The Blue Wave That Never Came Ashore
Something terrifying, and familiar, is happening in American politics.
Like 2016, I spent the evening of Election Day in a bar, watching the returns with cautious optimism. And like 2016, I watched in horror as I saw Americans, in huge numbers, flatly refuse to reject a rising tide of authoritarianism, and in many places, to enthusiastically embrace it. I must quickly point out the distinguishing facts. The 2018 midterms were by no account as shocking as the 2016 election was, and there is a fair amount to point out as laudable. The Democrats seized a lever of power from the increasingly “Trumpian” Republicans. We averted certain disaster that would come with an unconstrained Executive branch. But, it is clear to me that the national underperformance (I’ll explain) of the Democratic Party, and the failure of a full scale rebuke of the president to materialize represents a disturbing trend.
There are three major things that concern me about the state of the electorate after the midterms. (1) The results emphasize the institutional disadvantage of a party opposing authoritarian insurgence because of counter-majoritarian structures. (2) The Democratic Party failed to capture more than the average number of House seats typical of a party opposing an unpopular president in a midterm election year. (3) The myth that high voter turnout equates electoral victories for Democrats was diminished, and that indicates the continued political activation of what Hannah Arendt referred to as a “mass.” I will address each of these points individually.
What I mean by counter-majoritarianism is institutions, mechanisms and structures that have a robust tendency to limit the affect of direct democratic engagement. This is not always a net negative for a liberal constitutional system. Our constitution is full of them. The Supreme Court is a counter-majoritarian institution insofar as it is empowered to limit the reach of laws that contravene provisions of the Constitution that protect certain classes from majority oppression. Several amendments of the Bill of Rights are counter-majoritarian insofar as they temper the power that a monolithic majority may wield. The Constitution forestalls the use of a majority in the representative branches from establishing a national religion, for example (U.S. Const. Amend. I), even if there is the popular will to do so. But most germane to this conversation — the Senate — is a counter-majoritarian institution.
North and South Dakota combined have a population of about 1.63 million. California has a population of roughly 39.54 million. North and South Dakota get 4 senators to represent that 1.63 million, California gets 2 Senators to represent a population roughly 24 times that size. The upper house of Congress allots the same number of seats — two — to each state, regardless of population, while the number of House seats is based on population data gathered by census. North Dakota and South Dakota each have one at-large congressional district, reflecting their relatively small population size, but they still get to send two Senators to Washington to, say, vote yes or no on a presidential appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. The voting power in terms of the U.S. Senate of a citizen of North Dakota, versus a citizen of California (or Texas, or North Carolina) is wildly skewed.
States that are sparsely populated also happen to be significantly more rural and significantly more Republican than more densely populated states. Given the number of sparsely populated states, and the fact that the number of Senators they send to Washington is constant, a the voting power of a consistent Republican versus the voting power of a consistent Democrat is also wildly skewed. This is not meant to act as a call to dissolve the Senate (discussions regarding large scale constitutional reforms are beyond the scope of this article), but to point out a systemic fact before we go deeper into just how much of a problem the political landscape is likely to present for voters, and lawmakers, opposing the president and the ideologies supporting him. For instance, it makes sense of the now well-known figure that votes cast for Democrats in the Senate outpaced votes for Republicans by about 12 million. Just by simple math and demography, combined with the increasing solidification of partisanship across the electorate, the Senate remains a counter-majoritarian reality that will impede any sweeping correction to Republican rule.
The Constitution was designed to limit overcorrection and to prevent heavy population centers from controlling the agenda for the country. For instance, without the Electoral College, with only popular votes to measure public will, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other heavily Democratic urban centers would dominate presidential elections, leaving rural voters largely out of the conversation. The problem arises when the political system that was created for a country far less interconnected, and far less populous than the current United States is mapped on to a reality the framers couldn’t have fully imagined. A counter-majoritarian institution like the Senate has the potential to become a bastion of minority rule, imposing its will on the most populated regions of the country. This is especially concerning when we consider that the Senate is the institution with far and away the greatest amount of control over the federal judiciary.
Despite the impressive turnout across all demographics and all regions, far exceeding a typical midterm election, the Democrats still suffered net losses in the Senate between one and three seats. This is partially because of the way in which the seats up for reelection were apportioned, and partly because of the nature of the institution of the Senate itself. It was not enough for a larger than average turnout on the Democratic side, when less populous states (North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana) remained unconvinced by an argument against President Trump.
It is important to emphasize just how large the turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was. Nationally, participation of eligible voters was about 49 percent, as compared to the 40 percent in an average midterm election year. In specific instances, those numbers were even more impressive, with Texas seeing a 14 percent increase compared to its average, and Georgia seeing a 21 percent increase. The votes are still being counted in Georgia, but the governor’s race there doesn’t look good for Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, and though Beto O’Rourke narrowed the margin significantly, Ted Cruz still held his seat in Texas. Similarly, with higher-than-average turnout in Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota, Democrats failed to defend incumbent Senate candidates against pro-Trump challengers.
What is frightening about these numbers is that they seem to undermine a mantra that the Democrats have long held to — when voter turnout is high, Democrats win.
