As its closing argument in the run-up to the midterm elections, the Democratic Party appears to believe that demonizing its opponents is its best bet. Voters tend to care the most about pocketbook issues, especially in a time of economic uncertainty and raging inflation. But in a series of speeches given in the last week before Election Day, President Joe Biden and other leading Democrats claimed that “democracy was on the ballot.”
This refrain does more than imply that Republicans are insurrectionist authoritarians bent on destroying the republic; it appears to be the
Democrats’ actual position, echoed on the campaign trail and repeated on cable news. Talking heads—like Biden’s favorite historian, Michael Beschloss, for example, who compared Biden to Abraham Lincoln and analogized the current situation to the eve of Civil War—have said just that. According to Beschloss, “a historian will say what was at stake tonight and this week was the fact [of] whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed.”
As crazy as that sounds, it’s possible to dismiss it as partisan electioneering. It would be comforting to consider it no more than a cynical ploy aimed at winning the election. But, sadly, it may not be.
Politicians and their acolytes always seem to think that, as with love and war, all’s fair when it comes to maintaining their grasp on power. And a Republican Party that is led, for all intents and purposes, by former President Donald Trump can’t claim to be a stranger to hyperbole.
Yet there’s more to this rhetorical trope than just the desperation of a political party that feels control of Congress slipping away. It’s a mindset that views political opponents as not just wrong, but evil. It encourages a willingness to go beyond questioning the wisdom of policies to doubting the good motives of friends, relatives and neighbors who happen to disagree with you.
This does more than breed the sort of contempt that undermines the spirit of democracy. It makes conspiracy theories sound reasonable and leads some to think that traditional beliefs about defending free speech and avoiding the criminalization of political differences need to be discarded in order to defend democracy from its perceived foes. It is a perfect companion to cancel culture.
What makes it even worse, though, is the notion that it’s linked in many minds with the fight against anti-Semitism.
Despite the claim that those who put forward the line of argument about Democracy’s being in danger are trying to fight extremism, it’s exactly the sort of thinking that lends credence to extremists. If history teaches us anything, it is that such an atmosphere of heightened conflict is one in which the scapegoating and demonization of the Jews always finds a wider audience.
Far from making the country safer, those who buy into such apocalyptic notions are setting the stage for the kind of political conflict that is actually antithetical to the normal practice of democracy, which requires both sides to accept each other’s legitimacy.
By tying political opponents to their fears of anti-Semitism, liberals are also repudiating allies of the Jews in a lockstep pro-Israel party. Contrary to the Democrats’ usual claims about support for Israel being bipartisan, this makes bipartisanship seem not just wrongheaded, but a pact with the devil.
Democrats can attempt to argue that their policies are better than those of their opponents, or even that they are more high-minded, virtuous or caring than Republicans. But there is no reasonable case to be made that GOP majorities will herald the end of democracy or anything like it.
The Republican caucuses that will be sworn in next January will have some outliers on the right. They will, on the whole, be more conservative and less linked to the Washington establishment than in the past.
But none—not even those who might claim the title of “MAGA Republican”—will be “semi-fascists,” as Biden has claimed, let alone be interested in reviving Nazi Germany or creating the fictional republic of Gilead of the dystopian novel and television series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Such claims are canards and undermine the struggle against actual extremism, not to mention a rising tide of anti-Semitism that has infected some sectors of the far-left and far-right.
Moreover, it ill behooves a Democratic Party that is more in thrall to its activist base, and a congressional progressive caucus that includes a growing collection of avowed socialists and Israel-haters, to be talking about extremism.
Yet there is no denying that some Americans actually do believe that Republicans are not just wrong, but are instead evil opponents of democracy. It’s the natural, perhaps inevitable, result of a political culture in which Democrats and Republicans no longer read, listen or watch the same media, and isolate themselves from each other on social platforms.
The disgraceful Capitol riot reinforced this phenomenon. However, the idea that it is only Republicans who question the outcomes of close votes or the legitimacy of those they lose is rich, coming from a party and its legacy media cheerleaders who did the same after the 2016 presidential election.
Among Jews, the majority of whom are liberals and among the most loyal demographic constituency of the Democrats, it’s also gotten tied up with fears of anti-Semitism. While worries about that are justified, this particular concern is connected to the accusation that Trump is an anti-Semite and the lie that he endorsed the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville.
There are grounds to criticize Trump or any politician without bringing anti-Semitism or even fascism into it. At a moment in American political history, however, when large numbers of people subscribe to the “anyone I don’t like is Hitler” approach to politics, the temptation to damn opponents in this manner is irresistible.
Both parties spend a lot of effort seeking out and publicizing extremists among their opponents who have either said something anti-Semitic or support someone else who has done so. And each side has found plenty of such targets for their ire. But to jump from that game of political gotcha to a belief that the Jews must be loyal soldiers in an imaginary war for democracy is a trap.
Such is the conceit behind a conference on extremism, being held by the Anti-Defamation League just after the election, whose headliners, like ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, are believers in the war-on-democracy myth. It would have behooved them to invite at least one conservative who might refute that claim, but it appears they didn’t.
Mixing up real Jewish security concerns with partisan propaganda is a colossal mistake. What the ADL seems not to understand is that by enlisting the premier Jewish defense agency to back up the claim that democracy is at risk, they are helping to drag the country down a conspiratorial rabbit hole with incalculable consequences.
Responsible Jewish leaders should be doing the opposite. Even mainstream liberal groups have to understand that bolstering the narrative about the country’s being on the brink of an apocalyptic battle for freedom against domestic foes is bad for America and the Jews. It is exactly the sort of mindset in which those who dwell in the fever swamps of the far-left and far-right, and who actually do mean the Jews harm, thrive.
It remains to be seen whether leaders on both sides of the aisle can be found to pull us back from an abyss of delegitimization that poses a genuine threat to democracy. More than the security of the Jewish community will be at stake if we don’t find a way out of an ideological civil war fueled by intemperate political rhetoric.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.