2018 midterms told a tale of 2 weak par­ties

The Modesto Bee - - Opinion - BY YU­VAL LEVIN Yu­val Levin is ed­i­tor of Na­tional Af­fairs.

In the wake of an elec­tion, we tend to talk mostly about the win­ning side. Who has mo­men­tum, what sort of man­date did they win? But the pe­cu­liar mixed re­sult of Tues­day’s midterms should help us see the dis­tinct and trou­bling char­ac­ter of our pol­i­tics now: All sides are weak, and this lack of strength is shap­ing this mo­ment.

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

Tues­day’s elec­tions show the same pat­tern. Repub­li­cans had a very friendly Se­nate map, with 10 Democrats fac­ing re­elec­tion in states 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 work. Mean­while, House Democrats had an op­por­tu­nity for ma­jor gains through­out the coun­try, but they won only in dis­tricts Hil­lary Clin­ton car­ried two years ago.

In essence, each party won some mar­ginal vot­ers pow­er­fully turned off by the other, but nei­ther found a way to broaden its coali­tion – which is the in­di­ca­tor of real strength.

Each party blames its weak­ness on fac­tors out­side its con­trol. Democrats in­sist they have a ro­bust pop­u­lar ma­jor­ity but that our con­sti­tu­tional ar­chi­tec­ture pre­vents the in­sti­tu­tions from re­flect­ing it. Purer democ­racy, or ma­jor­ity rules, 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 multi-lay­ered com­plex­ity, com­pelling gov­ern­ing coali­tions to reach out and broaden their ap­peal. Democrats’ in­abil­ity to do that does not ar­gue against the Constitution.

Repub­li­cans, mean­while, in­sist the bulk of the coun­try would be with them if not for a sliver of ur­ban elites and me­dia out­lets and uni­ver­si­ties they use to dis­tort re­al­ity and cur­tail de­bate. But city dwellers are no less Amer­i­can than ru­ral vot­ers. 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 but those who do it.

To give di­rec­tion to our pol­i­tics, a party would need to build a rel­a­tively and durable coali­tion. But while the re­sults of this elec­tion show the need, they do not make it more likely.

The two par­ties now re­sem­ble their lead­ers, pre­sump­tive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump: They are like two po­lar­iz­ing sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans stuck dou­bling down on their in­ad­e­qua­cies.

Each party, like its leader, is unaware of how it ap­pears to so­ci­ety in gen­eral, so re­fuses to change. The re­sult­ing pol­i­tics is both ex­hausted and ex­haust­ing.

It’s not about un­al­ter­able po­lar­iza­tion. Yes, we are di­vided. But that divi­sion calls for creative, en­er­getic po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. Our in­sti­tu­tions are de­signed to en­able bet­ter coali­tions.

As one era of po­lit­i­cal thought ends and an­other arises, this is an enor­mous op­por­tu­nity for a party able to seize the mo­ment. Nei­ther ap­pears ea­ger to try.

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