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Is Democracy in Peril … Or Not?

There’s been a lot of handwringing over Democrats like Josh Shapiro trying to choose their MAGA general election opponents. But maybe we need a nationwide referendum on Trumpism, once and for all?

Is Democracy in Peril … Or Not?

There’s been a lot of handwringing over Democrats like Josh Shapiro trying to choose their MAGA general election opponents. But maybe we need a nationwide referendum on Trumpism, once and for all?

Sometimes I think those of us who live and breathe this stuff tend to overthink politics. At the end of the day, to most people, who we elect might not come down to a lot more than likability — which makes the whiff of hypocrisy a candidate’s kryptonite. If a voter thinks you’re full of it, or in it just for your narrow interests, that will tend to be top of mind come election day.

That’s why there’s such hand wringing over the widespread spending Democratic candidates have done in Republican primaries, an effort to boost MAGA candidates and essentially pick their general election opponents. Strategically, it’s a smart move, right? General elections tend to be decided by centrist voters, so all the better to be pitted against an extreme candidate in the fall, no?

“The only thing that has been more nauseating [than watching the unraveling of my own party] has been the capacity of my Democratic colleagues to sell out any pretense of principle for political expediency,” Meijer wrote.

This is not really a new strategy. It was largely unheard of in 1999 when, in Philly’s mayoral race, Republican Sam Katz greenlighted his media consultant, the legendary Neil Oxman, to air attack ads against Democratic candidate Marty Weinberg, Frank Rizzo’s former right-hand man. Here was a Republican blanketing the airwaves with negative ads in the other party’s primary — a naked attempt to choose his opponent, then-Council President John Street. (Street would go on to beat Katz in a nail-bitingly close, though uplifting, election.

But we’ve never seen anything as widespread — or costly — as what’s happened this primary season. Almost as a matter of course, Democratic candidates have spent big in an effort to elevate Big Lie proponents to primary victories — even as they rail against the existential threat represented by those very same bad actors. In an editorial this week, The New York Times called it “a cynical low for the Democratic party.

In Michigan on Tuesday night, $435,000 from the Democratic party helped looney-tune MAGA challenger John Gibbs defeat incumbent Republican Congressman Peter Meijer — one of only 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump! Gibbs trafficks in wackadoodle “Spirit Cooking” conspiracies, alleging that Democrats take part in satanic rituals.

“Democrats like [Democratic Campaign Committee Chair Congressman Sean Patrick] Maloney argued that Republicans who looked the other way during the Trump era put party over country. But they know of what they speak,” wrote Meijer for former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’ newsletter Common Sense, noting that the DCCC’s eleventh-hour contribution amounted to more than Gibbs had raised during the whole campaign. “The only thing that has been more nauseating [than watching the unraveling of my own party] has been the capacity of my Democratic colleagues to sell out any pretense of principle for political expediency — at once decrying the downfall of democracy while rationalizing the use of their hard-raised dollars to prop up the supposed object of their fears.”

It’s a devastating critique. The Washington Post has published an interactive map of all such cases, including right here in the Keystone state, where Josh Shapiro spent $855,000 in the primary for an ad designed to boost seditionist Doug Mastriano — the eventual nominee. Shapiro didn’t advertise against Mastriano’s opponents; instead, his ad simply recited facts that the lens of the Republican base would interpret as praise for Mastriano — highlighting the candidate as one of “Trump’s strongest supporters,” and referencing Mastriano’s “Stop the Steal” bona fides. If Mastriano wins, Shapiro’s ad noted, it would be a “win for what Donald Trump stands for.”

Shapiro’s ad buy was more than double what Mastriano had spent on his own campaign at that point. “I’m going to have to send him a thank-you card,” Mastriano said.

Yet, throughout the campaign, Shapiro has eloquently defined his opponent as a threat to democracy and freedom. “Doug Mastriano paid thousands of dollars to bus Pennsylvanians to the insurrection on January 6th,” Shapiro wrote in a July 11 fundraising email to supporters. “To date, at least five of Mastriano’s supporters have been charged, including one supporter who took Mastriano’s chartered bus to the U.S. Capitol. If this is what Mastriano’s supporters do, just imagine what Doug himself would do for his chance to undermine our elections and undermine our democracy. Someone that dangerous can never be in the governor’s office.”

But you helped put him closer to it! It’s morally dicey terrain, no doubt. Shapiro and all other such candidates run the risk of seeming hypocritical. It’s also complicated politically; it’s been reported that congressional members of the House January 6 Committee are furious with the DCCC for effectively undermining the proposition that the Big Lie remains an existential threat.

But the results from Kansas Tuesday night got me thinking: Just what is the most moral of outcomes here? In Kansas’ stirring display of democracy in action, Democrats, Republicans and Independents all turned out — 50 percent of registered voters!— and made their voices heard, preserving the state’s protection of reproductive rights. I’m not sure it was the resounding pro-choice verdict the left is celebrating; instead, I suspect it was more a primal scream in favor of moderation and against extremism. (On abortion, the old Bill Clinton maxim of keeping it “safe, legal and rare” is still where public sentiment lies, even if Planned Parenthood has replaced the phrase “pro-choice” with “pro-abortion.”)

Either way, the point is, we had it out. After all the legal mumbo-jumbo and warring headlines, the issue was finally put to the test by — not to put too fine a point on it — We the People. Well, that’s what we need en masse, throughout the body politic, no? Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican party very well may be lessening, but Trumpism is flourishing, as evidenced by the rise of illiberal, seditionist, Christian nationalists like Mastriano. This election is not about partisan politics. The values of the Enlightenment are on the ballot.

Shapiro’s ad buy was more than double what Mastriano had spent on his own campaign at that point. “I’m going to have to send him a thank-you card,” Mastriano said.

It may not be a popular sentiment here in the People’s Republic of Philadelphia, but we need the Republican party to rediscover its soul in order to rescue democracy. But for Republicans to remake themselves into the party of McCain, Romney and Liz Cheney — something that embraces, rather than hates, traditional American values like freedom and personal responsibility — we have to finally decide whether we’re democratic or autocratic. And the only way to do that is by inviting the electoral mushroom cloud.

Yes, the writer Anand Giridharadas recently observed, Cheney’s January 6 Committee has done a stellar job proving that a high-level coup was orchestrated from inside the White House leading up to January 6. But maybe the greater threat to democracy is actually more subtle than that.

After all, something like 8 out of 10 Americans favor reasonable gun laws and adopting measures to combat climate change, while 60 percent support protecting reproductive rights with some restrictions. Maybe, Giridharadas opined, the telltale sign of democracy descending is when the public will goes largely unheeded. That’s why the vote in Kansas was so meaningful. It was We The People, rising up to remind so-called leaders: We’re still here.

So if this really is an existential moment, let’s embrace the end times. I’m glad Shapiro and Mastriano are going at it mano a mano, because maybe the Trumpers fever dream breaks if a slew of MAGA candidates lose to tolerant, reasonable, loving, middle-of-the-road candidates in general elections. Or maybe the voting machine-seizing purveyors of big lies and Christian nationalism prevail, and we finally come face to face with the fact that the majority of our countrymen are not who we thought.

Either way, we’ll know. And, by settling things at the ballot box, we’ll be doubling down on a comforting fact I still choose to abide by: That the only thing that can rescue democracy is … us. So have it out, Shapiro and Mastriano. May the most resonant definition of Pennsylvania values win.



Left, Josh Shapiro speaking in December 2021, photo courtesy Gov. Tom Wolf's office. Right, Doug Mastriano waiting for a Fox appearance in July, photo via the campaign Facebook page.

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