Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The mountain labored, and brought forth not so much a blue wave as a blue ripple. The United States had a midterm election more or less on Tuesday, November 6 — exactly one week ago as I start writing this. I say “more or less” because thanks to at least some states expanding opportunities for voting — early voting, voting by mail, absentee voting, turning already filled-out and sealed ballots on election day without having to use the polls, and “provisional ballots” if your eligibility or the currency of your registration is being challenged but you want to vote anyway — the election started well before that date and at this writing is still going on in some jurisdictions. Ballots are still coming in — many from U.S. servicemembers stationed overseas and understandably anxious to have a voice in who’s going to decide what battles in which countries they fight, and therefore whether they live or die — and a surprising number of senatorial, gubernatorial and congressional races are still “too close to call” and are being subjected to mandatory recounts.
Indeed, for me the biggest single aspect summing up the midterms is just how close many of the results were. In states ranging from Florida and Georgia to California and Arizona, we didn’t even come close to knowing on election night who had won. It’s become a cliché to say that modern America is “a divided country,” but what the closeness of this month’s election indicates is how evenly divided it is. Both major political parties had heavily energized, motivated electorates eager to turn out either to ensure continued Republican dominance of the entire federal government or to short-circuit it by giving Democrats a majority in at least half of Congress (and “flipping” some state governorships and legislatures as well), resulting in what one report says was the biggest turnout for a midterm since 1914.
The result was neither the “blue wave” the Democrats were hopefully predicting through much of the campaign season nor the “red wave” Donald Trump and the Republicans said they were expecting. Trump said that the election would be about “Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” and in a way he was right. The U.S. Senate’s confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a justice of the Supreme Court and the heavy-duty cultural anxieties it aroused — especially when Democratic Senators brought forth women who claimed Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted them decades before — closed the voter enthusiasm gap that had previously run in the Democrats’ favor and probably helped cost red-state Democratic Senators like Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota their seats.
Notably, the way Trump and the Republicans handled the sexual allegations against Kavanaugh by portraying a vote for Republicans as a vote against the “#MeToo” movement helped Republicans by widening the gender gap in the electorate. Throughout the summer polls had indicated that Democrats were doing 25 percent better than Republicans among women, but Republicans were doing 4 percent better among men. The Kavanaugh controversy, and the way Trump and other Republicans (including Maine Senator Susan Collins, who as I noted in my article about Kavanaugh immeasurably helped the case against “#MeToo” by essentially saying, “Look, I’m a woman, and I don’t ‘believe the women’ either!”) presented him as an innocent victim of reverse-sexist harpies, energized male voters and widened the Republican margin among men to 12 points.
The midterms revealed the existence of two Americas of roughly equal size. As I’m writing this, estimates indicate that Democrats won the so-called “generic vote” for the House of Representatives by between 7 and 9 points, a substantial majority but hardly the landslide they were hoping for. The election aftermath has also revealed just how unscrupulous the Republicans have become, to the extent that one has to question whether the modern-day Republican Party really accepts the basic principles of democracy — including “one person, one vote” and the belief that elections are supposed to settle who gets to wield governmental power. As Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in the 2018 afterword to What Happened, her memoir of the 2016 Presidential campaign (a book I happened to be reading during the final stages of the midterm campaign):
In 1995, one out of every 16 Americans was open to the option of military rule in our country, which I find to be a shockingly high number. In 2014, one out of six Americans felt that way. Even harder to believe, the numbers are worse for young people. According to Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard, nearly a quarter of millennials think democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. In 2011, almost half said they thought that a political system with a strong leader who didn’t have to bother with Congress or elections was a “fairly good” or “very good” idea.
The increasing support among Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, for authoritarian politics was evident in 2016 when President Trump and his surrogates — including his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — not only denounced Hillary Clinton as corrupt but called out at their rallies, “Lock her up!” A lot of people in the media and elsewhere pointed out that arresting, convicting and imprisoning their political enemies is what dictators, not democratically elected leaders, do. But we’ve heard “Lock her up!” since directed against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who as the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings brought up Christine Blasey Ford’s charges against him. And more recently Republican protesters in Florida have chanted “Lock her up!” against Brenda Snipes, the registrar of voters in Broward County.
