Kevin Kruse says this really is the most important election of your life
"There’s a certain tipping point at which democratic institutions just collapse and crumble."
By Thor Benson
The midterm elections could very well decide the future of American democracy, but it often doesn’t feel like voters understand how large of a threat we’re really facing.
Polls show voters cite inflation as their top concern going into the midterms, followed by threats to democracy. However, when you look at why people are worried about democracy, only a fraction of them cite Republican candidates’ intentions to subvert future elections as the reason.
It’s understandable why people are so worried about things like inflation. When you’re low on money and the cost of everyday necessities is high, it’s hard to think about anything else. Considering Republicans don’t have a plan to tackle inflation, voting for them doesn’t seem like the logical answer to one’s financial woes, but people tend to reject the party in power when they’re struggling.
With under two weeks left until elections that, whether voters are aware of it or not, will serve as a referendum of sorts on free and fair elections, I thought it’d be good to get some perspective on the bigger picture. I spoke with Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, about the stakes of this cycle.
“It’s not just that this is the most important election of people’s lives, it might be the last fully free election in their lives unless they get out and vote,” he said.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
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It’s kind of a cliché at this point to say that a coming election is the most important election of your life, but do you think that’s really the case with the midterms?
It is a cliché, but this really is the most important election of your life. The midterms are going to be vitally important. If Democrats can maintain the Senate, there’s some hope for continued work on judges. That doesn’t just impact what’s going on now but for several decades — not only the Supreme Court but federal courts too. The House is equally important. Republicans have already announced incredibly stark rollbacks of things like Social Security and Medicare.
We could possibly default on the debt ceiling.
And then there are the democracy issues …
Yeah, the important part that people are overlooking here is races in the states — for governors, for legislators, but most importantly for secretaries of state. There are a number of candidates out there — for all of those positions — but especially for secretary of state who have said basically that the next time there’s a situation like what we had in 2020, they will do everything in their power to throw the election to Republicans.
We dodged a serious crisis in 2020 because there were a number of Republicans, in places like Arizona and Georgia, who refused to go along with calls to throw out the election results and install Donald Trump. We’ve got a new group of Republican nominees who are promising to do exactly that. That really is a cause for alarm. It’s not just that this is the most important election of people’s lives, it might be the last fully free election in their lives unless they get out and vote.
I personally can’t think of any other time in American history when democracy was under threat at this level, at this scale, except for the Civil War era. Would you agree?
That would be the big one, and think about what that wrought and how chaotic it was. You can look at maybe the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction governments in the South. We’ve just never seen it on a national scale. In those cases, you still have the counterweight of the rest of the country, the federal government in fits and starts providing some kinds of checks on that.
If this happens on a national scale, that’s the ball game. There’s no going back. I think that’s something people don’t understand. There’s a certain tipping point at which democratic institutions just collapse and crumble. Americans, in general, have bought into this kind of mythology all nations tell themselves about how great, noble, and stable their institutions are. I think Americans are particularly prone to that because of American exceptionalism.
There’s a lot of confidence that things are just going to hold and the system will work, but that really isn’t borne out by what we’ve seen with other countries that have experienced this in the past.
It seems, based on the polls, that a lot of people aren’t seeing how serious this is. Have there been any other times, maybe not at this scale, where there have been threats to democracy and politicians have been able to get people to hear this kind of message?
We often think of the New Deal era as one focused on economic liberalism, but Roosevelt made some strong appeals to democracy and really encouraged people to think of democracy and democratic systems as something they had to have an active and engaged role in. I think one of the silver linings of the past few years is how many Americans have realized that democracy is not a spectator’s sport. They have to get off the sidelines and get in.
I worry without Trump being in office that they feel that moment has passed, but I actually think we’re facing a more serious crisis right now than we were in the Trump years — in terms of what’s at stake and what could actually be lost.
Biden’s clearly facing a historic moment here as the person who’s president while this is going on. How do you think he’s handling it compared to past presidents who have faced major crises?
I think he’s done some of the things he should be doing. I think he could be sounding the alarm a little harder. One speech here and there is not going to do it. It’s got to be a constant drive. I think he needs to be doing a lot not just to mobilize the base but to alert Americans of the stakes of the midterm elections — really make sure they’re tuned in.
I understand very well being worried about your finances, which people seem to place above concerns about democracy in the polls, but I struggle to see how people could see what we’re facing and not be as freaked out as I am.
There’s an assumption on the part of people in the middle class and the upper class that it won’t affect them. That’s a very dangerous view to hold, because it will eventually affect you. That’s what the elites and middle class in Weimar Germany once thought. We see how wrong they were. Not that we’re comparable to that exactly, but I think there’s a real tendency of people to think these big changes won’t affect them and then it’s too late and they have.
Aaron’s Clip Room
Oz’s moment of accidental honesty
Tuesday’s first and only debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz was perhaps the most anticipated one this cycle. Fetterman’s ongoing recovery from a stroke made it hard for him to respond to questions extemporaneously and led to some tough moments for him, but Oz still managed to hurt himself with a moment of accidental honesty.