The Difficult and Subtle Meaning of the Midterms
It wasn’t the crushing defeat many feared — yet nor was it fully the triumphant victory democracy needed. Not a catastrophe — but also not a landslide. So what was it? To make sense of the midterms, we’re going to have think in less polarized, binary terms. It was a complex, subtle outcome, which demands a more thoughtful interpretation. Here’s mine.
You’re free-climbing El Capitan. Wham! Suddenly, you find yourself slipping…and then miraculously, at the very last moment, slamming a hand back into the rock, you stop the plunge. You didn’t fall off. Whoosh! Relief. Adrenaline. Blood on fire. Heart pumping a thousand times a minute. But. You still haven’t made it to the top, where you can take a deep breath, relax, let those burning muscles recover. The forces of gravity, wind, and weariness are still pulling you down, down, down every second. How many more mistakes can you afford? That’s where America is today.
(Now, if you’re the kind of person who wants to bask in a euphoric post-election glow, please (I mean it) stop reading right about here. Go and have a fun day, celebrate, party. I wouldn’t blame you. It’s been a rough few years. If, on the other hand, you want to think about all this unflinchingly, then read on. And let me add at the outset that nothing I have to say will be relative to the usual frames, ideas, or “expectations” you’ll find on cable news, which are largely meaningless when you’re fighting for the life of a democracy.)
It wasn’t a blue wave. It was more like a blue whimper. Democrats won a narrow majority in the lower house, while Republicans strengthened their majority in the upper house. Democrats won some surprising governorships, while losing more elsewhere. This is hardly the stuff of a tidal wave, a grand shift in politics. So what is it? It’s something more like the most barely adequate minimum, a leaky wooden lifeboat on a stormy sea, the least possible salvaged at the last possible moment.
It wasn’t a stinging rebuke of authoritarianism. Let’s cut through the political noise and put in harder terms. Democracy retained one half of the legislature. But extremists have still captured the executive, judiciary, and the other half of the legislature. Really repudiating authoritarianism would have meant something more like taking the Senate, winning by a much larger margin in the House, and winning those hotly contested governorships, every one. It would have meant sending a clear message that authoritarianism is not welcome here.
It wasn’t a stinging rebuke of the politics of hate, aka fascism (“nativism”, if you need a pacifier.) It’s true that minorities and women and women minorities made historical inroads, and that’s a wonderful thing. But that is largely in places where they had a cultural and social chance to. Largely, voting split along the same old lines — tribal ones. Lines of race and ethnicity, which are often mistaken for those of geography. The fissures which have always divided America aren’t just present, in many ways, they are deepening. For example, white women still largely voted (LOL) for Ted Cruz. A stinging rebuke of fascism would have been sending a much clearer and more unified signal, across social groups, that the kind of dehumanization and scapegoating and bigotry that casually defines American politics now will not pay, but be swiftly, severely punished.
Now. Let me interrupt the bad news to give you some good news. The good news is that Americans did something not just urgent, but difficult. They began to buck the tide of history. What I mean by that is that the collapse of a democracy is shaped by macro-forces, economic stagnation, which hardens into extremism, cruelty, and hate, as people turn on one another. Bang! Forces that, operating at a grand scale, are very, very difficult to fight, which slip through the fingers like water — because you aren’t just fighting the opposition, you are fighting history, folly, catastrophe, which have momentum, weight, power, depth. And so it was a welcome event to see Americans bucking the tide of history, and rejecting extremism to even a mixed, middling degree — because that is a victory of its own.
Still, I don’t want to fall into the trap that I think defines so much of thinking these days: too low a bar. Democrats should have done better than they did. 70% of Americans want things like public healthcare, education, retirement, childcare, and so on — yet if you add up the numbers, only something like 60% of Americans voted for Democrats. To me, the implication is clear. The Democrats would have won bigger if they’d had a clear and resonant plan, not to mention a message, to give people a working social contract. But they didn’t — they seem unable to think, much less act, on that level.
