The Midterm Glimpse of America’s Future

Sectionalism, Migration, and the Coming Institutional Nightmare

The 2018 midterm elections in the United States have unfolded the way most observers expected they would. On the Federal level, the Democratic Party gained control in the House of Representatives, while the Republican Party (GOP) retained control in the Senate. The gains in the House, 32 seats thus far per CNN’s count, represent the largest Democratic gain since the 1974 blowout in the midst of Watergate. These gains are also remarkable considering the level of precise, systematic gerrymandering of House districts that has occurred under GOP State Governments since 2010.

Top: House results. Dark Blue is Democratic gain. Dark Red is Republican gain. Bottom: Senate results. Light Blue is Democratic gain. Light Red is Republican gain.

The Senate map proved more challenging, with three Red State Democrats losing reelection in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, and Bill Nelson thus far behind in Florida. According to FiveThirtyEight, Senate Democrats faced the most unfavorable Senate map ever in any election. Florida has always been a toss-up and the other aforementioned States are mostly rural, lacking or limited in large urban and suburban areas where Democrats would find their natural base of support that would balance out the rural, pro-Trump vote. On the State level, Democrats have gained seven Governorships and 333 State legislative seats across the country. Numerous races both Federal and State currently remain outstanding due to a mix of mandatory recounts, administrative incompetence, and issues related to voter suppression.

The split results of the election have led to a plethora of divergent spinning by Democrats and Republicans. Republicans have argued that they possess some mandate for retaining the Senate, especially since enthusiasm among their base did increase in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation debacle. Democrats have argued that voters sided with them both on the issues, like healthcare, and on the need for a Congressional check on President Donald Trump. Indeed, House Democrats, specifically the incoming Committee Chairs, will possess subpoena power. Until now, Congressional Republicans have refused to conduct any investigations and oversight of the Trump administration and related matters. This has left serious investigation of Russian meddling to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Cabinet oversight to media exposés that brought down figures like Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Democratic Chair subpoena power will now compel regular, parallel investigations and oversight into the President, his family, and his Cabinet on various issues, some likely intersecting with the work of the Special Counsel.

Although contextual factors in the present did contribute to these split results, the larger, long-term issue is the institutional difference between the House and Senate themselves within the American federalist system. This institutional difference interfaces catastrophically with diversity, internal migration and settlement, and asymmetrical polarization. The split midterm elections are but a preview of America’s political future. It is a future that manifests beyond dysfunction and into possibly permanent, anti-democratic paralysis.

The Sectional Referendum(s) on Trump and Trumpism

Unlike most past embattled Presidents, who have typically distanced themselves from midterm elections to spare their Parties as much electoral retribution as possible, Trump openly made the election about himself. At various rallies, he even encouraged attendees to pretend that it was his name on the ballot, hardly giving much attention to the candidates he was, in theory, stumping for in different locales. Other policy issues notwithstanding, it is hard to argue that the election was not about Trump, considering the constant politicization of all subjects, spectacular and mundane, in the country by him, whether via Twitter or otherwise.

Blue States and Red States over four Presidential Elections, 2004–16. Red: Republican victory in 4/4. Pink: Republican victory in 3/4. Dark blue: Democratic victory in 4/4. Light blue: Democratic victory in 3/4. Purple: Evenly split.

What the political spin misses or willfully ignores is that there was more than one referendum occurring on Trump, with sectional politics playing a central role in this election and future ones. There are currently two sectionalisms at work in American politics. The first is interstate sectionalism, historically significant throughout American history, which currently sees the bulk of the South and West turning ever-deeper Red in favor of the GOP, with State Democratic opposition virtually irrelevant. Conversely, the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and West Coast are turning ever-deeper Blue in favor of the Democratic Party, with moderate/liberal Republicans still able to win Governorships in these States, but with the State GOPs shrinking in popularity and legislative relevance.

The second sectionalism is between urban/suburban/exurban areas and rural areas. Residents of the former are increasingly leaning Democratic. This is despite the fact that many of the them may continue to identify as Republicans or conservatives of a particular stripe, embarrassed and disturbed about the current direction of the American Right. Residents of the rural areas tend to be whiter, older, more male, and have had less exposure to ethnic diversity and international exchange. This combined parochial, generational, and racial anxiety existed long before the rise of Trump, but has been fully mobilized and weaponized by him and other Republican leaders in the current period.

