Why the midterms make me optimistic for America
A win for stability and reasonability.
OK, FINE. The results aren’t all in yet, and we don’t even know who controls the House, but I guess I better write my midterm reaction post.
Where I’m coming from on American politics
I’m not a politics blogger, and when I write posts about politics, they naturally tend to be more divisive than my usual econ-focused fare — I’m sort of a normie, center-left Barack Obama liberal, and I realize that many of my readers don’t share my leanings. But I think politics can’t be left out if we want a holistic picture of where our society and our economy are headed. And I’m an opinion writer, so I am going to take a stand on things. So I thought it would be helpful to explain where I’m coming from on American politics right now.
Right now I see stability — both political and social — as the most important issue in the United States. Yes, I want to make changes in directions that I consider progressive (which don’t always align with what people call “progressive”). But I think that the past decade of unrest and instability have not been very conducive to that sort of change; there has been real important progress in some areas, while in other areas we’ve seen “progressive” changes that were basically mistakes that need to be rolled back. In some cases we’ve even seen conservative backlashes that moved our society to the right of where it was in 2012 — abortion, for example, is now illegal in many states, thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision, which was made possible by Trump’s election in 2016.
Most importantly, though, we’ve seen the rise of a reactionary movement that is committed to degrading many of our basic institutions, particularly our democratic elections. Trump’s attempted autogolpe after his loss in 2020 failed pretty pathetically, but it did lead to the creation of a strain of election-denialism within the GOP. Many feared that GOP-controlled state legislators would try to pick their own electors in defiance of the electoral outcome, or that Republican electoral officials would refuse to sign off on results. These were reasonable fears, since some Trump-associated GOP candidates have promised to do those things, and since Trump himself had tried unsuccessfully to get people to do both of those things in 2020. If the 2022 midterms saw a lot of these Trumpian candidates win power, we could be looking at a major constitutional crisis over a disputed 2024 election that would have a tail risk of spiraling into a Spain-type civil war. Whether you’re a progressive or a conservative, you should recognize that the destruction of the United States of America is very much not conducive to your goals.
That’s the biggest reason why stability is my primary concern right now as far as U.S. politics is concerned. It’s not the only reason — I also think political divisions have moved our culture toward an unhealthy obsession with politics, power, and inter-group conflict. But certainly, the threat of civil war, even if it’s still just a tail risk, dominates my thinking here. And it’s for that reason that I’m very happy and relieved about the results of the 2022 midterms — no matter who ends up controlling the House.
Anyway, here are a few reasons the midterm makes me more optimistic about America’s future, and more confident in my thesis that unrest has seen its peak.
Democracy was on the ballot, in a sense…and it won
Because of the fears of , many Democrats said that “democracy is on the ballot” in the 2022 midterm elections. I was worried that this slogan would muddy the issue by conflating the very real and terrifying threat of election denial and coups with more perennial and far less urgent Democratic complaints about gerrymandering and voter ID laws. That worry looks to have been misplaced. In important ways, democracy was on the ballot, and it won a resounding victory.
In swing states, the candidates who were best positioned to cause the kind of constitutional crisis I described seem to have all taken a drubbing. The most important of these races were for Secretary of State, the official who oversees elections.
Here is a detailed discussion on NPR and here’s a writeup by AP. And here is a scorecard by CNN. Election-deniers won Secretary of State positions in Alabama, South Dakota, Wyoming and Indiana (all red states), but lost everywhere else.
More broadly, election denial didn’t seem to be an effective strategy for House and Senate candidates, though it also wasn’t the kiss of death. This is from a writeup at FiveThirtyEight:
Of the 199 Republican candidates for the House, Senate, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election, so far 134 (67 percent) are projected to win their races, 52 are projected to lose, and 13 have yet to be called, as of Thursday, Nov. 10, at 4:30 p.m. Eastern. Of those 134, 112 are incumbent members of the House, many of whom voted not to certify the results of the 2020 election and still haven’t said the election was legitimate, but who also did not make the issue of election fraud central to their campaigns…
Of the 80 non-incumbent Republican election deniers who ran for House, Senate, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, just 22 are currently projected to win (28 percent), while 49 (61 percent) are projected to lose, and nine are in races that have yet to be called.