President Trump, who famously during one of his 2016 debates with Clinton said he would accept the election results “if I win,” has been screaming “voter fraud” at the closeness of the recounts in Florida and also in Georgia (which also has an African-American Democratic candidate for governor trailing a white Republican opponent by a slim margin). Trump tweeted, “The Florida Election should be called in favor of [Republicans] Rick Scott [for Senate] and Ron DeSantis [for governor] in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
He also said the Arizona Senate race — won by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema against Republican Martha McSally by about 1.5 percent after McSally led in election night tallies — was so corrupt there ought to be a new election. Indeed, Trump is reported to have been angry at McSally for not screaming voter fraud and demanding a reversal of the poll results. Instead, McSally filmed a concession speech on video sitting on a couch with her dog, in which she wished Sinema well. What’s more, both McSally and Sinema invoked the spirit of John McCain, the late Republican Senator from Arizona and Barack Obama’s general-election opponent for President in 2008, as a sort of icon of political fairness and responsibility.
This kind of post-election sportsmanship is something we used to take for granted. It acknowledged that however hard-fought elections might be, and however strong the differences between candidates on how the country should be led, people on both sides wanted what was best for the country and put the welfare of the nation over partisan advantage. President Obama put it well when he delivered the eulogy for John McCain at his funeral — an event to which McCain, on his deathbed, pointedly insisted that President Trump not be invited to — when he said that, though he and McCain had fought a tough battle against each other in the 2008 election and continued to disagree thereafter, “We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team.”
That sense of being “on the same team,” of working together to bridge the partisan divide for the sake of the country, is gone from U.S. politics — and it’s mostly the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have killed it. In his days as an insurgent Republican Congressmember and his four years (1995-1999) as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich made clear his goal was not merely the defeat of the Democrats but their utter annihilation. During George W. Bush’s Presidency (2001-2009) his political advisor, Karl Rove, often talked about achieving “full-spectrum dominance” in American politics, and his actions made clear that what he meant by that was something like what the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, its initials in Spanish) had in Mexico during the last two-thirds of the 20th century: other political parties would still be allowed to exist, but only one would really matter.
When Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House, Republicans became even more determined not only to defeat him on issues but render him irrelevant. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said as soon as Obama was elected that his goal was “to make him a one-term President,” and he and House Republican leader John Boehner organized a successful strategy to make sure no Republicans voted for Obama’s signature issue, the Affordable Care Act — even though Obama had accepted several Republican suggestions for amending the bill. And in the last year of Obama’s Presidency, McConnell refused even to allow the Senate to hold hearings on Obama’s last U.S. Supreme Court nomination, ensuring that the vacancy would still be open when Trump took office and Trump could fill the Court seat himself.
The 2018 midterms reveal a still profoundly divided country, with the Republicans — who still control the White House, the Supreme Court and the Senate (2 ½ branches of the federal government) — still determined it be “our way or the highway.” Rather than acknowledge the verdict of at least some of the voters the way George W. Bush did in 2006 and Obama did in 2010 and pledge to cooperate with the other party’s Congressional majority, Trump has proclaimed victory based on his party’s gains in the Senate and bluntly threatened that if House Democrats investigate him, he will have his party’s Senate majority investigate them — and, what’s more, he’ll refuse to cooperate with the Democrats on issues, government will grind to a halt and he will blame the Democrats for the impasse when he runs for re-election in 2020.
Mark’s Pre-Election Predictions: How Well Did I Do?
• The Republican Party will not only hold on to their current U.S. Senate majority, they will gain seats as Democratic incumbents in small states Trump carrled — Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri — fall to the Republican juggernaut. Even Nevada Senator Dean Heller, the biggest target for Democrats since he’s the only Republican Senator running for re-election in a state Hillary Clinton carried over Donald Trump, will win.
About 50 percent on this one. The Republicans did hold their Senate majority, though of the four Senators I mentioned, only two — Heitkamp and McCaskill — lost their re-election bids and therefore “flipped” those seats to the Republicans. This was balanced by the surprise Democratic “flip” of retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona and their loss of Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada. It looks like the Republicans will still have the razor-thin 52 to 48 Senate margin they had at the start of the Trump administration — and that might narrow further by one seat if incumbent Bill Nelson manages to hold on to his seat in Florida against an aggressive challenge by Republican Governor Rick Scott.
