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Actually, Democrats Didn’t “Win” the Midterms

The midterms were a condemnation of moderates. Progressives need a horizon beyond the preservation of the status quo.

President Joe Biden speaks at a Democratic National Committee rally on November 10, 2022, in Washington, D.C., after the midterm elections.

Progressives are breathing a sigh of relief at dodging a disastrous “red wave” rout in the midterm elections that would have given Republicans control of both houses in Congress — plus the governorships in key swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, where voter roll chicanery could swing the 2024 presidential election.

But let’s hold off on congratulating Democrats for what Sen. Elizabeth Warren called their “midterm victory.” Democrats retained their bare Senate majority by winning between zero and one seats, and relinquished control of the House by losing what will probably end up being 10 seats. I don’t want to bore anyone with statistical analysis, but a tie and a loss don’t add up to a victory.

If newcomers to U.S. political culture were confused about why election night was widely seen as a win for the Blue Team, that’s because they hadn’t been informed of the conventional wisdom that the party that wins the White House will lose badly in the next midterm elections. That’s what happened to Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1994, Barack Obama’s Democrats in 2010, and Donald Trump’s Republicans in 2018. (It also happened to George Bush’s Republicans, but in 2006 instead of the post-9/11 frenzy of 2002.)

But this pattern isn’t an unchanging 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 — both vice presidents who had recently taken over the White House without being elected.

I’m no historian with a researched theory, but I would guess that the recent trend of midterm backlash has something to do with the hollowing out of U.S. democracy so that both parties have had little to offer voters beyond fear and loathing of the other party — which leads to a depressed turnout from their base when the enemy isn’t in the White House.

Joe Biden’s Democrats bucked the trend this year, but it’s important that we understand why, because centrists like the Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk are eagerly claiming the results as a lesson in how moderates won the election. Like “victory,” “moderates” is another word that might seem strange to a newcomer armed only with observable facts. Yes, some of Donald Trump’s handpicked misfits like Blake Masters and Dr. Oz didn’t win, but the Republican Party as a whole (which, again, just won a House majority) is chock full of politicians bent on persecuting trans children and “stop the steal” conspiracy theorists.

But the real focus of these arguments for moderation isn’t the Republican Party, which even the most hopelessly devoted bipartisans have given up on, but a warning shot against leftist Democrats. The subheading of Mounk’s piece, “A lesson for any party that wants to succeed in 2024,” makes this clear.

Mounk and like-minded pundits have carefully curated a few results that fit their analysis while ignoring the failures of centrists who mirrored Republican talking points on crime, the many victories of left-wing candidates and ballot initiatives, and the massive role played in the midterms by voters’ desire to protect their right to abortion, an issue that centrist Democratic leaders have repeatedly refused to fully champion.

Neither side of this debate, however, can explain why Democrats didn’t lose more in the midterms despite being saddled with an unpopular president. It seems that the tendency of midterm backlash might be giving way to a new 2020s trend of calcified politics. That’s the term used by political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch to describe how the two parties had almost identically matched tallies in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections (although of course Trump won the first and lost the second) despite the massive changes that rocked the country in the intervening years. It seems that the midterms might 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 of presidents to swing wildly. Obama ranged from 69 percent after his historic election down to 38 percent. George Bush had a sky-high 90 percent approval in the year after 9/11 and came crashing down to 29 percent as he stumbled out of office. Ronald Reagan had a gap of 33 points between his high and low, Jimmy Carter 47. But Donald Trump remained stuck during his presidency in a relatively narrow 15-point range between 49 and 35 percent, while Biden has ranged only 19 points from 57 to 38.

But calcification comes from changes not only in popular opinion but in parties’ ability to get people with those opinions out to vote. A major cause of the old midterm backlash was the fluctuations in voter turnout between the party in and out of power. But the last two midterms have seen a sharp increase in voter turnout on both sides. Voter participation is a good thing, but this increase seems to be due less to satisfaction with politicians (see again Biden’s low approval ratings) and more to the parties’ (and their media proxies at Fox and MSNBC) success in making party identification a core part of people’s cultural and regional identity.

What’s truly odd about the static results of recent elections is that voters themselves aren’t actually calcified. As many news stories have noted, millions 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 wildly off — such as labeling Democrats “the party of upscale voters” and Republicans “a multiracial coalition of working-class voters” — when in fact most low-income voters and people of color continue to vote Democrat. Nonetheless, millions of voters have changed affiliation in both directions since Donald Trump’s election, so why has the overall margin between the two parties remained paper thin?

The ongoing even split in the electorate is a historical oddity with many factors, but one factor that should get more attention is the tensions that exist not among voters but within each party. For Democrats, that conflict is between a voting base that is increasingly left wing and a funding base of mega donors who want their politicians to reassure them that nothing will fundamentally change. Republicans are pulled into unpopular positions by their motley array of far right donors and demagogues, but then face the need to get close enough to a majority to be within stealing distance. Perhaps our ongoing 50/50 stalemate is in part the result of both parties having ever more sophisticated voter data and predictive tools that are allowing them to perfect their ability to serve unpopular agendas while remaining within striking distance of a bare majority.

In any case, this stagnation has resulted in staving off a full Republican sweep, but we need a lot more than preservation of the status quo. While the two parties remain locked in stalemate, there are many critical fights over the next two years: reviving the Green New Deal, abortion rights, ballot initiatives, unionization struggles at Starbucks and Amazon, defeating the fascistic 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 path towards actual victories, rather than our present state of political stagnation.

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