Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race has set off the usual round of blame and vituperation among Democrats. And though it’s messy to watch, that’s overall a good thing.
The battle lines in the McAuliffe post-mortem are familiar enough. Centrists like former Virginia Senator Tim Kaine accuse progressives of harming the party’s chances by refusing to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill (progressives want to be sure that a more progressive bill will also pass.) Progressives, for their part, blame centrists for blocking popular measures like paid family leave. They also point out that McAuliffe is a centrist himself.
Neither progressive or centrist recriminations here are especially convincing. The party of the president has lost the Virginia governor’s office in every race but one since 1977. Virginia is a closely contested purple state and the out-party just tends to be more energized a year after a presidential contest. Nor was the night a total loss for Democrats, who eked out a narrow win in the New Jersey governor’s race. Compared to Republicans’ disastrous night in 2017, you could argue Democrats did fairly well.
Still, the Virginia governor’s loss hurts, and it’s natural for party actors to use that pain to try to justify themselves. Politicians in a democracy are supposed to be sensitive to signals from voters, and a stinging election loss in a state Biden won by 10 points certainly feels like a signal. Progressives and centrists both saw the results and called for more legislative action to provide better outcomes for their voters. Voters rebuked Democrats at the polls. Democrats responded by saying they wanted to give voters more of what those voters want. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.
When Trump lost the 2020 elections, though, Republicans did not pause to consider how they could do better by voters. Instead, they attacked the democratic process itself. Trump spent months spewing baseless lies about election fraud and pressuring Republican officials to toss out election results.
After Republicans lost two special elections in Georgia and Senate control along with them, there was a brief moment when it looked like the party might engage in healthy democratic introspection. Party actors said that Trump’s election fraud claims harmed the party by alienating voters and encouraging them to stay home. The January 6 insurrection also prompted a backlash, as Republicans wondered whether reckless attacks on the democratic process might be morally wrong — or cost them votes.
But this brief flourishing of Republican self-doubt has mostly faded now. A year after Trump’s election loss, a substantial number of Republican politicians are still repeating his lies about election fraud. Rather than trying to figure out how to tailor a message that might appeal to more voters, Republicans in many states have tried to pass laws to make it harder for Democrats to vote. They’ve passed laws to make it possible for Republicans to interfere in election administration, and even throw out results they don’t like.
Elections have major consequences. In a pandemic where Republicans have frequently run against public health measures, election losses by Democrats can lead directly to unnecessary deaths. No one wants to lose elections. In fact, with so much at stake, you could argue Democrats have a moral obligation to win them right now.
But if you don’t have the possibility of losing an election, you don’t have a democracy. Voters keep politicians honest in part by periodically throwing the bums out. When those bums land on their butts in the street, political parties and actors are supposed to brush themselves off, consider what they did wrong, and figure out how to change. At the very least, an election loss is an opportunity to try to make intraparty rivals see the error of their ways.
The post-election self-cannibalizing autopsy is a frustrating and sometimes ludicrous ritual which many people on social media have amusingly parodied. But the alternative is for candidates to look at themselves and decide that they are awesome in every way, and that if they lose an election, it’s the electoral process and democracy itself which is at fault. When you stop taking election losses to heart, you’re on your way to not having elections at all.
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