The Democrats Love Democracy — When It’s Convenient

A consistent feature of Democrats’ messaging is that we should vote for them to preserve democracy. But from canceling primaries to ignoring voters’ opinions on Medicare for All and Palestine, they aren’t acting like they care about the will of the people.

President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Montgomery County Community College on January 5, 2024 in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

We’re only a few days away from the Iowa Caucus. There’s at least a little bit of drama on the Republican side, where Donald Trump has a commanding lead but some anti-Trump Republicans hold out hope that if Nikki Haley finishes second she might be able to create real problems for the former president in New Hampshire. There’s no drama whatsoever about the Democrats — a fact that feels stranger the more you think about it.

Joe Biden is an extraordinarily weak incumbent. He’s been struggling for a long time to keep his head above water in swing-state polls, even as his most likely opponent in the general election piles up a stunning number of indictments. And he’s facing several challengers from within his own party, the most recent being sitting congressman Dean Phillips.

The incumbency comes with massive advantages, and no sitting president has really had to fight for the nomination since George H. W. Bush was challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992. Still, if you were waking up from a coma and I told you everything I just mentioned, you would think Biden ought to at least be worried about the primaries — especially if I told you that Biden’s policies have been wildly at odds with the preferences of Democratic voters on issues ranging from health care to Israel-Palestine.

The reality is starkly different. If this were a real Democratic Party primary race, Biden might have to shift to the left on some of those issues to fend off his challengers. We’ll never know, though, because the president and his backers have simply decided to use every tool at their disposal to freeze Democratic voters out of the process. All the while their primary message on Trump is that he’s a unique threat to democracy — a concept to which they show a vanishingly thin commitment. Right now they seem to be hoping their voters don’t notice the contradiction.

Do Democratic Voters Know What’s Good for Them?

Anyone who remembers the last presidential election cycle knows that health care policy is extraordinarily important to Democratic voters. There was a crowded field in 2020, and debate after debate was dominated by Bernie Sanders’s proposal to replace the private health insurance system with a single-payer Medicare for All system. It was the dominant domestic policy issue of the nomination race.

Democratic voters ended up settling on Biden as a pragmatic choice who was widely perceived as having a better chance of defeating Trump, but polls consistently showed that his voters were to his left on this issue. Outside of South Carolina — a state with an unusually conservative Democratic electorate — exit polls in all the states where Biden won the primaries before he clinched the nomination showed majority support among Democratic voters for Medicare for All.

Crucially, though, Biden was willing to meet his voters halfway. In the primaries, he heavily emphasized his support for a government-run “public option” to compete with the private health insurance industry. If he deigned to debate any of his rivals for the nomination this time around, he’d likely have to answer some uncomfortable questions about why even rhetoric about wanting a public option almost completely disappeared from his pronouncements as soon as the race was over. It’s not as if he made some big push for it and was foiled by recalcitrant senators like Joe Manchin, or he tried to include it in a bill that the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled it couldn’t be included in, or . . . anything. He just stopped talking about it. For the last four years.

And that part of the hypothetical primary debates would be mild and polite compared to what he would face on the subject of Palestine. Since October 7, Israel has perpetrated war crimes in the Gaza strip so severe that the nation will have to answer South Africa’s charge of genocide at the International Court of Justice. Eighty-five percent of people in the Gaza Strip have been displaced from their homes. Millions are on the brink of starvation. The number of civilians killed dwarfs the number killed in two years of fighting in Ukraine, a country where Russia’s bombing campaign has notoriously flouted the laws of war. And through it all, Biden has continued to write a blank check of unconditional military assistance.

Polls have shown since October that a large majority of Democratic voters want a cease-fire. But no one’s challenged Biden on his opposition to cease-fire proposals except the occasional heckler at a public event, whom he can simply have removed from the premises by the Secret Service — and that’s exactly the way he wants to keep it.

Canceling Elections to Preserve Democracy

The Biden camp has always been clear that debates with his primary challengers are out of the question. They seem horrified by the thought of reminding Democratic voters that they have a choice. And the party has been doing what it can to remove the choice itself.