These dual sectionalisms are why the 2018 Senate map was the most challenging ever for Democrats, with most of the competitive Senate seats in older, whiter, and less diverse rural States. Conversely, it is why Democrats had greater chances in the House, with Republican-held seats becoming competitive because they were already carried, or per some redistricting, would have been carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Residents of these districts, even if they still voted for the House Republican in 2016, never had any affection for Trump and had split their votes until 2018. Still, all of the competitive House seats, nonetheless, were urban/suburban/exurban, not rural.

Institutional Dissociative Identity

What occurred in this election, thus, is representative of an increasingly fixed institutional reality for the future, which intersects with internal migration that will continue to follow economic incentives. As economic opportunities are increasingly found in urban metropolises, and residence thus booms in them and suburban/exurban areas, a disproportionate amount of the American population will be concentrated in a relatively small number of States. This will mean a divergent representative reality between the House and the Senate.

Norman Ornstein, a conservative associated with American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has been a prominent critic of the current American Right and the lack of reform in the Constitutional system. His collaborative work with Thomas Mann, a liberal associated with Brookings Institution, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand American politics and political dysfunction. Ornstein has repeatedly highlighted this issue of economics and migration, noting that with current factors constant, by 2040, 70% of Americans will live in only 15 States.

This means that only 30% of the population will be electing 70 of the 100 Senators. This 30% will be older, whiter, and more male than the rest of the population and, assuming that the fever does not break, extremely Trumpian. Granted, the Senate, like most upper houses, was designed to be counter-majoritarian. However, this impending reality is an anti-democratic perversion of that principle, one that could not have been anticipated, nor assumed to have been endorsed, by the Framers of the Constitution.

As the House and the Senate also possess specialized roles, this difference in representation has policy implications. All matters related to appropriations and taxation must begin in the House before being considered in the Senate, while the latter has the additional and exclusive responsibilities of advising and consenting on Executive and Judicial nominees and ratifying treaties. Thus, it will soon be normal for one policy agenda to exist in the House, while a completely different one exists in the Senate. Never the twain shall meet.

This reality and the results of the midterm elections also portend troubling outcomes in Presidential elections per the Electoral College. Ornstein estimates that in 2020, Trump could very well be reelected in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by up to eight or nine million votes, a discrepancy far greater than even that in 2016. The anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College and of what will be a new age for the Senate are worsened because of the asymmetrical polarization of the GOP.

Beginning truly with Newt Gingrich and culminating with Trump, the now dominant factions of the GOP have fully embraced ideological extremism and brinkmanship. Countless Republican politicians on both the Federal and State levels have normalized the manipulation of parliamentary and administrative procedures, condemned compromise, delegitimized opposition, rejected socio-economic governing norms on most policy matters, and been unmoved by facts. Their self-awareness of their political minority status is only emboldening their extremism in safe haven institutions like the Senate, where every maneuver is now a cynical opportunity to preserve the influence they are losing elsewhere.

Every State for Itself, Almost

This coming reality, which in a sense is already here, means that for the immediate future, Federal policymaking will function at a bare minimum, if even that. That is not to say that Democrats should surrender the Federal Government, but, to remain relevant, they must mostly focus on just limiting the damage that might be done by extremist GOP caucuses in the House and the Senate. Ironically, this status quo has made States’/reserved rights, per the 10th Amendment, a liberal/progressive cause. Numerous Blue State Attorneys-General, for example, have used their positions to successfully sue the Trump administration on a variety of policy matters.

Another policy approach, one hardly discussed by Democrats and pragmatic conservatives thus far, is the interstate compact. Blue States, and perhaps some Purple States that still have pragmatic Republicans, might bypass Federal dysfunction and national GOP extremism by using the interstate compact on a regular, normalized basis. The absence of Federal policymaking might then be replaced with regional and multi-regional interstate policymaking to address issues that would otherwise be deadlocked within a split, asymmetrically polarized Congress.

The use of America’s federalist structure, whether through interstate compacts or the ongoing actions by State officeholders, is currently the best approach to salvage what is left of a functional American politics. Without broader Constitutional and institutional reforms, like those championed by Ornstein and Mann in their work, however, American dysfunction will descend into permanent paralysis on the Federal level. Even with earnest mitigations of this paralysis by Federal and State pragmatists, it is apparent that, for the foreseeable future, America will merely be a collection of States, hardly united.