Douthat: democracy, whatever

Ross Douthat is evidently having trouble filling his column quota.  Or maybe he’s just confused about the role of public intellectuals and the nature of rational decision making.

In two recent columns, Douthat suggests that Democrats are excessively worried about Republican attacks on voting and election and should just chill out.  He defends this “what, me worry?” approach to politics in two ways.  First, he argues that there is so much uncertainty about how the future will unfold that Democrats and Republicans who want to preserve democracy do not have a clear strategy to pursue. 

This is the point when I’m supposed to tell you which of these three approaches will actually Stop Trump and which will ignominiously fail. But the frustrating truth is that as adaptations to the unprecedented weirdness of the Trump phenomenon, all three attitudes — maximalist, moderate and deliberately inactive — seem somewhat reasonable.

Which means, in our era of guaranteed surprises, that all three will probably be rendered irrelevant by some turn of events between now and 2024.

Second, he suggests that Democrats overestimate the risk that Republicans in Congress and state capitals may refuse to allow Biden to take office in 2024 even if he wins the state-by-state vote for the electoral college.  He downplays the ability of Republicans to subvert elections, pointing to Trump’s failure to steal the 2020 election and the failure of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.  Again, the upshot is we should all just take a deep breath:

Which, again, does not make the worriers unreasonable; it just makes their we’re all doomed attitude seem extremely premature.

This is nonsense in so many ways.  I will mention two.

First, there are indeed things that Democrats (and sane Republicans) can do to reduce the risk of a democratic disaster.  My two priorities would be:

  • A massive voter registration effort.  This would reduce the risk of a close election and make it much less likely that rogue Republican officials and judges can subvert an election.
  • A massive education effort.  We should do everything we can to educate voters, politicians, judges, election officials about the importance of free and fair elections.  Republican efforts to entrench themselves in power threaten to deprive voters of the ability to turn incumbent politicians out of office, which will make Republicans less and less responsive the public.  We should also explain the danger created by apocalyptic Republican rhetoric that makes losing an election seem like an existential crisis to many Republican voters. 

Douthat could be contributing to this effort.  As a conservative with a column in the New York Times he has both some credibility with Republicans and a large megaphone.  But instead of educating voters about the importance of honest elections and trying to counter the overheated rhetoric coming from Republicans and Republican-aligned media, he argues that Democrats should stop worrying about the Republican threat to democracy. 

Second, Douthat chastises Democrats for exaggerating the risk of democratic failure in 2024.  He seems to suggest that many Democrats believe a stolen election in 2024 is inevitable, but this is obviously nonsense (I note that the sources he links to do not support this claim). 

More fundamentally, it is perfectly reasonable to be very worried about a modest risk of a terrible thing happening, especially since there are things that we can do to reduce the chance of disaster.  Sensible thinking would focus our attention on what we can do to prevent a disaster, even if the risk of disaster is less than 50%.  Generally speaking, drying your hair while soaking in the tub is not a great idea, even if it worked out last time you tried it and is more likely than not to work if you try it again. The fact that democracy survived Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election and may well survive past the 2024 election simply does not justify Douthat’s counsel of complacency.