thugs — which is sure to be emulated by other Republicans across the country to restrict voting by Black and brown people. As America becomes more racially diverse and as younger generations enter the voting population, Republicans understand that voter suppression and outright vote nullification may be the only way they can "win" elections. 

Early exit polls suggest that the Republican Party may have expanded its support during the midterms among white voters. (More data on this and other questions may take some time.)

As author and activist and author Don Winslow wrote on Twitter, "Victory is not defined by how wrong the political experts were. That is not the bar. Ever. Victory is defined by winning and HOLDING the House. Period":

IF the Republicans win the House they get subpoena power and will unleash hell on America for two straight years.

And if they get that subpoena power no one will give a flying fuck that the political experts overestimated the Republican win by x percentage. ...

It DOES NOT MATTER if the Republicans win the House by 1 seat or 20 seats.

Either way, they take POWER. Pelosi is out. McCarthy is in. They get subpoena power. They do 20 Benghazi like hearings. They impeach Biden. They wreak HAVOC….

Author and journalist Jeff Sharlet shared a similar perspective:  

Ok! It's looking like it it *might* not be *as* bad as feared. Now I have to stop worrying about Democratic Party & much of media going back to believing the institutions are holding & giving fascism another two years to keep growing....

In an essay at Vox, Zack Beauchamp offered these insights about the midterms and what they may or may not mean for America's democracy crisis:  

Despite these promising signs, it's far too early for small-d democrats to declare victory.

"We don't have many data points, but one take is that short-term anti-democratic forces in the US are on the decline. A mistake would be to pivot toward the take that those who spoke out against anti-democratic forces were alarmist," writes Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard. ... [T]here's still plenty of evidence that the American public doesn't care enough about democracy. David Shor, a leading Democratic poll analyst, is skeptical that the issue made much of a difference in 2022, telling me that "basically no ads were about [democracy]" and those that voters saw "tested pretty poorly." (That said, Shor thinks that Democratic messaging about democracy may have affected the outcome "indirectly" by driving up the party's fundraising numbers.)

And despite the setbacks his endorsees saw in the midterms, Donald Trump is still the leading figure in the Republican Party, commanding the support of a majority of the party faithful and crushing all opponents in 2024 polling. When you combine Trump's chokehold on the GOP with the party's preexisting anti-democratic drift, it's clear that American democracy is still facing an existential threat from within — one that has not been cowed by electoral defeat in the past.

But based on the information we have right now, it's fair to let a little bit of cautious optimism color our thinking. In 2022, voters were presented with at least a dozen opportunities to elevate some of the most extreme anti-democratic voices in the country to positions of power over US elections in key states — and, on the whole, they opted to step back from the brink.

As Beauchamp says, Americans who voted against the Republican fascists should feel better this week — if only briefly.  Now they must brace themselves for the bizarre and upsetting shift in national mood coming this Tuesday, when Donald Trump will apparently (and finally) announce that he will run for president again in 2024. There is no harm in celebrating the reprieve offered by the 2022 midterms and enjoying the afterglow. But we can't afford to forget that the reality of American neofascism is still with us. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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