Early on the morning after the 2022 midterm elections, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan received a phone call from Tudor Dixon, her Donald Trump-endorsed opponent, whom Ms. Whitmer was projected to defeat by double digits. Ms. Dixon is no halfhearted MAGA loyalist. As the price of the former president’s endorsement (or perhaps because she’d succumbed to the big lie) she had refused to acknowledge he had been legitimately defeated in 2020. She likewise refused to say she’d accept the results of her own election if she lost.
But on that phone call Ms. Dixon conceded defeat and wished Ms. Whitmer well, according to a statement from Ms. Dixon.
This year’s midterm elections defied many expectations, but this may be the biggest and most pleasant surprise: Of all the Trump-endorsed, anti-democracy candidates who lost their elections, few have refused to concede, and none as yet has launched a campaign of deceit like the one Mr. Trump has waged for over two years now, with claims that their elections were stolen.
Conceding defeat is not an act of nobility. We should not be grateful to these candidates for honoring a basic obligation of democracy. But we should ask why — why were Mr. Trump’s acolytes able to do what he will not?
It could be that he is unique in his megalomania, dishonesty and recklessness. But it could be something else, too: that these candidates recognize the jig is up. While lying about the 2020 election might be useful as glue to hold together the Republican coalition — to avoid the painful recriminations that follow defeat, and as a way for Mr. Trump to bypass misgivings about his electability — these candidates might have realized that it is also a suicide pact for their party. They may reason that they underperformed relative to other Republicans because the voting public identified them as enemies of democracy, and aligned to punish them.
They may survey the wreckage of other MAGA campaigns — not just Ms. Dixon’s in Michigan but also Doug Mastriano’s in Pennsylvania, Tim Michels’s in Wisconsin, Don Bolduc’s in New Hampshire and those of Kari Lake, Blake Masters and Mark Finchem in Arizona, among others — and conclude that Republicans will lose more winnable races if they continue to lie about election results.
If that is what motivated their concessions, they finally got one thing right.
Lying about elections is repugnant, but you can understand why it took a wipeout for these Republicans to realize they’d pay a price for it. As alarmed as Democratic leaders have been about the Republican Party’s turn against democracy, they have not always acted like it, because they did not believe “democracy” would galvanize enough voters to stave off defeat. “Our country is at risk. Our democracy is at risk,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed in July. “But what we are campaigning on are the kitchen table issues that affect America’s working families.” Americans vote their wallets, the thinking held, so the prudent way to defend democracy is to not fight for it frontally but rather to appeal to voters’ pocketbooks, to give short shrift to the big lie.
This kind of thinking filtered down into the commentariat, leaving America’s foremost political experts just as surprised as Republicans on Election Day. Echoing some of the Democratic Party’s top strategists in the run-up to the election, the Washington Postwriter Greg Sargent wrote, “it’s challenging to make abstractions about democracy urgent in voters’ daily lives.”
The Atlantic staff writer McCay Coppins tweeted after the returns were in: “it’s striking how many voters were motivated by concern for American democracy. I’ll admit I was skeptical about how widely that message would resonate.”
The skepticism was understandable, given the headwinds Democrats faced. Midterms are usually wipeouts for the president’s party; Mr. Trump lost the House in a landslide when the economy was perceived to be good, and inflation was low. But the skepticism was misplaced for several reasons.
First, democracy is an abstraction, but so are many civic values — freedom, justice, equality — and politicians (including generations of Republicans) have been running and winning on them for as long as humans have held elections.
Second, Americans care about these values because they are ingrained in us at a young age — even those of us who grow up to be financially insecure median voters. The ur-text of public school history education is that the United States is a democracy wrested violently from a king so that citizens could choose their leaders. We detonate megatons of explosives every Independence Day to celebrate our secession from a monarchy to form a republic. The mass movement against Donald Trump, comprising millions of Americans, was partially animated by fear that he intended to discard our laws and treat us as subjects.
It’s not that these Americans don’t care about their pocketbooks. Just as it’s a mistake for politicians to be cavalier about democracy, it is a mistake for elected officials to govern poorly or push policies that would leave typical members of the middle class worse off. They should, of course, campaign on bread-and-butter economics, too. But it sells fellow citizens short to assume they will sacrifice their democratic inheritance just because the price of gasoline spiked.
Third, and most importantly, while democracy is more academic than household economics, appeals to democracy are not inherently bloodless. They are value judgments about autocracy and would-be dictators. Democracy itself is a boring system of rules meant to distribute political power evenly enough that citizens treat laws and leaders with legitimacy. But a candidate who says “democracy is on the ballot” is warning voters that her opponent does not believe in those rules. She is also warning that her opponent will lie or cheat or even foment violence to secure and maintain power.
Candidates can determine how and whether to turn that subtext into text. Joshua Shapiro, the governor-elect of Pennsylvania, said of his opponent, Mr. Mastriano, “It sure as hell isn’t freedom to say, ‘you can go vote, but he’s gonna pick the winner.’” President Joe Biden called the G.O.P. subversion of elections “semi-fascism.” My own sense is that the strongest approach is to marry hoary platitudes about democracy with explicit denunciations of those who want to end it — a candidate who will lie about past elections to win future ones is just a liar; a candidate who wants absolute power is corrupted, absolutely.
But the most important thing, if the big lie persists into 2024, is that Democrats not allow clichés and groupthink to discard what is, in all its menace, an enormous gift in any campaign: the gift of opponents who are villains.
Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) is the editor in chief of Crooked Media and the host of the new podcast “Positively Dreadful.”
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