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Is 2022 the year that saved democracy?
That depends on whether you believe the glass is half empty or half full.
photo: Tyler Merbler, license: CC BY-ND 2.0
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So here we are at the end of another tumultuous year in American politics in which democracy was under dangerous assault.
That’s been the story of every year since 2016.
But is this the one that turned the tide? Or did it just buy us more time?
I ask those questions because we thought at least two prior years would turn the tide. But they just bought us more time.
In 2018, Democrats rode into the House leadership on a massive blue wave. Pundits had said a year before that it would be difficult for Democrats to take the House, or that they might take it by a few seats. But in the end they won by over 40 seats.
Many believed the tide would be turned. Donald Trump would finally be impeached and removed from office.
And he was indeed impeached after that mid-term election — though it took a while for Democrats to get there. Looking back it’s hard to believe that Trump wasn’t impeached on anything he’d done prior to that election — though there was certainly enough there, and there were calls for his impeachment throughout that time — but on something that happened well after the election.
It was in July of 2019 when Trump, in his phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, tried to get dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for releasing aide to Ukraine that had already been voted on by Congress, while Ukraine was fighting Russian aggression — a quid pro quo.
It wasn’t until September of that year that Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry. The decision to impeach was made in December, when hearings began in the House. Trump was impeached by the House at the end of December. The trial then didn’t take place in the Senate until the beginning of 2020, and Trump was acquitted in February, with only one Republican, Mitt Romney, voting to impeach Trump on one of the two counts.
Democracy thus remained under assault, with Trump still in office. 2018 wasn’t a turning point. But it did buy more time. Trump and the GOP weren’t able to pass legislation with the House in control of the Democrats, and that surely was a great thing.
In 2020, Trump lost the presidency in his re-election bid, and Joe Biden, with a clear mandate, would assume the White House. Many thought, again, the tide had turned. Trump was going to be out of office. Democrats retained control of the House and Senate.
But then came the insurrection — an assault on the Capitol, like nothing we’d seen, by a mob Trump incited to violence — and the metastasizing of the Big Lie. Trump would again be impeached in the House (a quicker process this time) but again be acquitted in the Senate (though a few more Republicans voted to convict this time.)
For all of 2021, Republicans threatened democracy further, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy bowed to Trump — something that began right before the impeachment. Any Republican who was out of line was punished. Trump helped to whip up hate against his opponents in the GOP and usher in radical right-wingers who would win the 2022 GOP mid-term primaries.
The kind of hate that spurred violence — including an attempt by some extremists to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and by others to attack Pride events — only seemed to grow. And by 2022 Trump still hadn’t been brought to justice for January 6th as investigations droned on. Then we learned he stole top secret documents from the White House and hid them in Mar-a-Lago. Trump made it clear he’d be announcing later in the year that he’d be running for president in 2024. The base, newly angered by the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, seemed solidified behind him.
So 2020, to the surprise of many, did not turn the tide, even as Democrats took the White House and retained Congress. But it, like 2018, certainly bought more time. The big question, however, was: How much time?
The answer to that question would have been horrifyingly clear in 2022 if Democrats had lost the House by a large margin and lost the Senate — as the media narrative predicted — in addition to losing key governorships, and attorney general and secretary of state races in the states. It would all be over in 2024 for sure.
But the near opposite happened. Democrats pushed back a red wave. They surged in the Senate, picking up a seat, while keeping the GOP from getting anything but a razor thin majority in the House — which is already hobbling Republican leaders.
MAGA gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake went down in Arizona, as did Christian nationalist and January 6th insurrectionist Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. Governor Gretchen Whitmer prevailed in Michigan, as did Governor Tony Evers in Wisconsin.
In Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona, Democrats won secretary of state races. And they won attorney general races in Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Michigan.
The Republican candidates in these statewide races, like key House and Senate candidates who lost, were election deniers, backed by Trump. All of this was a major win for democracy. Had Republicans won those key gubernatorial, secretary of state and attorney general races, the 2024 elections in those states — where elections are always close — would most definitely have been dramatically rigged in favor of the GOP, and Trump if he is the candidate.
By keeping the Senate and adding a seat for a 51-seat majority, Democrats can speed the appointment of federal judges and continue investigations of Republican attempts to overturn democracy.
The election results themselves were a referendum on protecting democracy — a key issue for voters across the country — and the GOP lost big. Trump was seen as a disaster for the party — having chosen many of the election denying candidates — and certainly drove people out to vote against the GOP. Some MAGA may even be turning on Trump. And the entire GOP is in turmoil, as the RNC’s chair Rona McDaniel is under attack and finds her leadership challenged, while Kevin McCarthy is struggling to get the votes to be speaker of the House.
So, again, is it the turning point year, or did it just buy us more time?
It’s certainly true that 2024 is not certain doom, as would have been the case if it went a different way. And surely we can’t forget: Joe Biden and the Democrats accomplished an enormous amount this year with a thin majority and in the face of the extremists in the GOP — and much of it is about retaining freedom and standing up against tyranny as well as about helping all Americans — from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips Act to the Electoral Count Reform Act and the Respect for Marriage Act.
At the same time, Trump’s grip on the base — and his ability to foment violence — while it is shaken, is not gone. And Ron DeSantis is on the horizon, beating Trump in some polls, and he’s a more efficient — and thus a more dangerous — version of Trump.
I want to believe we turned the tide, and I certainly know we woke many people up in 2022 to the dangers of the GOP. But I also know deep down that we’re in for a long fight against authoritarian forces. And the movement is global, with coup attempts by extremists in Brazil and Germany in recent weeks, and the far right rising in France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and other democracies. And of course, there’s Vladimir Putin and his assault on Ukraine and the West — openly backed by many in the current GOP in the U.S. as well as by Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
So I’m still thinking it through. But with everything said, what do you all think as you look back on 2022? Something to ponder in these last days of the year.
One thing I want to say is, “Thank you!” to all of the democracy defenders — which includes those of you reading — who organized and fought hard. We are forever indebted. Whatever you want to call 2022, millions of true patriots stood up against fascism and for freedom and true American values.