Ben Raderstorf is a policy advocate at Protect Democracy. He helps direct policy and communications work around systemic threats to American democracy and writes If you can keep it, our weekly email briefing.
The 2022 midterm elections altered the threats to democracy in the United States, but did not eliminate them. In key races for offices that will oversee the 2024 election in battleground states, election deniers were defeated and the authoritarian threat was dealt a significant setback. But the near 50-50 national divide persisted, seemingly impervious to the fact that one party has largely been taken over by election deniers and remains overwhelmingly supportive of a former president and present candidate who led a violent insurrection to overturn his electoral defeat. As a result, many other election deniers were elected to office, and control of the House of Representatives was turned over to the Republican Party in the first election after their standard bearer launched that insurrection.
This mixed assessment of current threats is reflected in the latest data. According to experts surveyed by the Authoritarian Threat Index, the overall threat to democracy fell from a 2.6 on a 1-5 scale in October to 2.0 in November, the lowest level since the start of the index in 2017. This drop — one of the steepest measured — puts the United States, in November 2022, only just outside the bounds of the “range of a normally functioning consolidated democracy.”
At the same time, the same experts surveyed still place the “four-year likelihood of democratic breakdown in the United States” at 19.2 percent, albeit down from 29 percent a month before. This is still an alarmingly high number, reflecting the fact that while the authoritarian threat has been dealt a setback, it has far from gone away.
Significantly reduced threats to the 2024 election
Across all of the key battleground states that are likely to decide the 2024 contest, election deniers running for gubernatorial and secretary of state offices lost their elections. As a result, in most places anti-democracy actors and conspiracy theorists will likely not have a major statewide role to play in the administration and certification of the next election. This significantly reduces — although does not eliminate — the direct threats to the 2024 election cycle.
Similarly, the 2022 election did not, contrary to fears, see widespread violence, refusals to concede, or interference with election processes (with some ongoing exceptions). The media generally refrained from amplifying baseless conspiracies, and the minimal amount of coordinated attempts to undermine trust in the results is a welcome positive sign.
Together, this explains why the threat to elections, as measured by the Threat Index, fell to 2.6/5, moving from “severe” down to “significant” threat.
Longer-term threats remain largely unchanged
Although voters rejected specific authoritarian candidates, they did not reject anti-democracy positions across the board. The same political party that has yet to break from those who incited a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — and even in many respects embraced the goals of the insurrection — won control of the House of Representatives. The country remains closely split on partisan lines, and almost half of the country remains open, at least tacitly, to authoritarian factions and candidates. This vulnerability may also have been exacerbated by the aspects of our electoral system that tend to advantage authoritarian candidates, such as the limitations of single-member districts and the limited number of truly competitive races for Congress.
And while violence did not manifest openly, it still cast a pall over the 2022 elections. For example, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors member Bill Gates had to go into hiding over threats to his physical safety in Arizona.
Meanwhile, shortly after the midterms, former President Trump — who led an insurrection in response to his own election defeat — announced his third White House candidacy. He remains a leading candidate for a major party nomination. His closest competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has emulated many of Trump’s authoritarian tactics, as well as inventing some of his own. These include the weaponization of law enforcement for voter suppression purposes, attempted enforcement of speech codes, and removing separately elected officials from office based on differing views.
Authoritarianism was dealt a setback, but not a defeat
One top takeaway of the 2022 election was that a majority of voters, if only a slim one, believe in democracy — and are willing to vote based on it. In almost every state, election-denying candidates underperformed, running significantly behind both the 2020 election results and non-election-denying Republicans running on the same ballot.
In surveys, voters have been quite clear why they rejected these candidates. According to the AP VoteCast poll, 44 percent said “the future of democracy” was their primary consideration, second only to inflation. Those voters favored Democrats by 20 points. And 8 in 10 voters were concerned about political violence in the U.S., with 58 percent blaming Trump — “including 30 percent of people who voted for him in 2020.”
On the other hand, to the extent voters denied conspiracy theorists the chance to oversee elections in key battleground states, they did so only by narrow margins and let other election deniers achieve office in less hotly contested races.
While more evidence is needed to best understand why voters and other political actors acted the way they did in 2022, the significant presence of ticket splitting in states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, where anti-democratic candidates underperformed their more mainstream ticketmates, suggests that attention placed on the extreme and anti-democracy nature of certain candidates mattered. This is further evidence that the system does not protect itself, but depends on the work of citizens: work to highlight the risks to democracy, to hold actors to account for misdeeds, and to support a smooth election process.