Nonetheless, in American politics a majority of one is as good as a majority of 20 — as long as no one defects on key votes the way the late John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski did on the late 2017 vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Continued Republican control of the Senate is especially important because it will enable Trump and McConnell to keep going on their long-term plan to “pack” not only the Supreme Court but the federal courts in general with hard-Right judges picked by the person to whom the Republican Party has essentially subcontracted all its judicial nominations: Leonard Leo, president of the Federalist Society. Even if the Democrats win back both the presidency and the Senate in 2020, they’ll still have Trump’s judges to contend with, and the result could be a standoff much like the one Franklin Roosevelt and Congressional Democrats faced through much of the 1930’s, when an old-line Right-wing Supreme Court willy-nilly ruled just about everything they tried to do to stop the Depression unconstitutional.
• The Republicans will also hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives. They will lose 10 to 15 seats, a significant drop but not enough to cost them the chamber.
The biggest one I got wrong. Democrats actually did retake the House, due to a number of factors — including the disillusionment of suburban voters in general and suburban women in particular with Trump and the swaggering braggadocio with which he reigns; the willingness of Democrats to put up candidates in districts so overwhelmingly Republican in voter registration they hadn’t bothered contesting them at all in previous elections; the presence of inspiring new candidates challenging the traditional norms of what’s considered “electable” (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-described democratic socialist who unseated an old-line pro-corporate Democrat in a New York primary; and Sharice Davids, an openly Lesbian Native American mixed martial arts fighter who won a Congressional seat in Kansas — I have a feeling Kansas isn’t Kansas anymore!); and above all an unusually high voter turnout, which approached 50 percent and has been called the biggest midterm turnout since 1914.
My biggest mistake in predicting the House was underestimating the turnout. I was worried that when all was said and done, the Democrats would wimp out and not show up at the polls the way they have in previous midterms. (A New Yorker commentator noted after the Democrats’ disastrous 2010 midterms — when they not only lost the House but took a huge beating in state governments, significant because they set the rules for elections, including deciding who can and can’t vote and how easy voting will be, and also draw the district lines for the House — that if the racial, gender and partisan composition of the electorate in 2008 had been the same as it was in 2010, John McCain would have been President.) Instead the Democratic base came through in a midterm for a change, and it brought with it a lot of voters who had supported Trump in 2016 but I suspect were turned off as much, if not more so, by his personal style as his (lack of) political accomplishments.
• More Americans will actually vote for Democrats than Republicans to represent them in both the House and Senate, but under the rules of the Constitution that won’t matter — just as it didn’t matter that in November 2016 three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be President than for Donald Trump.
Though Democrats did win the House, their margin in the chamber (a five- to 12-seat majority, depending on how some still-open races turn out) is far below the 9 percent by which they won the “generic ballot” — and that’s due to the success of Republicans in using their control of state governments to gerrymander the district lines. “Gerrymander” is a word almost as old as the United States itself: it comes from Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts politician who was one of the original signers of the Constitution and James Madison’s second-term vice-president until he died in 1814. Gerry’s enduring claim to fame is that, in order to ensure that his party would keep control of Congress, he openly stacked the process of drawing district lines. One of the districts on his map looked so much like a salamander it was jokingly called the “gerrymander,” and the word entered American politics to mean a majority party unfairly drawing districts for its own advantage.
Like identity theft, gerrymandering became more common and more dangerous with the rise of computers. Sufficiently unscrupulous partisan officials in state governments now had access to software that could divide voters precinct by precinct and even block by block to produce maps meticulously calculated to favor one party over the other. California pioneered the fight against gerrymandering when its voters approved an initiative that took the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts away from the legislators themselves and vested it in an independent commission, and as of 2017 five other states — Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Washington — had followed suit. Three more states adopted independent redistricting in 2018, and studies have shown that districts drawn by independent commissions are more competitive than those designed by legislators themselves.
Nonetheless, despite the trend towards independent redistricting, there are still structural factors, including some embedded in the Constitution, that give small, racially homogeneous and generally Republican states disproportionate influence over American politics in general and Congress in particular. The Constitution guarantees each state two Senators and at least one House member — which means that the smallest state, Wyoming, with only 1/250th the population of the largest, California, not only is equal in Senate representation, its one Congressmember represents only one-fifth as many people as each of California’s 52.