The most important election-denier losses came in the key battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. If the 2024 election pattern looks anything like 2020, it will be very hard for Trump to overturn the result without overturning it in at least one of those two states. And election-deniers lost resoundingly in both, with Democrats making a stunning clean sweep in Michigan.
There are still a lot of Republicans out there who deny that the results of the 2020 election were legitimate. But it doesn’t seem to be a winning electoral strategy, and that increases the chance that almost all Republicans will abandon it over time. Americans value our ability to choose our leaders incredibly highly — it’s one of the core institutions that defines us as a nation. We’re not going to give it up just for partisan point-scoring or culture wars. And that is a reason for optimism.
DeSantis up, Trump down
Note that democracy winning the election is not the same as Democrats winning. Yes, Democrats did a lot better than the President’s party usually does in midterm elections. But at the end of the day, no matter who ends up with a razor-thin margin in the House, the two parties won about equal numbers of seats. And at the state level, Republicans scored some important victories, especially in Florida.
Only recently, Florida was considered a highly competitive purple state. Obama won it in 2012, and gubernatorial races there have usually been very close. But in the 2022 midterms, Ron DeSantis won a crushing 20-point victory, and Republicans won solidly pretty much everywhere on the ballot. Turning Florida into a deep red state is a major coup for Republicans, and they owe a lot of it to DeSantis.
And DeSantis did it in part because he won over the state’s Hispanic voters. The much-talked-about Hispanic shift toward the GOP is proceeding only slowly at the national level, but in Florida it has been a major shift (and not just among Cubans either). DeSantis seems to have an almost Reaganesque ability to stake out culture-war positions that drive elite liberals up the wall while failing to scare away the ethnic working class.
If DeSantis seems to be the future of the GOP, Trump is ever more clearly part of its past. Trump-backed candidates lost big on Tuesday:
At least fourteen of Donald Trump's handpicked candidates are projected to have lost their election bids, according to an ABC News count…
"This is a sinking ship," one top Trump adviser told ABC News. "We're not going to beat that."
"This was the end of the Trump era and the dawn of the DeSantis era," a Republican operative close to the Trump orbit told ABC News. "Like every other Trump catastrophe, he did this to himself with stupid and reckless decisions."
This feeling doesn’t appear to be coming from progressives (many of whom revile DeSantis as much as Trump); instead, it’s coming from conservatives and Republicans. This is from the New York Post:
They want The Donald replaced by The Ronald.
Former President Donald Trump is losing support on his home turf — with fed-up Floridians turning their backs on the MAGA movement as its leader throws relentless and unprovoked rhetorical jabs at their wildly popular governor, Ron DeSantis.
In ruby red St Johns County — which voted for the 76-year-old 45th president by 27 percentage points over Joe Biden in 2020 — loyalists are starting to change their tune.
“I think Trump has too much baggage,” contractor Alberto Aguilar told The Post. “We need a clean start, a fresh start with someone new. It’s DeSantis’ time now.”
And a Fox News op-ed declared that “Ron DeSantis is the new Republican party leader.”
The sentiment seems widespread; DeSantis has begun to lead Trump in both Republican primary polls and prediction markets. Nor is the turn against Trump limited to elite Republicans or National Review writers — conservative activist Mike Cernovich, whose right-wing credentials none would question, declared that “at least no one has to suck up to Trump anymore.” Some erstwhile Trump allies are urging him to step back:
Trump, for his part, intends to do no such thing. He has already begun to furiously attack DeSantis, as well as any right-wing politician or activist who has criticized him. But his insults, including the incredibly awkward “Ron DeSanctimonious”, have so far fallen flat.
Trump probably still has a good chance to win the 2024 GOP primary, simply based on the strength of his personality cult. He can even blackmail the Republican elite with the threat of a third-party run that would doom the GOP’s chances. But in general, I think this election shows that the conservative movement has gotten what it wanted from Trump — it has assimilated his more popular ideas, and is ready to move on without the chaos and narcissism of the man himself.
Populist upstarts in America tend to wane over time — think of Ross Perot, Bernie Sanders, or William Jennings Bryan. There’s little indication that Trump is well-positioned to win the general election in 2024, even if he manages to bully his way to another nomination. Remember that this is the third national election in which Trump underperformed, and Republicans — and Americans in general — traditionally do not like a loser.
