Democrats and Repub­li­cans face a long and painful pe­riod of read­just­ment

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - Henry Er­gas will be speak­ing at the Ram­say Cen­tre for West­ern Civil­i­sa­tion in Syd­ney on Novem­ber 27. HENRY ER­GAS www.ram­say­cen­

The Great Dis­rupter emerges oddly tri­umphant, with his sup­port among the faith­ful at rock star lev­els

The Amer­i­can peo­ple spoke on Tues­day, but quite what they said will re­main con­tentious for years to come. What is cer­tain, how­ever, is that Amer­i­can pol­i­tics will be as tu­mul­tuous in its next phase as it was in the last.

In part, that is be­cause the midterms con­firmed that the US is in a pe­riod of un­prece­dented in­sti­tu­tional in­sta­bil­ity. Since the 1890s, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has in­volved an al­ter­na­tion be­tween lengthy spells in which a sin­gle party has dom­i­nated the three ma­jor elec­tive branches (the presi- dency, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Se­nate) and lengthy spells of split con­trol.

For ex­am­ple, the Repub­li­cans en­joyed full con­trol of the fed­eral govern­ment for 24 of the 34 years be­tween the 1896 and 1930 elec­tions, while the Democrats con­trolled all three elec­tive branches for 18 of the 20 years be­tween the 1932 and 1952 elec­tions.

But those pe­ri­ods of rel­a­tively sta­ble sin­gle-party dom­i­nance were fol­lowed by a pro­longed phase of split con­trol, with 13 of the 20 elec­tions held be­tween 1954 and 1962 lead­ing to one party con­trol­ling the pres­i­dency and an­other com­mand­ing a ma­jor­ity in at least one cham­ber of congress.

How­ever, since 1992, al­most ev­ery elec­tion cy­cle has seen a shift be­tween full and split con­trol of the three branches. The conse- quence is that at each con­test, ev­ery­thing seems up for grabs. That, in turn, re­duces the in­cen­tives for co-op­er­a­tion be­tween the par­ties, as party lead­er­ships are re­luc­tant to con­cede any wins to their op­po­nents. The re­sult is a grid­lock that frus­trates vot­ers and per­pet­u­ates in­sta­bil­ity.

His­tor­i­cally, phases of in­sti­tu­tional in­sta­bil­ity — such as the so-called Pe­riod of No De­ci­sion, which stretched from the 1886 elec­tions to those in 1894 — have oc­curred when rapid so­cial change col­lides with the rigidi­ties of the two-party sys­tem, open­ing a breach be­tween par­ties and their elec­torates. As the tur­moil plays it­self out, in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal pres­sures even­tu­ally force re­align­ments on the par­ties, but the ad­just­ment is in­vari­ably long and painful.

This time will be no dif­fer­ent — and the mid-terms have done noth­ing to make it eas­ier.

Yes, the Democrats did well, with an over­all swing even larger than the one the Repub­li­cans ob­tained in 2010. But the fact that it has re­sulted in a much smaller gain in seats re­flects the tight geo­graph­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion of the Democrats’ newly en­er­gised base.

It is true, for ex­am­ple, that the Democrats re­ceived the votes of 56 per cent of white women with a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. But be­cause they are most pro­duc­tive when they work with other highly ed­u­cated peo­ple (a phe­nom­e­non econ­o­mists re­fer to as “economies of ag­glom­er­a­tion”), the highly ed­u­cated are much more con­cen­trated ge­o­graph­i­cally than are white vot­ers with low lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion.

The grow­ing gap be­tween the Democrats and less highly ed­u­cated white vot­ers will con­se­quently make it dif­fi­cult for them to se­cure the pres­i­dency and win con­trol of the Se­nate, since both re­quire a ge­o­graph­i­cally widely dis­persed base of sup­port.

More­over, the Democrats’ vic­tory in the house is only likely to ag­gra­vate the prob­lem. As well as en­trench­ing the ex­ist­ing lead­er­ship, no­tably that of Nancy Pelosi, it will lead them to con­cen­trate on deep­en­ing their hold over seatrich states such as Cal­i­for­nia by stress­ing im­mi­gra­tion re­form, the en­vi­ron­ment and the claims of racial and sex­ual mi­nori­ties. Yet poll af­ter poll shows those is­sues are starkly at odds with the con­cerns of the vot­ers whose sup­port the party re­quires to ex­tend its gains.

