“Election Denial Took It on the Chin”: Americans Bailed Out Democracy—For Now


I got Jocelyn Benson on the phone the day after last fall’s midterms. I was expecting some exhaustion. It had been a long night of returns and a punishing election cycle, and I assumed that everyone was nursing the same kind of civic hangover I was. But the Michigan secretary of state was ebullient, still riding an adrenaline high from the night before. “Though we’re in the middle of this multiyear effort, this is a significant victory that we never got to celebrate in 2020,” Benson tells me. That year had also been a Democratic (and democratic) success: a high-turnout election, carried out in the chaos of a pandemic, that saw Joe Biden make Donald Trump a one-term president. But it was followed by weeks of challenges and frenzied protests, including an armed protest outside Benson’s own home that December as she put up Christmas decorations with her young son.

Benson was sworn in to her second term in January after not only presiding over the highest-turnout midterm in her state’s history, but also decisively beating Kristina Karamo, her Republican challenger, who’d made lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election the centerpiece of her political identity. Her win—and those of other Democrats—hadn’t exactly extinguished Trump’s “big lie.” But it seemed they’d managed to get it somewhat contained.

Observers had been bracing for a “tsunami” that would wash all manner of election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and pro-Trump radicals onto Capitol Hill, into statehouses and governor’s mansions and positions of power over the democratic process. Some of them are, in fact, now in office. But the red “tsunami”? That never quite crested.

“We’ve had, in my view, three elections running—2018, 2020, and 2022—where the American electorate as a whole, but also state by state, county by county in some cases, has had this choice between democracy and autocracy, or democracy and Trumpery, on the ballot, and three times America has rejected it,” Norm Eisen, the Democratic impeachment counsel and Obama White House ethics czar, tells me.

Raphael Warnock’s win in Georgia’s December runoffs cemented Democrats’ 51-seat Senate majority. Where some had anticipated a bloodbath similar to the one they suffered during Barack Obama’s first term, in 2010, Kevin McCarthy is instead navigating a razor-thin majority in the House (the challenges of which he became intimately familiar during his drawn out and chaotic speaker vote). And, perhaps most symbolically, Trump’s third presidential campaign is starting at perhaps the weakest point of his political career. His handpicked candidates badly underperformed; when Trump announced his 2024 White House bid exactly one week after the midterms, he did it as a growing contingent of Republicans grumbled about the drag his election denialism had on the GOP. “It’s never one thing, but I think that it’s clear that running on relitigating the 2020 election is not a winning strategy,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota said then. Well into January, his presidential campaign, which some who know him have speculated is having money issues, has had a muted start. 

Americans “have widely divergent views on a broad array of topics, but not on democracy,” Eisen says. “As you go around the country, it’s clear that election denial took it on the chin.” It wasn’t eradicated from our politics, of course. But it seemed to be “substantially beaten back,” Eisen tells me. In Michigan, Democrats now control every branch of the state government for the first time in 38 years.

In 2022, the process played out relatively peacefully—no mobs tried to break into vote-count centers in Detroit; no bullhorns outside Benson’s home; no kidnapping plots against Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The threats of intimidation at drop boxes, of pro-Trump partisans infiltrating election boards, of postelection chaos? There were scattered incidents, sure, but not enough to seriously shake the system. And those election deniers nearly two thirds of Americans had on their ballots? Most lost—and conceded as much.

That’s a pretty low bar to clear, as election expert David Becker tells me. “We need to raise our expectations, to some degree,” says Becker, executive director at the Center for Election Innovation & Research and coauthor, with CBS News’s Major Garrett, of The Big Truth, an exploration of Trump’s election lies. “It’s good when candidates concede. It also should be expected.”

But when democracy has been brought so close to the brink, perhaps even a small step away from the ledge can seem a tremendous relief. “We’re succeeding in communicating to voters how important it is to have leaders that will tell the truth and will stand up for democracy,” Benson says.

The Democrats have managed to buck the usual electoral headwinds—headwinds made all the more powerful by uncertain economic times. But it remains to be seen how they will ultimately fare against the broader trend toward far-right authoritarianism, which has gained a foothold both in the US and across the globe. “We’ve all had a very intense lesson in how fragile our democracy is,” says Susan Stokes, director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago. “We don’t feel like we’ve lost it entirely. But we feel like we could.”

That existential dread hasn’t evaporated in 2023. There are still the GOP-led state legislatures, many entrenched through gerrymandered maps, which have functioned for years as petri dishes for right-wing policy. There are new demagogues rising, including Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who was emboldened by a Republican sweep in his state’s 2022 vote, and the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who was among the few who did refuse to concede when her race was called. And, of course, there’s the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority killed abortion rights in 2022 and could this year lend its imprimatur to the independent state legislature theory, the idea that legislatures should be empowered to override the popular vote, which underpinned Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. During oral arguments in December, the conservative majority didn’t exactly dispel concerns they could ultimately embrace the fringe legal theory, though some justices did appear somewhat skeptical of it. There’s some new cause for anxiety as well: More than 200 antidemocratic candidates have either been sworn in or are about to be sworn in this year, including the secretaries of state in Indiana and Wyoming, giving proud election deniers control over their states’ election process. And while Trump was left humiliated and angry after the midterms, shame and rage are what powered his movement in the first place. Republicans, with control of the House, have already begun discussing their plans to impeach Biden. The GOP has passed up plenty of opportunities to actually move on from Trump. “There is a pro-democracy majority in the US,” Becker tells me. They may disagree on various issues, “but they agree the way to resolve those disputes is through the ballot box and our elected officials. But there is a significant minority in this country that doesn’t seem to believe that.”

Even so, it may finally be time for the pro-democracy coalition to embrace a somewhat unfamiliar feeling: optimism. “On balance, the fearmongering on election denial…did not prevail, and I think that’s an extremely important signal,” says Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

It’ll take some getting used to, maybe, to feel hopeful about politics after spending the better part of the decade batting back the relentless forces of Trumpism. But it may ultimately be necessary to actually, finally, eventually close this ugly chapter in our politics. “We’ve gotta be organizing for the long haul,” says Yasmin Radjy, executive director at Swing Left, a progressive group founded in response to Trump’s 2016 win. “This is a generational fight for our democracy.”



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