The myths of the GOP’s decade of power

Consider the following claims, frequently made:

The Democrats have lost thousands of seats in the last decade. Corporate centrism is a failure. The Democrats need a new, progressive approach.

and its complement:

The Republican Party has been organizationally brilliant and tactically ruthless. The Democrats need to match them, not continue with their usual, hapless milquetoastery.

The versions you’ve seen may differ slightly, but this is my good-faith summary of the arguments. While framed above as they might come from the left wing of US politics, there are versions made by conservatives as well, boasting of their triumphs and crediting these triumphs to their various supposed superiorities over liberals and Democrats.

The Democrats have not lost thousands of seats. The correct number of seats lost by Democrats is just over one thousand — 1042 even according to Fox News, in state legislatures, Congress, and governorships. To emphasize, the “thousands” number is not a straw man; it’s the claim I’ve most commonly heard. It’s a massive exaggeration, but hardly a surprising one; as claims circulate, they change in predictable ways.

And the claim that those 1042 seats reveal a flaw in the Democratic Party betrays a shallow understanding of history and politics. The decade in question started with Democrats at a historic and unsustainable high point; they then lost seats owing to common historical trends mostly out of their control; they failed to win them back owing to a flawed electoral system that has recently favored the Republicans.

The 2008 Electoral College map

The Democrats experienced a midterm wave in 2006. This was followed by a presidential landslide (or what now passes for one) in 2008. Barack Obama won by 7.2%; he won states that no Democrat has otherwise won since Jimmy Carter in 1976 (North Carolina) or even Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (Indiana). Following the 2008 vote (and the Minnesota recount), the Democrats briefly had 60 seats in the US Senate. The depth of these two wins, back to back, meant of necessity that Democrats were winning deep into what is usually Republican territory. In other words, 2008 was a high-water mark, and Democrats held a lot of seats that would naturally prove difficult to hold. It figures that the Republicans would win many of those seats back. Traditional Republican seats reclaimed by Republicans in subsequent elections should not count as evidence that Democrats are weak or feckless. It was a strength for the Democrats to have won them at all.

Midterm elections usually go against the president’s party, as they did in 2010 and 2014. This is not a certainty, but there are reasons to take it as a contributing factor to every outcome. At present, I’m inclined to believe the “thermostatic” theory — that the electorate behaves with its votes the way people behave with thermostats: if the house is too cold, they crank the heat way up, and if the house is too warm, they turn the heat way down. Having elected a president of one party, they compensate by electing a Congress of the other. (In fact, there may even have been a thermostatic benefit to Congressional Republicans in 2016; expecting a Democratic president, as most of us did, may have led some swing voters to choose a Republican member of Congress.)

Many Democratic constituencies don’t vote in midterms. This includes young people, those of lower income, and minorities. Midterm turnout is always lower than presidential years, but it is lower still for Democratic-leaning groups. Lots of eligible voters don’t vote at all. But there is a subset of voters who only vote when the president is on the ballot. This is a failure of civic education, and presumably the Democratic Party and candidates bear some responsibility for failing to motivate these voters; but ultimately it’s the fault of the voters themselves. But since we are talking about Democratic-leaning voters, that’s still a fault of Democrats writ large. However, it can’t be blamed on Democratic policy unless you actually believe that Democrats change policy back and forth every two years.

The Great Recession was so deep and long-lasting in its effects that it first worked against the Republicans when they held the White House in 2008, and then worked against the Democrats when they held the White House in 2010. Presidents are not usually responsible for bad economic performance, but are held accountable by a crucial number of voters anyway. In the case of the Great Recession, there is strong reason to assign at least some of the blame to conservative economic policy (especially from George W. Bush, but also from Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan; the roots of the crisis were deep), both in its origin, and in the failed recovery. Had Barack Obama gotten the stimulus many Democratic economists and stakeholders were calling for, the recovery might have been larger and faster. But the fact that Obama and his preferred policies weren’t to blame for the bad 2010 economic conditions does not matter. There are many voters who are swung by bad economic conditions, and they swung against Obama just has they had against the Republicans two years earlier.

Having won many legislatures and governorships in the 2010 election, the Republicans were then in power for the redistricting that would take place after the 2010 census. This allowed the GOP to gerrymander Congress and state legislatures and thus cement the majorities they had won mostly through an accident of timing. The fact that the Democrats did not subsequently win back many of those seats is not an indication of haplessness or unpopular policy; the Democrats won the House popular vote in 2012, but did not win the House, and Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote in 2016, but did not win in a majority of House districts.

And the strength of the GOP at the state level, along with continued control of the Supreme Court, has allowed the Republicans to engage in systematic voter suppression, particularly after the Supreme Court undid Voting Rights Act protections in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. The same constituencies that Democrats rely on, but who sit out midterms, are particularly vulnerable to efforts to keep them from voting. And unlike the midterm abstention, failure to vote because of voter suppression is not the fault of Democrats or their constituents. It’s the result of deliberate anti-democratic actions of Republicans.

Finally, starting with the Tea Party and continuing through Trump, the Republican Party has benefitted from a massive cultural and racial backlash to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and various changes in our society. Some of that is based on a caricature of the Democrats, or lies about their policies. Some of it is based on who the Democrats actually are — a party whose voters and candidates are disproportionately women and minorities, and that favors changes like universal health insurance and the legalization of gay marriage. There’s not much the Democrats can do about lies and caricatures that the Republicans promote and the mainstream media happily circulate. And there’s nothing the Democrats would want to do, or should do, about their demographic make-up or principles, so much of the Tea Party-Trump backlash must be taken as the price of decency.

If you want to criticize the Democrats’ policies, from either the left or the right, by all means do so. They may well be wrong. Argue for the policies that you believe would best serve the republic. But arguing that the Democrats are historic failures because of their current relative lack of power is wrong on its face, and attributing that to specific policies or strategies that you happen to disapprove of is therefore wrong as well. The Democrats don’t need to do what you’re suggesting, and had they done so, by and large, it would not have made a difference. And the Republicans aren’t riding a legendary streak of ruthless brilliance. If anything, they’re benefitting from their own mistakes.