Progressives are breathing a sigh of relief at dodging a disastrous “red wave” rout in the midterm elections that would have given Republicans control of both houses in Congress — plus the governorships in key swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania, where voter roll chicanery could swing the 2024 presidential election.
But let’s hold off on congratulating Democrats for what Sen. Elizabeth Warren called their “midterm victory.” Democrats retained their bare Senate majority by winning between zero and one seats, and relinquished control of the House by losing what will probably end up being 10 seats. I don’t want to bore anyone with statistical analysis, but a tie and a loss don’t add up to a victory.
If newcomers to U.S. political culture were confused about why election night was widely seen as a win for the Blue Team, that’s because they hadn’t been informed of the conventional wisdom that the party that wins the White House will lose badly in the next midterm elections. That’s what happened to Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1994, Barack Obama’s Democrats in 2010, and Donald Trump’s Republicans in 2018. (It also happened to George Bush’s Republicans, but in 2006 instead of the post-9/11 frenzy of 2002.)
But this pattern isn’t an unchanging law of nature but a recent law of neoliberalism. In the 60 years before Clinton, the only presidents whose party suffered a crushing midterm defeat were Harry Truman and Gerald Ford — both vice presidents who had recently taken over the White House without being elected.
I’m no historian with a researched theory, but I would guess that the recent trend of midterm backlash has something to do with the hollowing out of U.S. democracy so that both parties have had little to offer voters beyond fear and loathing of the other party — which leads to a depressed turnout from their base when the enemy isn’t in the White House.
Joe Biden’s Democrats bucked the trend this year, but it’s important that we understand why, because centrists like the Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk are eagerly claiming the results as a lesson in how moderates won the election. Like “victory,” “moderates” is another word that might seem strange to a newcomer armed only with observable facts. Yes, some of Donald Trump’s handpicked misfits like…