The American presidential historian and NBC News commentator Michael Beschloss warned last week—five days before Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections—that if the Republican Party were to win back control of Congress, it would be a question for Americans “whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed.” He concluded, “We’re on the edge of a brutal authoritarian system.” It was a shocking claim, even among those who share Beschloss’s anxieties about the direction Republican politics has taken since Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency. But it was shocking more for the unexpected and strange specter of children being killed than for the fundamental idea that—as U.S. President Joe Biden put in in a speech Wednesday night—“democracy itself” was at stake in these elections. That idea has been everywhere. How exactly would American democracy have been at stake in a democratic election?

John Jamesen Gould is the editor of The Signal. To Gould, we’re living in a time when there can be very fine margins, in the U.S. and in democratic societies globally, between extreme hyperbole and plain truth. As common as it became leading up to this election to hear in mainstream U.S. media that any Republican victory would be a potentially fatal blow to democracy in America, candidates and parties winning elections simply is democracy. There was a threat to democratic institutions, Gould says, but it was always more distinct—in the number of Republican candidates running on “conspiracy stories” initiated by the former U.S. president Donald Trump about the 2020 election having been “stolen” by Democrats. For Gould, it’s “good news” that those candidates have struggled most among Republicans on the ballot, but it’s also unclear what will happen to the conspiratorial political tendencies they represent—especially given the symbiotic relationship between those tendencies and the increasingly dominant “media ecosystem” Americans and people around the world are now living in.

Eve Valentine: What do you make of the idea that the future of American democracy was at stake this week?

John Jamesen Gould: I think it’s true.

I also think it’s important to remember that the future of democracy is always at stake in a major election—and we can’t always see the most consequential turns in the history of democracy in real time. Sometimes they might be obvious; sometimes they’re not.

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