Besides those Democrats whose elections helped take back the House, the big winners from Election Day were a much higher-than-average voter turnout, with a special tip of the hat to younger voters and the successful campaigns of more women candidates.
Their heart-warming and hard-won extra participation was a good outcome for the Democracy all by itself, even before delving into the numbers far enough to confirm that the inflated vote helped the first steps for the House to reclaim a more sensible, reasonable path for our government than Trump sloganeering alone allows.
In all—billions of dollars and months later of talking past one another—we’re left with a patchwork quilt of election results that provides enough victory for each party to declare some gain—one house of Congress to each side.
Of course, these popular election results – with no electoral counts – should be bad news for the dark nationalist vision of Trump, who generally refuses to acknowledge any losses and who, in these months, has gotten the chance to brand the Republican party as his own, weeding out non-believers. But he will spin it to say that expanding Republican hold on the Senate will guarantee he can continue to get confirmation for judges and others – and inoculate himself over any possible impeachment move in the House. He also will claim credit for Republican wins for governor in several key states.
Flipping the House means that there will be a check on Trump’s excesses in ethics, in business, in budgets, in legislation. Making it all work, however, sounds like a nightmare over the next few months for the White House, which will face non-stop investigation by the House, and for us, who will have to listen to endless attacks rather than the kind of compromise that will provide, say an affordable healthcare program.
Nevertheless, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leaders in a Congress that doesn’t work, somewhat over-promised, and may face difficulty taking and keeping their party leadership positions. Of course, by contrast, no one is lining up to punish Republican congressional leaders who have stood by silent as Trump has become increasingly coarse.
Those hoping for clarity in direction for the nation or aching for leaders to step up to help us knit our political divides will have to wait another day. It is worth noting that even by making things razor close in district after district, it was a big day for voters telling the president he should cool his rhetoric. But the odds are that he won’t.
This was a set of elections playing out in 50 separate states with differing attempts to build or suppress votes, with candidates who either nestled up next to Trump or held him in disdain. The president himself was willing to say it was all about him, unless the individual candidate lost on his own.
We should step back and recognize that the contested House races were about 15% (66 districts of the 435) of the total, and a half-dozen Senate races mostly in a distorted map that favored states that had voted for Trump in 2016. If anything, we should be concerned that the rest were guaranteed by gerrymandering or voting tradition.
This election (and maybe all of them) was all about winning – and, in the aftermath, we ought to be ashamed that once again this election showed that in pursuit of winning, candidates (and the president) would say almost anything about opponents, true or false. Cynically, if candidates show up with enough money, they can have a more successful run; if they wanted to support stringent, even inhumane immigration controls, they likely also were willing to overlook Trump statements aimed at stoking fear or racist superiority. If candidates said education or affordable health care was the most important issue, they faced being labeled the “radical left.”
The election also was a start: Democrats proved nimble enough to jump on the flight of Republican moderates from the House and to build on discomfort with Trump to turn the majority in the House, if by a smaller margin than had been imagined. We have badly needed checks and balances in a government veering toward a dangerously, overly partisan state in which the president thinks he can rewrite the Constitution by himself.
But by winning the Senate – even adding to its majority — the Republican leadership has assured itself that its self-described mission to populate the judiciary with conservative nominees may well lurch ahead without difficulty.
Based on his gut and partial successes yesterday, Trump will have cemented his continuing turn toward the use of hate, falsehoods and racially tinged language as the best means for his re-election campaign, which seems already underway.
What some had thought might happen is that the election would serve as a warning to the Trump administration, that substantial enough opposition might tamper his caustic insults and harmful policies. To an extent, it was hoped that this election would put forth American values in a way that would scold the Trump administration as going way over the line in its treatment of immigrant families, legal or not, of singling out Muslims, as enabling hate talk, to say nothing of policies that are specifically anti-environment, anti-consumer and helpful only to the wealthy. It would be impossible, for example, to take a message about gun policy from these election results.
We can look ahead to House Democrats wielding their powers of investigation to gum up the works for the administration and for Trump himself (think his tax returns), but risking the label that they obstruct without getting things done. And, in any case, we can expect the 2020 presidential race to begin in earnest within the week, keeping alive the same, monotonous debate.
Specifics of the election aside, we’ve learned some other lessons about elections and campaigns in the Trump era.
The divide. As with news coverage in general, what struck me most during this campaign was how little unfiltered information voters allow themselves to take in.
- The cable. TV road reporters who drew the job of interviewing individual voters as if they were representative showed repeatedly that individual Americans on each side were repeating the political pablum that they have been handed by their candidate, Fox News or the president. I don’t care that there is disagreement; I do mind that voters just accept things mindlessly without thought. As a result, those entering the voting booth had entirely different agendas. The divide, narrow in numbers but wide in principle, will worsen.
- Purifying Republicans. Among the retirement of a record number of moderate Republicans, the primary process and the election itself, the Republican returnees to Congress will shift to a group that is harder-right, more in agreement with its principles and one that is much less willing to compromise with Democrats. It is difficult to see this as a positive development for the country.
- Money. The amount of political cash and the endless demand for more through social media, should astound all of us. We just spent billions of dollars to end up with an electoral confirmation of what we knew going in – that the country is divided – and self-centered about personal well-being rather than the general welfare for those around us. Attempts to “reform” political cash are, for all intents, impossible. Candidates are judged by money-raising effort, and advance through the political rolls by helping others raise money. In the end, we use the cash to air misleading and negative ads, not to help solve a single problem facing us.
- The candidates. Much has been made of the remarkable and desirable rise in the number of women seeking office, and, among Democrats at least the addition of non-white candidates in sizeable numbers. Diversity is always good, but self-driven effort to diversify is even more impressive. At the same time, we’re looking at a White House and administration that is at odds with this image in diversity, not only among staff members but in policy-making circles. If the election taught nothing else, it should have shown the president the need to widen the backgrounds of those who contribute.
It’d be easy to say we’ve lost our ability to discern our true national interests, basing our political faith solely on the cult of personality or emotion.
But then we might have to vote on that.