That’s why I’ve often wished that the U.S. could abandon its system of representative government and substitute Germany’s, where the legislature is elected nationwide and if your party gets five percent or more of the national vote, it gets a proportion of legislative seats equal to its total percent of the vote. One good thing about the German system is it makes the formation of alternative political parties more rational. If you’re a German and you vote for the Green Party in a national election, you’re likely to get what you want — more Green Party members in Germany’s Congress, the Bundestag. If you vote for the Green Party in the U.S., all you’re likely to do is take votes away from the Democrat and help elect the Republican.
• With Republicans still in control of both houses of Congress, and with such mildly Trump-critical Senators as Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the late John McCain (R-Arizona) replaced by Trump loyalists, Trump will be emboldened to “clean house” at the Justice Department, replacing Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, firing Robert Mueller and ending all investigations into his campaign, his Russian connections and his personal and business finances.
With Republicans losing control of the House, President Trump is moving even faster than I predicted to shut down the Mueller investigation. The day after the midterms, he fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general and replaced him with his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who’s made it clear in countless TV appearances that he regards the Mueller investigation as illegitimate and thinks it should be shut down, either by firing Mueller or by restricting his powers and his budget so much he can’t continue an honest, thorough probe. Whitaker’s appointment is being challenged on constitutional grounds, but with a Supreme Court majority solidly in Republican hands — and extreme Right-wing Republican hands, at that — the Court is likely to rule 5-4 that Whitaker’s appointment is legitimate and so is whatever he wants to do to Mueller.
Trump is well aware that he faces a deadline with Mueller: he must not only stop (or severely limit) his investigation, he must do so before January 3, 2019, when the Democrats formally take control of the House and can start their own investigations. At the same time, House Democrats will be in a bind because the Mueller investigation, as much as it’s become a cause célèbre in Washington, D.C., is considered virtually irrelevant by the rest of the country. The people who voted for House Democrats didn’t elect them to protect Mueller or investigate Trump: they elected them to protect their access to health care and hopefully generate some infrastructure projects that will create jobs.
One prediction I didn’t articulate in my original article on the run-up to the midterms was I didn’t think Nancy Pelosi would become House Speaker again even if the Democrats won the majority. I had thought that too many Democrats running from swing districts had had to promise not to vote for Pelosi in order to carry their districts that she would be defeated. Though the Democrats aren’t going to vote on their leadership until November 18, two days from now, I appear to have been wrong on that one. Certainly Pelosi is acting like a Speaker-in-waiting, and while she has a lot of the same kind of negative baggage Hillary Clinton did from decades of Republican political and media propaganda against her, one nice thing about Pelosi becoming Speaker again is how much it will discomfit Donald Trump, who’s made it clear over and over again he hates the very thought of a woman being in a position of authority.
• Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will end the legislative filibuster so Republicans can pass bills without any Democratic input or support. He’s already ended the filibuster for judicial nominations (which is how Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh got on the Supreme Court), and he wanted to end the legislative filibuster in 2017 but was blocked by John McCain and Orrin Hatch. Now that Hatch will be out of the Senate and McCain is dead, he’ll have the votes to get rid of the filibuster once and for all.
Had the Republicans kept control of the House, abolition of the Senate filibuster would have been virtually a done deal. McConnell would have wanted a sweeping legislative record to get Trump re-elected and keep the Republican majorities in 2020. Now it’s unclear because much of McConnell’s agenda — including the sweeping cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid I discuss below — will be “dead on arrival” in a Democratic House anyway, unless the Democratic leaders fall for the siren’s song of a “grand bargain” in which they give away the store on social programs in exchange for heaven knows what. The irony is that ending the legislative filibuster in the Senate is actually a long-overdue reform — the majority party in Congress should be able to legislate freely so voters can hold it to account and either reward it with continued power or punish it by taking it away — but now would be the worst time for that to happen for the causes and issues I believe in.
• Once they get rid of the legislative filibuster, the Republicans in Congress will repeal all or most of the Affordable Care Act and pass the big cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid they need in order to pay for the 2017 tax cuts (so clearly skewed towards the richest Americans they aren’t supported by a majority in polls) and the “phantom” middle-class tax cut Trump promised in the later stages of the 2018 campaign.