And that makes me optimistic, because Trump as an individual is uniquely bad for American institutional stability. DeSantis fills progressives with rage, and he very well might turn the country red again, but he’s not going to try a coup or make American foreign policy subservient to Vladimir Putin.
The benefits of a divided Congress
As for Congress, as of this writing it looks like either the Dems or (more likely) the GOP will end up with a razor thin House majority of just 1 to 3 seats, while the Senate will remain just barely in the Dems’ hands. This result also makes me optimistic, because it will encourage bipartisanship.
There’s a common belief that divided control of government itself — the President and Congress coming from two different parties — encourages the two parties to work together. In fact, a belief like this may be one of the main reasons the President’s party usually loses the midterms. But often this just seems to result in bitter gridlock, such as in 2011 where the Tea Party Congress almost caused the U.S. to enter a technical default in its budget battle with the Obama administration. Over the past few cycles, obstructionism rather than cooperation has been the norm during periods of divided government. If you’re a hardcore libertarian who thinks the best government is one that can’t get anything done, then perhaps you like that idea…but most people are not hardcore libertarians.
Instead, consider the benefit of a closely divided Congress. If the majority has a House margin of only 1 to 3 seats, it will basically be impossible for the majority party to exercise complete control over legislation; just one or two defections will be enough to flip anything. Modern parties are good at whipping their members into line, but not that good. An evenly divided Congress will involve constant searches for defectors from both sides, meaning the power of moderates in Congress just went up.
This will especially come in handy in existential crises like a possible disputed 2024 election. It will now be far more difficult for Congress to use the electoral college count to approve an alternative slate of Trump-backed “fake electors”, even if some Republicans would want to do so. At least one or two representatives would probably defect in that situation.
A divided Congress could provide cover for more explicit bipartisan cooperation from party leadership as well. It increases the importance of winning defectors from the other party, and preventing defections from your own party, in order to win House votes. That gives both Republicans and Democrats an excuse to join hands and build bridges across the aisle — they can tell their bases that there’s just no alternative now. There’s some indication that party leaders want to be more bipartisan than their bases allow them to be in public, so now they might have an excuse.
In fact, even before this election, bipartisan cooperation has been slowly rising, with things like the CHIPS Act, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and Covid relief measures back in the pandemic. I don’t think America’s long era of bitter partisan gridlock is over, necessarily, but I’m optimistic that it could be easing up just a bit.
Anyway, no matter which the House tips, I’m happy with how this midterm election went. Americans have spent the past decade tearing at each other’s throats over culture wars and partisan politics and Donald Trump, and while we’re not out of that woods yet, I’m starting to see a glimmer of light up ahead for this country. Fingers crossed.
I won't go so far as to say that DeSantis _isn't_ a closet authoritarian in disguise, though he does seem like a normal human being (even if as cynical, nihilistic, and power-hungry as the rest of the GOP leadership), so he could be shamed from launching a coup/autogolpe (Trump has no sense of shame) and probably isn't driven by the deep insecurities Trump has (that doesn't allow Trump to ever admit losing).
I would note a few things, though:
1. We were saved from a red wave mostly due to Dobbs. For Dems, thank goodness, the dog finally caught the car as the cynical conservative moneyed elite strategy of using evangelicals as foot soldiers has bitten them in the ass with Dobbs (and before that with Trump).
2. Trump is the best thing going for Dems right now. If you're a liberal, you have to hope he doesn't die. The GOP has a major Trump problem that they simply can't solve. If Trump is the GOP nominee again, the GOP would get rolled in 2024 as normie suburbanites (who have the numbers) just hate MAGA chaos agents. But if he doesn't win the GOP nomination, he'd launch a 3rd party bid that'd wreck the GOP. Even if he stays on the sidelines, we can count on him to endorse extremists who'd do badly in the general in any purple/blue state and bash GOP candidates who are attractive to swing voters but doesn't bend the knee to Trump.
Also worth noting Brian Kemp (the non-Trumpy Republican) pretty throughly crushed a very liberal Stacy Abrams, but that didn’t carry over to the Trump-backed Walker, who underperformed Kemp by about 200K votes (or 10% of Kemps total).
That’s a lot of split ballots. And shows me many voters don’t support extremism in either direction. Hopefully the parties listen and give us better candidates in 2024.