Traditionally, Iowa goes first. Insurgent candidates like Bernie Sanders with hard-core supporters willing to pour their energy into the caucus process can break through (as Sanders did in 2020) or come close (as Trump did in 2016), emerging with real momentum going forward to New Hampshire. By the time numerous states vote simultaneously on Super Tuesday, the dynamics of the race have often shifted dramatically from where they started.

Sanders busted out the gate too strong for the party top brass’s liking last election, and Democrats aren’t taking any chances on the same thing this time. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has done everything in its power to scramble the traditional process. In Iowa, the state party agreed to essentially cancel the vote — the caucus will be happening as usual, but only to “conduct administrative party business and to start the process of choosing delegates to the national conventions.” Iowa Democrats will make their presidential selection through an unusual “mail-in process.” Crucially, the results won’t be released until March — when it will, by design, be far too late to influence the shape of the race.

Biden’s desire for conservative, reliable South Carolina — the only state of the first four that Biden actually won in 2020 — to be the first state to have their votes recorded has been frustrated by New Hampshire’s secretary of state, who gets to set the dates for both the Democratic and Republican primaries. He’s a Republican, but his decision is supported by the Democratic Party’s state chair, Ray Buckley, who’s said that the DNC is less popular in the state “than the New York Yankees.” (Note to non–New England readers: New Hampshire cheers for the Red Sox.) Buckley defended New Hampshire’s primary date, which he says couldn’t be changed in any case without violating state law.

Biden and the DNC responded first by stripping New Hampshire of its convention delegates, and then decided that Biden wouldn’t be participating in the primary, apparently on the theory that not playing is less embarrassing than a symbolic loss. Even this apparently isn’t enough, though, since the DNC has more recently instructed the state party to “educate the public that January 23rd is a non-binding presidential preference event and is meaningless and the NHDP [New Hampshire Democratic Party] and presidential candidates should take all steps possible not to participate.”

In other words, not letting New Hampshire’s voters have their decision represented at the convention isn’t enough. The state party must actively discourage participation since, even without Biden’s name on the ballot, lots of voters casting a vote for someone else would still be too embarrassing for the fragile president. The secretary of state responded with a cease-and-desist letter pointing out that telling voters before an election that it’s “meaningless” would constitute voter suppression under state law.

Finally, and most absurdly, some state parties, like those of Florida and North Carolina, have gone to the extreme of making Biden’s name the only one that will appear on their state primary ballots.

“Preserving Democracy”

Democrats have spent a lot of time in the last few years warning that Donald Trump is a threat to democracy. Judging by the premium many Democrats and independents put on “preserving democracy” in polls about the issues they care about, this messaging is having some effect.

And the core premise isn’t wrong. The claim by many liberals that Trump represents “fascism” was always overblown. Full-on concentration-camps-and-banning-opposition-parties fascism is destabilizing stuff. Business interests generally only support it under extreme circumstances like Germany in the early 1930s where they worry that the only alternative would be losing everything in a socialist revolution. That’s far from the situation in the United States — a country where even Bernie’s social democratic insurgency was handily defeated, and the private sector unionization rate is well under 7 percent. But Trump’s blatant attempt to steal the 2020 election with slates of fake electors, for example, points to a willingness to engage in more openly authoritarian behavior than would be at all typical in the American context. Democracy is a spectrum, and it’s possible to imagine the United States degrading to a worse point on the spectrum.

Nor are Trump’s Republican challengers much better. Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are both big supporters of laws designed to make it harder to vote, and both have promised to pardon Trump for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. There is, then, good reason to fear that Republicans are hostile to democratic rights.

Even so, Biden and the DNC are hardly inspiring defenders of democracy. Their abject fear of letting voters have a say about the nomination process is Exhibit A, but the deeper issue is their indifference to the views of voters — even their own party’s voters — on crucial issues of domestic and foreign policy. It’s hard to miss the implicit message that actual governance should be left in the hands of competent liberal technocrats, and the role of the populace is to show up every two to four years to reelect them.

To be sure, they care about “preserving democracy” if democracy means “not stealing elections from Democrats.” But that’s it. Even stealing primary elections is fine. Democracy starts mattering after the nominations and stops mattering after the general election is decided.

My point isn’t that democracy — even in the incredibly minimal sense meant by Democrats — doesn’t matter. It does. But as time goes on, it’s harder and harder for people not to notice how little meat is left on the bone.