Years ago, those ten­sions could be man­aged by nom­i­nat­ing can­di­dates whose po­si­tion­ing closely matched the lo­cal elec­torate, even if it dif­fered from that of the party as a whole. But with the vot­ing de­ci­sions of Amer­i­cans in­creas­ingly driven by their view of the na­tional par­ties, rather than of in­di­vid­ual can­di­dates, that strat­egy no longer works, forc­ing the Democrats to choose be­tween meet­ing their base’s com­bat­ive ex­pec­ta­tions and broad­en­ing their con­stituency.

That is a choice the Democrats show no sign of be­ing able to make. And con­trol of the house will not ease their dilem­mas. They seem to place great store on the power to in­ves­ti­gate Don­ald Trump’s af­fairs, but it is hard to be­lieve there are undis­cov­ered scan­dals that can se­ri­ously dent Trump’s rep­u­ta­tion. And while in­ves­ti­ga­tions may dam­age his stand­ing, they will also im­pas­sion Repub­li­can ac­tivists, mak­ing the over­all im­pact am­bigu­ous.

In the mean­time, the Democrats are un­likely to se­cure any leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries, leav­ing them with lit­tle to show at the next elec­tion.

As for the Repub­li­cans, their long-term prob­lems are no less se­vere. De­spite Trump’s rhetoric about mi­grants, they man­aged to at­tract al­most a third of the His­panic and Asian vote (as com­pared with 54 per cent of the white vote); but look­ing for­ward, that is far from be­ing suf­fi­cient to off­set the rapid de­cline in the white share of the elec­torate, which will fall from 70 per cent in 2016 to just over 60 per cent in 2028. More­over, with non-white vot­ers in­creas­ing their share of the sub­ur­ban elec- torate from in­signif­i­cance 20 years ago to 30 per cent to­day, much of that fall will oc­cur in the sub­urbs, which the Repub­li­cans need to dom­i­nate if they are to re­main a ma­jor force.

Adding to their woes, the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship re­mains badly di­vided over Trump. That he gal­vanised Repub­li­cans, sav­ing mar­ginal seats, is be­yond doubt; but it is equally un­de­ni­able that he cost the party the sup­port of many in­de­pen­dents, wors­en­ing the threat that hung over those seats in the first place. And what­ever Trump’s elec­toral im­pact, the lead­er­ship still finds it hard to ac­cept his per­sonal style and his eco­nomic and so­cial views.

None of that will worry Trump him­self. On the con­trary, the Great Dis­rupter emerges oddly tri­umphant, with his sup­port among the faith­ful at rock star lev­els. His re­la­tion­ship with congress was never har­mo­nious; now he can blame the Democrats for the strife, while con­tin­u­ing Barack Obama’s ap­proach of gov­ern­ing by ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

Given that, his in­cen­tives are to rad­i­calise his po­si­tion, es­ca­lat­ing the per­ma­nent cam­paign as 2020 ap­proaches. The sack­ing of Jeff Ses­sions, which throws down the gaunt­let to both the new Demo­cratic lead­er­ship of the house and the Repub­li­cans in the Se­nate, is merely a first step in that di­rec­tion.

It may seem hard, un­der those cir­cum­stances, to be op­ti­mistic about the prospects for the US. But this is a coun­try which, per­haps to a greater ex­tent than any other, re­flects se­ri­ously on it­self and learns in the process. Walt Whit­man ded­i­cated his

Demo­cratic Vis­tas to those “within whose thought rages the bat­tle, ad­vanc­ing, re­treat­ing, be­tween Democ­racy’s con­vic­tions, as­pi­ra­tions, and the Peo­ple’s crude­ness, vice, caprices”. As it strug­gles with the in­con­sis­ten­cies and am­bi­gu­i­ties of the peo­ple’s voice, Amer­i­can democ­racy will need all the po­etic in­spi­ra­tion it can get.

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