November 9, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The midterms signal the return of Democratic dominance
Like 1982, 2022 may be the hard open of a new political order.
The counting of votes continues. The Democrats look set to hold the Senate, 50 plus one, after John Fetterman defeated Mehmet Oz. The House is a toss-up, but Democratic votes usually take longer to count. (There’s more of them.) All in all, Tuesday was a good night.
These midterms signal a return to the norm.
Didn’t they defy the norm?
Sure – if your definition of normal goes back to 2004. That was the start of the current pattern by which the party that controls the White House loses the Congress in the president’s first term.
But if you go back farther, all the way to 1900, you can see that Tuesday’s elections didn’t defy the norm so much as affirm it.
For the entire 20th century, how many times did the Congress flip?
I said what I said.
Other than those half dozen, the norm was nothing changing.
Nothing changed in 1902, 1906, 1914, 1922, 1926, 1930, 1934, 1938, 1942, 1950, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1998.
Nothing changed 76 percent of the time in 100 years.
It’s early yet. As I said, the counting continues.
But so far, there’s a good chance that the Congress doesn’t flip. In that case, the midterms would signal a departure from the new norm of the last 18 years and a return to the old norm of the prior 100.
But why were those 18 years exceptional?
Well, as I’ve been saying, those 18 years were probably a period of transition between different and opposing political gestalts – a volatile buffer zone marked by crisis and uncertainty between the old regime in which the Republicans prevailed most of the time and a new regime in which the Democrats may prevail most of the time.
The era of William McKinley gave way to the era of Franklin Roosevelt. The era of Franklin Roosevelt gave way to the era of Ronald Reagan. And Ronald Reagan’s era seems to be giving way to something new. Whether that’s Joe Biden’s is to be determined.
While the press corps is fixated on who controls the Congress, these midterms are about much, much more. They indicate larger, more important political currents in American history. It’s been said that the midterms mark Trumpism’s end. (Many of Donald Trump’s endorsements failed.) But it’s more like the end of a global order.
This is why I’ve made such a fuss over 1982. That was the last year, more or less, of the postwar liberal consensus that formed the contours of the Cold War and that fell apart in the jungles of Vietnam. 1982 was the hard open of a new gestalt, neoliberalism, the privileging of militarism over diplomacy, markets over statecraft.
(Any time you hear a Republican candidate call for cutting taxes to stimulate economic growth, that’s neoliberalism – or, as Paul Krugman calls it, “zombie economics.” Though it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and never has, Republicans always call for it.)
This theory of political time, one regime giving way to another, will hold true, I suspect, even if the GOP manages to squeak out a one-seat majority in the House. Why? Because the conventional wisdom, based on 18 years’ worth of electoral patterns, said the GOP would wipe the floor with the Democrats the way they did in 2010.
It wasn’t a blue wave, mind you. But for reasons to be discerned (the fall of Roe, probably, and/or the J6 insurrection), the Democrats’ energy was equal to or (fingers crossed) greater than the GOP’s energy. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Neither was the president supposed to double down on democratic values and Democratic accomplishments. Biden was supposed to run away from it all.
That none of this was supposed to happen but did happen indicates something huge: a new regime in which a majority favors the ideas and policies of the Democrats over those of the Republicans.
Perhaps the biggest exponent of regime change is the Republican Party itself. It used to care about policy. It used to care about appearing to care about policy. But none of the candidates this cycle bothered much with keeping up appearances. They turned the Democrats into the enemy. Vote for us because we’re not them.
The Republicans also dropped their faith in democracy. Not long after Barack Obama’s election, it was clear the GOP could win by protecting the white-power syndicate that benefits most white people. (That’s what the so-called “Tea Party” revolt was about.)
But it wasn’t until the Supreme Court cut down parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that state legislatures enacted election laws that would in effect water down the power of Democratic (Black) voters.
Since 2013, the question hasn’t been how to bring people into the fold. The question has been how to box them out of the franchise.
Success, however, rested on the continued support of respectable white people – or swing voters reliable enough to vote Republican most of the time but fickle enough to vote for Democrats some of the time. They are for civil rights, mostly, but not Black equality and the policies that demands – the fulcrum of the 40-year neoliberal order
Then something happened.
Whatever it was (the fall of Roe, probably, and/or the J6 insurrection), it destabilized the once-steady balance of the Reagan regime. Democratic candidates won the support of independent white women, who are unaffiliated with either party, by two points.
That’s titanic for a midterm.
These are respectable white people. These are the Americans who decide which party establishes, and maintains, a political regime.
This time, they said no.
With that, the Republicans have lost a small-but-essential faction of the party that made larger blocs of zealots and cranks seem respectable, especially to the eyes of the Washington press corps.
That’s over now.
The respectability of respectable white people is gone.
If respectable white people didn’t support the Republicans now, they almost certainly won’t support the party two years from now.
These midterms signal not only a return to the norm.
They signal a return of Democratic dominance.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.