Midterms proved a tale of two weak par­ties

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By YU­VAL LEVIN

In the wake of an elec­tion, we nat­u­rally tend to be struck by the strength of the win­ning side. Who now has mo­men­tum in our pol­i­tics, and what sort of man­date have they won? But the pe­cu­liar mixed re­sult of Tues­day’s midterms should help us see the dis­tinct and trou­bling char­ac­ter of our pol­i­tics now: It is the weak­ness of all sides, and the strength of none, that shapes this mo­ment.

This was ev­i­dent in 2016, too. Both ma­jor-party pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates were broadly un­ap­peal­ing peo­ple, and each was well suited to lose. The ques­tion was who would turn off more vot­ers. The bi­nary char­ac­ter of pres­i­den­tial elec­tions left us look­ing for ex­pla­na­tions of the out­come in Pres­i­dent Trump’s dis­tinct strengths, but when you ex­am­ine his ra­zor-thin vic­tory in a few de­ci­sive states, it’s his op­po­nent’s weak­ness that re­ally tells the tale. And Trump has since gov­erned as a weak pres­i­dent along­side a weak Congress.

Tues­day’s elec­tions re­vealed the same pat­tern. Repub­li­cans had a very friendly Se­nate map, with 10 Democrats fac­ing re-elec­tion in states that Trump won hand­ily. Repub­li­cans walked away with roughly three more seats, giv­ing them a slightly less nar­row ma­jor­ity in a body that still re­quires 60 votes for real leg­isla­tive work. Mean­while in the House, the Democrats had an op­por­tu­nity for ma­jor gains through­out the coun­try, but they made mod­est gains in friendly sub­urbs – win­ning al­most ex­clu­sively dis­tricts that Hil­lary Clin­ton won two years ago.

In essence, each party won some mar­ginal vot­ers pow­er­fully turned off by the other, but nei­ther found a way to mean­ing­fully broaden its coali­tion – which is what it would take to re­ally show strength.

Each party has fallen into the com­fort­able habit of at­tribut­ing its weak­ness to fac­tors out­side its con­trol. Democrats in­sist they have a ro­bust pop­u­lar ma­jor­ity but that our con­sti­tu­tional ar­chi­tec­ture pre­vents the in­sti­tu­tions from re­flect­ing it. Purer ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism, they ar­gue, would prove the coun­try is on their side. But by re­quir­ing over­lap­ping ma­jori­ties of dif­fer­ent kinds, our in­sti­tu­tions are de­signed to re­flect the mul­ti­lay­ered com­plex­ity of our so­ci­ety, com­pelling gov­ern­ing coali­tions to reach out and broaden their ap­peals. The Democrats’ per­sis­tent in­abil­ity to do that is not an ar­gu­ment against the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Repub­li­cans, mean­while, in­sist the bulk of the coun­try would be with them if not for a sliver of ur­ban elites us­ing the pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions they dom­i­nate (from me­dia out­lets to uni­ver­si­ties to cul­tur­ally lib­eral cor­po­ra­tions) to dis­tort re­al­ity and shut down de­bate. But city dwellers are no less Amer­i­can than ru­ral vot­ers. And let­ting a party de­volve into a fran­tic cult of per­son­al­ity around a reck­lessly di­vi­sive nar­cis­sist who turns off per­suad­able sub­ur­ban­ites is the fault of no one ex­cept those who do it.

To win and give di­rec­tion to our pol­i­tics, a party would need to build a rel­a­tively broad and durable coali­tion. But while the re­sults of this elec­tion show the need for that, they do not make it more likely. The in­cen­tives of a di­vid- ed Congress will drive each party to do what it can on its own – with House Democrats fo­cus­ing on fight­ing Trump and Se­nate Repub­li­cans be­com­ing full­time ju­di­cial con­firm­ers.

The two par­ties now re­sem­ble their re­spec­tive lead­ers, pre­sump­tive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump: They are like two po­lar­iz­ing sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans stuck dou­bling down on their in­ad­e­qua­cies. One is a clever po­lit­i­cal tac­ti­cian but blind to the in­ten­sity of her own parochial­ism. The other has an in­stinc­tive sense for the frus­tra­tions of work­ing-class vot­ers but is un­able to es­cape his own dark­est im­pulses or see the ap­peal of a wel­com­ing tone and agenda.

Each party, like its leader, is seem­ingly un­aware of how it ap­pears to the larger so­ci­ety and so is guilty of in­ex­cus­able po­lit­i­cal mal­prac­tice. They are weak, and the re­sult­ing pol­i­tics is best de­scribed as ex­hausted and ex­haust­ing.

We should be care­ful not to at­tribute this weak­ness to some un­al­ter­able po­lar­iza­tion in our coun­try. We are surely di­vided th­ese days. But that di­vi­sion calls for creative, en­er­getic po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship – and such lead­er­ship could build real coali­tions. Our in­sti­tu­tions are de­signed to en­able that. Frus­trated vot­ers could be far more open to it than cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als imag­ine.

We seem to be liv­ing at the end of a dis­tinct phase in our pol­i­tics but not yet at the be­gin­ning of a new one. This is an enor­mous op­por­tu­nity for the party able to seize it, and yet for now, nei­ther ap­pears ea­ger to try.

Levin is edi­tor of Na­tional Af­fairs and vice pres­i­dent of the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter.

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