2018 midterms told a tale of 2 weak parties
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.