Democracy in peril argument fizzles as midterm issue

Threats to U.S. democracy highlighted by the House Jan. 6 select committee’s blockbuster hearings are fizzling as a midterm election issue, drowned out by inflation and other economic concerns that appear to be driving voters in the final weeks of the campaign.

While the committee examining the 2021 Capitol attack has made a convincing case that the American experiment is a fragile one — and is sounding dire warnings that the foundational threat remains very much alive — the message is being overshadowed by more immediate economic anxieties, according to a series of recent national polls.

The trend threatens to undermine Democratic efforts to make former President Trump — and his ongoing bid to overturn the 2020 election results — a political liability for Republican candidates in races coast to coast. And that, in turn, spells bad news for Democrats fighting to retain razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, helping to keep President Biden’s approval rating underwater while lending an eleventh-hour boost to Republicans eyeing a return to power.

The late-cycle dynamics have exasperated Democratic leaders and investigators on the Jan. 6 committee, who are warning of an existential threat to democracy if the same Republicans who voted to keep Trump in power take the reins of Congress. Still, the uphill battle hasn’t stopped those Trump critics from amplifying their case in the home stretch. 

“You have to recognize that they are undermining our democracy,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “And if people think that they can be casual about that, they just don’t realize how serious the Republicans are about undermining our democracy.”

Recent polls indicate that Democrats have a steep climb in the final weeks if they’re hoping to make that issue a major factor shaping midterm outcomes. 

Researchers conducting a Harvard-CAPS-Harris poll asked voters this month to identify the most important issues facing the country. Inflation ranked first; the Capitol attack ranked 19th.

Another recent poll, conducted by Monmouth University, indicated that only 26 percent of respondents say the findings unearthed by the Jan. 6 committee have helped to strengthen American democracy, while an even greater number — 35 percent — say democracy is weaker as a result of the investigation.  

Still another survey, conducted this month by The New York Times and Siena College, found that only 7 percent of voters consider the “state of democracy” the most pressing issue facing the country, versus 45 percent who singled out the economy (including jobs) and inflation. 

That same survey also found that almost 40 percent of respondents are open to supporting candidates who voted to overturn the 2020 election results — a number that has left Trump’s critics dumbfounded. Asked about the figure, Pelosi was at a loss for words. 

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “I think it’s a tragedy for our country that people don’t value the vision that our founders had about a democracy, what our men and women in uniform fight for.” 

Presented with the same poll results, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) was equally discouraged. 

“It’s a really tough environment,” she told MSNBC on Tuesday. “The problem is, we are talking about fascism at our door. And what people unfortunately across this country, and what we are dealing with, is that people don’t believe the truth, right? I mean, they are being sold lies all the time.”

Over the course of nine explosive public hearings, the select committee had presented damning evidence that Trump was aware he lost the 2020 presidential contest but continued to promote falsehoods of a “stolen” election. The campaign culminated in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when a pro-Trump mob, encouraged by the president, attempted to block Congress from formalizing the results.

In the months since then, Trump’s GOP allies — including the House leaders poised to control the chamber if it flips next month — have rushed to Trump’s defense, downplaying his role in the rampage and accusing Pelosi of a failure to secure the Capitol that day. It’s an argument that’s been widely condemned by those who see Trump as the clear mastermind. 

“That’s like blaming somebody who had a home invasion because they didn’t lock the front door,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of two Republicans on the select committee, told CNN this month. “It’s insane. And it’s a deflection. And the only people that don’t see right through that are those that choose not to see right through that because they don’t want to look at January 6 and see the truth.”

The Jan. 6 committee has been the most prominent vehicle for spreading the threat-to-democracy message this year, but it’s not the only one. After the long summer recess, House Democrats returned to Washington in September for a three-week session — the last before the midterms — where party leaders orchestrated a concerted effort to tie all Republicans to Trump’s election lies. 

“Extreme MAGA Republicans apparently do not believe in democracy anymore,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters just before the midterm break. 

While the warnings haven’t resonated with voters to the extent Democrats had hoped, there are also some subtle indications that the messaging campaign has helped to shine some light on an arcane issue that might otherwise have been a stark nonfactor as voters head to the polls. 

The 7 percent of voters most concerned about democracy, as revealed by the New York Times-Siena College poll, appears to be a low number, but it ranks third among all issues — above crime, immigration, abortion, health care, China, COVID-19 and climate change. 

Only the economy and inflation ranked higher. But those appear to be the issues truly driving voters this fall.

Tags 2022 midterms Adam Kinzinger Biden inflation Jan. 6 attack Jan. 6 panel Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal
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