Midterm elections are less than a week away, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are preemptively casting doubt about election results — about this cycle and in general.
While election denial has become a feature of Republican politics — former President Donald Trump has declared that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and FiveThirtyEight estimates that fewer than 14 percent of Republicans on the ballot this fall have unequivocally accepted Biden’s 2020 victory — we cannot ignore alarming anti-democratic rhetoric emerging from the opposite side of the aisle.
“Rightwing extremists already have a plan to literally steal the next presidential election,” former presidential candidate Hillary R. Clinton declared in a video that has been viewed by millions. In the Senate, Democrats are warning that the elections this month may be illegitimate because of voter suppression in states legislatively dominated by the GOP.
To be fair, Democrats’ concerns about the integrity of elections are certainly well-founded. In her video, Clinton seemed to be describing an impending Supreme Court ruling, Moore v. Harper, which experts caution could potentially give state legislatures the ability to override the popular vote in their states’ presidential elections and appoint electors of their choice to the Electoral College. This would be an unprecedented development that would entirely overturn the way our democracy functions. Senate Democrats are also sounding the alarm on a number of state bills that could restrict voting. But the way Democrats’ phrase their messaging about legitimate election concerns — seemingly drawn straight from the 2020 GOP playbook — is alarming.
When our country’s most visible politicians sow doubts about the legitimacy of our elections, as is happening in our current election cycle, it erodes faith in our democracy. When Trump and his allies spread misinformation about the results in 2020, it resulted in an attempted insurrection that cost the lives of five individuals; one year later, only 55 percent of Americans believed that Biden was fairly elected president. The new rhetoric on the left — no matter how well founded — is bound to cause similar disillusionment.
Beyond a breakdown in popular confidence in our democracy, doom and gloom election messaging threatens Americans’ ability to sympathize with their peers of differing political persuasions. When election results are chalked up to voter fraud, voter suppression, or the disproportionate natures of the Senate and Electoral College, the election results become tainted and the public may not lend credence to the concerns of the winning party. Even when politicians raise well-founded concerns about American voting, they run the risk of jettisoning voters’ critiques about their priorities and figureheads.
Denying elections’ legitimacy fosters echo chambers on both the political left and the right that make dialogue difficult, erodes respect for our peers, and renders national unity impossible. That’s particularly bad given the deep existent political cleavages in American society. A Penn State study found that voters on both sides struggle to empathize with citizens of differing political beliefs already; denialism will hardly help.
While it is reasonable to worry about voter suppression and the Supreme Court’s ruling on election law, when Democrats perform poorly this cycle — as they are expected to — instead of crying foul play, they should self-introspect on a host of other factors that are contributing to voters’ feelings.
For instance, why is President Joe Biden’s approval rating so low? And why have one million voters switched their party registration to the GOP? What Democratic messaging is not working? And why are their candidates not garnering popular support?
To be fair, some of the projected midterm results can be explained by the historical tendency for the president’s party to perform poorly during midterm elections. Yet failing to assess the political salience of Democrats’ messages would be naive. The whole point of democracy is to force the losing party to ask questions when they lose elections and to allow the populace to hold them accountable. When election results are interpreted as a malicious attempt to subvert the popular will — rather than an indicator of popular belief itself — individuals can escape uncomfortable conclusions about the fallibility of their own ideology.
The task ahead for the Democratic Party is the delicate attempt to balance concern for voter suppression and undemocratic voting measures with a respect for voting results, which reflect a large degree of dissatisfaction with Democrats’ politics. While this task is difficult, there are some crucial measures the party should take.
One, it should never again fund election denialists within the GOP. While this strategy may be politically expedient in the short-term because it gives Democrats easier opponents in competitive seats, it simultaneously abets election denialists who spread misinformation, undermining American democracy overall.
Secondly, Democrats should end rhetoric that casts doubt on the legitimacy of elections. While concerns about voter suppression and legal challenges that could change American voting are valid, alarmist speech that totally disregards election results is reductionist and helps the party evade culpability for its lackluster performance.
On a macroscopic level, both parties should begin thinking seriously about election results instead of castigating external forces for their poor performance at the polls. This thought process may help partisans broaden their political appeal beyond their solid base.
At Harvard, where most students identify with the Democratic Party (55 percent of the Class of 2025 compared to only 5 percent who identify as Republican), the temptation to interpret the midterm result as not representative of actual national opinion is real. But we should avoid this trap and try to consider why other Americans might disagree with us. Doing so will help us identify what issues are affecting other Americans and will force us to reconsider the political stances we may take for granted.
Mark Twain once wrote, “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Perhaps the same applies to the minority too.
Jacob M. Miller ’25 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Lowell House. His column “Diary from an Echo Chamber” appears on alternate Thursdays.