Progressives breathe a sigh of relief as they dodge a disastrous “red wave” rout in the midterm elections that would have given Republicans control of both houses of Congress – plus governorships in key states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, where voter chicanery could tip the 2024 presidential election.
But let’s stop congratulating Democrats on what Senator Elizabeth Warren called their “midterm victory.” Democrats kept their simple majority in the Senate by winning between zero and one seat, and relinquished control of the House by losing what will likely end up being 10 seats. I don’t want to bore anyone with statistical analysis, but a tie and a loss don’t make a win.
If newcomers to American political culture were confused as to why election night was widely seen as a victory for Team Blue, it was because they had not been briefed on the conventional wisdom according to which the party that wins the White House will lose badly midterm. elections. It happened to the Democrats of Bill Clinton in 1994, the Democrats of Barack Obama in 2010 and the Republicans of Donald Trump in 2018. (It also happened to the Republicans of George Bush, but in 2006 instead of the post-September 11, 2002 frenzy.)
But this pattern is not an immutable law of nature but a recent law of neoliberalism. In the 60 years before Clinton, the only presidents whose party suffered a crushing midterm defeat were Harry Truman and Gerald Ford, two vice presidents who had recently taken the White House without being elected.
I’m not a historian with a well-researched theory, but I suspect the recent trend of midterm backlash has something to do with the hollowing out of American democracy, so both parties have no not much to offer voters beyond fear and hatred of the other party. – leading to depressed turnout from their base when the enemy is not in the White House.
Joe Biden‘s Democrats have bucked the trend this year, but it’s important we understand why, because centrists love the Atlantic‘s Yascha Mounk eagerly claim the results as a lesson in how moderates won the election. Like “victory,” “moderate” is another word that might sound strange to a newcomer armed only with observable facts. Yes, some of Donald Trump’s hand-picked misfits like Blake Masters and Dr. Oz didn’t win, but the Republican Party as a whole (which, again, just won a majority in the House) is full of politicians bent on persecuting trans children and “stop the theft” conspiracy theorists.
But the real focus of these arguments for moderation is not the Republican Party, which even the most desperately dedicated bipartisan have given up on, but a warning shot against left-leaning Democrats. The subtitle of Mounk’s article, “A lesson for any party that wants to succeed in 2024”, makes this clear.
Mounk and like-minded experts carefully selected a few results that fit their analysis while ignoring centrist failures that mirrored Republican talking points on crime, numerous left-wing candidate victories and ballot initiatives, and the massive role played midterm by voters’ desire to protect their abortion rights, an issue that centrist Democratic leaders have repeatedly refused to fully defend.
However, neither side in this debate can explain why the Democrats didn’t lose more midterm despite grappling with an unpopular president. It looks like the midterm backlash trend could give way to a new 2020s trend of calcified politics. It’s the term used by political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch to describe how the two parties had nearly identical results in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections (although of course Trump won the former and lost the second) despite the massive changes that shook the country in the years that followed. It seems that the midterm elections could be an extension of this stalemate.
You can also see this play out in presidential approval ratings. Until the last decade, it was normal for popular opinion about presidents to swing wildly. Obama ranged from 69% after his historic election to 38%. George Bush achieved a sky-high 90% approval in the year after 9/11 and went down to 29% when he stumbled. Ronald Reagan had a 33-point gap between his high and low, Jimmy Carter 47. But Donald Trump got stuck during his presidency in a relatively narrow 15-point range between 49 and 35 percent, while Biden only varied 19 points from 57 to 38.
But the calcification comes from changes not only in popular opinion, but also in the ability of parties to get people with those opinions to vote. One of the main causes of the old midterm reaction was the fluctuations in voter turnout between the ruling party and the non-ruling party. But the past two midterms have seen a surge in voter turnout on both sides. Voter turnout is a good thing, but this increase seems to be due less to politicians’ satisfaction (see again Biden’s low approval ratings) and more to parties (and their media proxies at Fox and MSNBC) succeeded in making partisan identification an essential element of the cultural and regional identity of citizens.
What’s really odd about the static results of recent elections is that the voters themselves aren’t actually calcified. As numerous news reports have noted, millions of people have changed affiliations in recent years, with Democrats attracting more with college education and Republicans attracting more blue-collar men. Some of the analysis is grossly flawed – such as labeling Democrats “the party of high-end voters” and Republicans “a multiracial coalition of working-class voters” – when in fact most voters low-income and people of color continue to vote Democratic. Nevertheless, millions of voters have switched affiliations back and forth since Donald Trump was elected, so why has the overall margin between the two parties remained slim?
The ongoing equal division of the electorate is a historical oddity with many factors, but one factor that should get more attention is the tensions that exist not between voters but within each party. For Democrats, this conflict is between an increasingly left-leaning electoral base and a mega-donor funding base who want their politicians to reassure them that nothing will fundamentally change. Republicans are dragged into unpopular positions by their motley array of far-right donors and demagogues, but then are faced with the need to get close enough to a majority to be within flight distance. Perhaps our current 50/50 stalemate is in part the result of both parties having increasingly sophisticated electoral data and predictive tools that allow them to hone their ability to serve unpopular agendas while remaining within striking distance of a mere majority.
In any case, this stagnation has averted a full Republican sweep, but we need more than preserving the status quo. As the two parties remain locked in a stalemate, many critical fights will unfold over the next two years: the revival of the Green New Deal, abortion rights, ballot initiatives, unionization struggles at Starbucks and Amazon, defeating the fascist campaign against trans youth, and more.
These campaigns, which will surely include many of the impressive numbers of socialists who won on election night, can be a pathway to real victories, rather than our current state of political stagnation.