Of course there are problems drawing such a broad conclusion from these data, especially in the case of Georgia, where there have been questions of widespread voter suppression. But another fact about this election is more troublesome than the results in the stubborn upper chamber, and that is the number of seats flipped by Democrats in the House. In 2010, during the Tea Party takeover of Congress, the Republican Party netted 63 seats in the House (and 6 seats in the Senate). In 1994, during the Newt Gengrich-led Republican revolution, the GOP netted 54 seats in the House. Both of those midterm cycles were considered “wave” elections. The average of a party opposing an unpopular (below 50% approval rating) president is a net 37-seat gain. Trump’s approval rating during the 2018 midterm was around 42%. As it stands now, the Democrats are projected to win between 34 and 38 House seats.
In other words, despite Trump’s historic unpopularity nationally, and despite across the board increases in voter turnout, the Democrats still only managed to reach the average number of converted house seats in a midterm election year. All things being equal, the Democrats should have been able to emulate the results of previous “wave” elections (like those in 2010 and 1994, where the president in question, Obama and Clinton respectively, were more popular nationally than Trump). The counter-majoritarian institutional disadvantages played against them, of course (including deliberately drawn district lines, but that’s an article unto itself). But, and this is the frightening re-visitation of the Democratic “big turnout, big wins” belief, the parts of the country where Democrats failed to make gains are regions where voters are energized to vote for the Republicans, for Trump. Turnout in deep red and leaning red districts was also extraordinarily high, and any surge in Democratic voting was commensurately balanced out. Without a spike in Republican voter turnout, we might be talking about a Senator O’Rourke right now, and the narrative would be quite different. There is a solid percentage of the country that not only feels no impetus to distance itself from the outright nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and anti-constitutionalism of Trump and his party— quite the opposite, they embrace it — from a structurally advantageous position.
Arendt and America
During the lead-up to the 2016 election, I learned that my father had attended a Trump rally. Prior to the rise of Trump, I don’t think I ever heard my father express a fully formed political opinion, hold a serious preference for any one candidate. Except for a vague cultural affiliation with the Republicans (he is southern, male, and white), he has never been particularly political. I don’t think he has voted in most major elections. Something about the Trump phenomenon, combined with the circulation of misinformation among his demographically homogenous social and professional groups, made him a political actor that he wasn’t before. Suddenly I regularly heard anti-Soros conspiracy theories, and falsified talking points repeated by members of my family. The shift was strange, but it was also something I recognized.
In Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, she names several factors common to the creation of totalitarian regimes. In Origins she is discussing both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Russia. The factors that she elaborates should sound eerily familiar to us. Arendt discusses a distrust of institutions, including social resentment of “elites,” a pervasive belief that once held norms are no longer effective. Explicitly, Arendt notices an erosion in belief in the factuality of journalism, the rule of law, and political representation. Totalitarian regimes arose amidst widespread fear of globalization and outsiders. It is not enough to say that dictators “scapegoat” certain social groups in order to achieve power, but that it is a necessary condition of nascent totalitarian regimes, that is to say, a regime arising out of a political space that was not previously totalitarian, that there be an internal out-group or out-groups to victimize.
Totalitarianism in Europe benefitted from a crisis in the functioning of legitimate political parties. Fascist narratives exposed the illusions that are endemic to democratic government — that people in the majority had taken an active role in governance, that each indivdual was sympathetic to one or another’s political party, and that politically indifferent masses did not matter. And here is where I think Arendt’s insight is salient to this particular moment, these particular elections, and why we should be concerned about nascent totalitarian tendencies in our historical situation. Arendt spends a great deal of Origins discussing the activation of a “mass” of typically apolitical societal members.
Arendt writes, “[t]he term ‘masses’ applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially, they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” (Origins, page 311)
Individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for the success of totalitarian regimes. As people become atomized, it is easier for a strongman to provide an explanation for widespread unhappiness, to offer a story that explains everything, and how to alleviate it. A belief that the old unifying forces of a nation — especially racial, ethnic, or religious bonds — are deteriorating supplies a ground for an authoritarian regime to work, to offer a promise to return to a more traditional, less atomized, less globalized existence. In these cases, every aspect of life become politicized. Previously apolitical identities are tied to the success of the emerging regime, which speaks on behalf of the “mass.” Defying perceived “elites” through alliances with a strongman figure energizes groups of otherwise politically disengaged, socially isolated voters.
If the results of the midterms appear confusing to those who expected a more obvious correction, expected a “wave” election like those we saw in 2010 or in 1994, it is because the narrative supplied by the Trump administration and the party that supports it is an old one, an effective one. It is no accident that, in facing potential electoral losses, Trump’s rhetoric shifted to vilifying an out-group (the “caravan”). It is no coincidence that rather than moving to a tempered political position, Trump and his allies lean into conspiracy. And it is certainly no coincidence that rates of antisemitic and anti-black violence are significantly on the rise. This is a playbook, and it is one that has worked before. The massive turnout on the Republican side, to support a nationally unpopular figure, may appear surprising to those watching conventional political trends, but this is not a conventional American White House, nor is it a conventional American political party allied with it. The picture that the midterms painted should be concerning to anyone watching this political moment within the broader arc of history, or the broader picture of geopolitical shifts rightward. I’m sorry to say that if the trends continue, it gets darker from here.
The fact that the Democrats managed to wrest a measure of power from the hands of Trump is a victory insofar as we managed to avoid a complete descent into authoritarian oligarchy, for the moment. It was not enough to stop sleeping with one eye open. The sections of the electorate who became politically energized because of Trump, or have become increasingly hyper-partisan in voting patterns because of the radicalization of Republican rhetoric, are not going anywhere. The Democrats are unlikely to win them over.