Democrats’ midterms hurdle: Americans are getting used to

This much is clear: Democrats are in trouble in the midterms. After an initial bump from the widespread outrage at an extremist supreme court that stripped American women of our nationwide right to safe, legal abortion, voters are recalibrating, and falling into a familiar midterm routine: supporting the opposition party. Republicans, according to new polling, are leading with voters nationwide, and especially in a handful of crucial state races that will determine control of Congress.

But there’s something bigger going on here than just the usual political churn, or even the idea that voters are more motivated by pocketbook issues than amorphous ones like a potential future need for abortion. Voters are adapting to authoritarianism. And that doesn’t just portend a bad outcome for Democrats in November; it suggests America’s democratic future is at acute risk.

The American reaction to the supreme court’s radical decision on abortion rights is a telling hint of what’s to come. The court summarily taking away a fundamental, long-held, and oft-utilized civil right is incredibly uncommon; it hasn’t happened in my lifetime, or my mother’s lifetime. While most of the rest of the world is moving toward broader respect for human rights, including women’s rights, and expanding abortion alongside a greater embrace of democratic norms, the US is in league with only a tiny handful of nations in making abortions harder to get, and in newly criminalizing them. The nations that are cracking down on abortion rather than expanding abortion rights have one thing in common: a turn from democracy and toward authoritarian governance.

When the court overturned Roe v Wade, many Americans were initially incensed. Women registered to vote in astounding numbers. Significant majorities of Americans told pollsters that the court’s decision was flat-out wrong. The legitimacy of the court took such a huge hit that several of its justices made defensive statements about the value of their increasingly devalued institution. Pollsters noted a sharp turn: after dire predictions for Democrats, the party suddenly had an edge, thanks to an overreaching conservative court.

And Republicans were set back on their heels. The Dobbs decision was the result of decades of rightwing work and millions of dollars. The Republican party has made overturning Roe a singular goal. So it was interesting to see how they reacted when they finally got what they had always wanted: they went quiet. They avoided the topic. The standard Republican view on abortion – that it should be illegal nationwide – is overwhelmingly unpopular, so Republican politicians spent the summer and early fall trying to change the subject.

So what, then, explains this sharp swing back to Republican favorability?

Simply put, voters acclimated. The media is still covering the impact of rightwing anti-abortion laws, but not with the overwhelming force we saw in the initial weeks after Roe fell. After all, at some point the litany of horror stories – of women being refused care for miscarriages, of women being forced to carry doomed pregnancies to term, of women traveling thousands of miles for basic health care, of women getting septic infections, of women losing their uteruses, of child rape victims being forced into motherhood – blend into each other, sound like the same story over again, and become old news.

Human beings are remarkably adaptable. Often, this serves us well: it means we survive, even through horrifying circumstances. But it also means that we can learn to live in horrifying circumstances. Terrible laws that don’t affect most of us every day simply fade into the background as life ticks on. Terrible governments rarely target majorities of the population immediately and all at once. Instead, authoritarian states tend to start with those who have little power, as well as those who threaten the authoritarian’s power. For many conservative, highly religious authoritarian states, women are both a group with less economic power and political representation and a chief threat.

In the US, the women primarily hurt by Dobbs are those living in conservative states, and women with the fewest resources are hit hardest of all. This is not an accident. While all women in the US now live without full rights to our own bodies, and while the anti-abortion movement is coming for all of us, conservative politicians have targeted women with the least economic and political power first. A majority of American women may be angry about anti-abortion laws, but are not yet (or do not yet believe themselves to be) directly impacted by them, and that is especially true for the Americans who have the great influence in the political and economic spheres – women and men alike.

The stripping of abortion rights is one clear indicator of America’s rising authoritarianism. And Americans know that we’re in trouble. Voters – especially Democratic and independent voters – are aware that democracy is under threat, and perhaps even that trust in free and fair elections, women’s rights, and America’s democratic institutions are on the ballot this November. While a whopping 71% of voters said that American democracy is at risk, however, just 7% named it as the most important issue in this election.

And that’s perhaps understandable. “Democracy” can feel like a big and nebulous thing, while a more expensive grocery bill is a tangible and immediate concern. And Democrats have been telling voters (correctly) that democracy has been at risk since Donald Trump began undermining it. They weren’t wrong to sound the alarm. But eventually even the loudest siren begins to sound like background noise.

There is also the simple fact that threats to American democracy will not be solved in 2022 alone.

What America is experiencing is a pervasive problem with rising authoritarianism all over the world. Often, autocrats use democratic means to rise to power, and their takeover is a slow one, not an overnight coup. And once authoritarianism is entrenched, average citizens carry on – there may be an initial shock, but then life, for many people, evolves into a new normal.

We’re seeing this dynamic in real time when it comes to abortion. Over the next few years, we may see it on an even larger scale, and with democracy itself.

Armed with this new data, pundits, consultants and politicians themselves are telling Democrats to revamp their strategy: don’t focus on abortion so much, or focus on the economy more, or simply be prepared to lose in November. The beltway consensus seems to be that this is a messaging problem.

And certainly Democratic messaging could be better. But what we’re seeing isn’t just a problem of inadequate sloganeering or a focus on the wrong things. It’s another iteration of a longstanding pattern, forged by a combination of human nature and the canniness (and historical learnedness) of those who seek to use democratic processes for undemocratic aims.

How do you convince the frog in the slow-boiling pot not only that he’s in real danger, but that it’s going to take a while for the heat to come down? That’s not a question Democrats can answer with messaging alone – and not one they’re going to solve in a month.