It’s quite possible that at least one factor in the Democratic gains in the House (and some unexpected victories in Senate races in places like Arizona and Nevada that partially counterbalanced their losses in Missouri, North Dakota and likely Florida) was McConnell’s passing statement in October that the new Congress would have to look at cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for those big tax cuts for the super-rich. The Republicans remain an ideologically libertarian party, committed to the long-term goal of ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act completely and eliminating all taxation of the rich to benefit the not-so-rich.
• Though Democrats may make some gains in state governor’s and legislative races, most state governments will remain under Republican control. That means Republicans will continue and intensify the gimmicks with which they have maintained minority control, including gerrymandered Congressional and legislative districts and elaborate voter-suppression laws so people who wouldn’t vote Republican won’t be able to vote at all.
Actually the Democrats did pretty well in state races — they “flipped” the governorships not only in competitive states like Wisconsin (goodbye, Scott Walker, and good riddance!) and Michigan (goodbye and good riddance to the people who poisoned Flint’s water!) but even in Kansas, where the state’s finances and particularly its educational system have been ruined by decades of Republican control and libertarian tax-cutting. They came heartbreakingly close in Florida and Georgia, but though these races haven’t definitively been settled it’s clear that the odds are against any state in the former Confederacy electing an African-American governor.
As I pointed out above, control of state governments is more important than control of Congress in at least one respect: state governments control the rules of elections and the drawing of legislative districts. During the Obama years, Democrats talked a lot about demographics being destiny; they pointed to the fact that their parts of the electorate, particularly young people and people of color, were growing and the Republicans’ were shrinking. Rather than broaden their appeal, the Republicans decided to respond with a massive program of voter suppression to make sure people unlikely to vote Republican would not be able to vote at all. Only by contesting and winning more state governments can the Democrats block this and safeguard the ability of their voter base to vote. It’s especially important that Democrats take back statehouses in 2020 because those will be the governments that draw the Congressional districts for the next decade.
• Donald Trump will get re-elected President in 2020 the same way he got elected in 2016: he’ll lose the popular vote but will amass enough state victories he’ll win the Electoral College anyway.
Donald Trump will have a lot going for him in 2020, including a worldwide trend rewarding authoritarian populists. In 1974 Hans Morgenthau wrote an article in The New Republic that said there will always be limits on capitalist democracy because “there are some issues on which the ruling class will not allow themselves to be outvoted” — and today one of the biggest issues on which the world’s ruling classes will not allow themselves to be outvoted is their continuing determination to grab even more of society’s wealth and income for themselves. Not just in America but in countries as varied as Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines and Brazil, ordinary citizens have given up on democracy as a remedy for wealth and income inequality and are instead electing strongmen who promised to fix everything by the sheer strength of their personality.
Indeed, the inability of the established political parties to do much of anything to counter the trend towards increasing inequality is making politics more volatile worldwide. In the parliamentary systems of Western Europe, it’s increasing vote totals among the extreme parties of both Right and Left at the expense of the traditional center-right (usually Christian Democrats) and center-left (usually Social Democrats) parties. In Britain it led to “Brexit,” the nation’s insane and self-destructive vote to leave the European Union. In the countries listed above where authoritarian strongmen have taken over — essentially using the democratic process one last time in order to destroy democracy once and for all — it has led to one-person rule and the inevitably resulting abuses, including the end of press freedom and civil rights and the mass arrests of political dissidents.
In the United States the frustration over the widening gaps in wealth and income produced first the center-left presidency of Barack Obama and then a massive (though not quite as massive as Trump and Republican propaganda would lead you to believe) shift to Donald Trump and the authoritarian solution. In a 2017 interview with Rachel Maddow, Hillary Clinton summed it up when Maddow asked her why Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin so much, and Clinton answered, “He wants to be like Putin.” Trump’s admiration for Putin was apparent in the photo of the world’s leaders at the World War I centennial commemoration in Paris, in which the Western Europeans greeted Putin with pursed-lip frowns and Trump smiled at Putin like the Cheshire cat.
And his fundamental impatience with democracy was apparent in the week after the midterms, when he ramped up his attacks on reporters to such a degree he seemed (at least to me) to be thinking, “I wish I were Putin. Then I could have you arrested and your media outlets shut down.” In 2018 voters in the U.S. didn’t rise up and reverse Trump’s authoritarian agenda, but they did try to put the brakes on it and slow it down. The bad news from the midterms is that there is still a sizable minority of American voters who believe in Trump, his agenda and his style. The good news is that the rest of America is beginning to rise up against him.