So this election wasn’t so much a victory for the Democrats — who are they? What do they stand for? Is there some unified party platform? What are their values? — as much as it was frustration and anger at Republicans. At their spite at democracy and indifference to American values and grotesque cruelty to everyone who doesn’t share the first two. To ascribe victory to the Democrats, who didn’t campaign very hard, very well, or in the terms the moment asked — with a vision for a new social contract — is being too generous, and letting them off the hook, too. I think it would be a mistake to settle for the bare minimum of an opposition, as Americans so often do.
Now. Let us come to the central question many people have. Is a changed House a “check” on extremism? Yes and no. It’s true that it gives Democrats a little more power. But they are hardly likely to use it — they tend to overthink and cower rather than press. And much of that power is symbolic. Yes, they can subpoena people — so what? The President can pardon them. The true power the Democrats have in the House isn’t procedural, so much — it is soft power, of a kind. The power to bang the drum, to inspire, to lead, to shape an agenda, and then push for it. The power to stand on the pulpit every day and call our for a better, fairer, more functional society. The power to demand change from a higher place — if not to fully supply it. The question is whether they will do any of that — or simply start compromising again with extremists from day one. Isn’t that how we got here? Hence, I’m dubious they will use the power they have gained well.
The Presidency, which started abusing executive orders some decades ago now, is likely to simply respond by issuing more of them, and more absurd ones, too. When they are challenged, they will go before the judiciary, and the judiciary, in many cases, will see no problem — precisely because Republicans have worked so hard to stack it with extremists. So the idea that worst depredations of authoritarianism are now going to — phew!! — magically disappear is a mistake. The fight has just begun. And if the old idea — hey guys, let’s compromise with those fanatics who want to take us back to the Dark Ages — is how the Democrats operate, well, then…LOL. Perhaps you see my point. “Checking” the abuse power also means being willing to use your own, which is the only way power really expand, and Democrats have always been strangely reluctant to do that.
To really “check” the power of extremists doesn’t mean reacting to them. It means disempowering them. And the way to do that is to take the lure they use to bait people: frustration and rage with a broken system. And the way, in turn, to do that is to offer an agenda for a functioning social contract. When you do that, suddenly, extremists look a little foolish. Their proponents feel a little sheepish.The solutions were right there, all along — and they didn’t involve hate, spite, and self-destruction. The Democrats reclaimed the House without having anything resembling such an agenda or vision — which isn’t something to be proud of, it’s something to be wary of, because without one, what gains they have made will necessarily be limited, and then erode. I don’t think that many in American politics understand this crucial set of points much — that the way to defeat extremism is proactively, with a better social contract, not just by reacting more furiously every day to it’s latest outrages and scandals — and that is why the nation is so broken and riven both.
So. Let’s answer the question now. It wasn’t quite the triumphant victory democracy needed — nor was it the defeat many feared. So what was it? What lies between necessary victory and ruinous defeat? Disappointment does. The stakes were high, and the Democrats didn’t quite rise to the challenge — nor did the American people. I don’t say that in a scornful way, or even in a castigating one. Just to observe. The moment was now to send a clearer, more unified, more precise message — and America did not fully do that, largely because Democrats didn’t do a very good job of leading them to the place of courage, wisdom, humility, and truth from which a kind of gentle, fearless strength is rediscovered.
Still, Americans did something urgent, which is to begin the work of rebuilding a broken democracy — from the ground up. Work like that takes generations. It begins not with policies and races and elections — they are just its reflections — but with ideas, values, attitudes, emotions we allow ourselves to feel, worlds we allow ourselves to see, people we allow ourselves to be. To think all that would happen overnight was always too optimistic. So let us do something funny and strange today. Celebrate, perhaps, even a disappointment. Often, today’s disappointments open the doors to tomorrow’s transformations.