Leonard Pitts: Democracy itself is on the ballot this election

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Corey Hankey drops his ballot into the ballot box at the Salt Lake County Government Center during primary Election Day on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

Yes, democracy is on the ballot.

One hesitates to say this. It has, after all, become rather a cliche to note that the American experiment in self-government faces a moment of truth with Tuesday’s midterm elections. President Biden, former President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, Rep. Schiff and pundits, editorial pages and state lawmakers from Sacramento to Albany to Detroit to Phoenix to Palm Beach have all issued the same stark warning.

Democracy is on the ballot, they say.

The problem with cliches is that when you hear a thing repeatedly you often stop hearing it at all. So one wonders how many of us hear those words and understand them to mean this country faces an existential emergency as grave in its way as those it faced in 1861 and 1941. Perhaps we ought not be surprised some of us miss this. No matter what happens Tuesday, after all, we will not wake up to find foreign troops in Akron. The electricity will still work in Kansas City. There will be no refugees from Miami, no bomb craters in Times Square.

But that’s not to say that we will wake up and things will be just fine. No, we may find that dozens of right-wing extremist candidates whose mantra is that elections are unfair unless they win them have actually won their races, seizing control of future elections and rendering them moot. We may also find ourselves at the dawn of a new round of political violence, further destabilizing a country that has already seen its Capitol sacked, a spike in threats against government officials and a recent home invasion at the residence of a congressional leader. Not to mention that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security just issued a stark new warning of more tumult in the 90 days following the election.

So no, no armies marching or bombs falling, but an existential threat all the same, albeit an insidious one. It’s the difference between a wrecking ball and a termite infestation. One is more dramatic and immediate, yes, but either can destroy a home.

That being the case, it’s disappointing to learn that a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll quantifies a significant enthusiasm gap between left and right. The extremists are eager to vote, the rest of us, less so. There are a number of likely reasons.

In the first place, one suspects there is a certain fatigue that comes of living in a state of constant crisis, which is what these last years have been. Democracy was also on the ballot, you may recall, in the election of 2020.

In the second place, midterm elections are almost always referendums on the party in power, i.e., Democrats.

And in the third place, how many of us are taking refuge in a subconscious conviction that somehow, some way, things will work out, regardless? Some things are literally unimaginable and one of them, after 246 years, is the idea that we could wake up in a country where elections really are rigged, Christianity is the state religion, homosexuality is against the law, protest is prohibited, a free press is proscribed, free speech is a memory, misinformation is the only information and the law is whatever the Dear Leader says it is.

If all that’s unimaginable, well imagine it anyway, because it is on our doorstep. It’s the world the extreme right is working — with no lack of enthusiasm, please note — to bring into being. If we don’t do something about it Tuesday, we may not get another chance.

Ultimately, you see, this is not an election about inflation, crime or even abortion. It’s an election about the future.

And whether America is going to have one.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com