The Red Wave (That Wasn't)
The day after Election Day
And so we wait.
Control of the U.S. Senate, and even, improbably, the House of Representatives, is unknown the day after Election Day and will likely remain so for days and possibly weeks to come. It is a stunning turn of events that should force a reckoning across both parties about old assumptions around voting patterns, the choice of candidates, and messaging. Perhaps the political press and the pundit class should engage in some introspection about why so many could have gotten so much so wrong.
As we stand now, there are some things we can say with certainty.
There was no red wave. Not by a long shot. When you consider the political and economic context for this election, Democrats over-performed at a historic scale. As we and others noted many times, the party that doesn’t control the presidency almost always wins, and usually big, in midterm elections. Not this time. And when you add in President Biden’s relatively low popularity, inflation, and the general unease of the nation and the world, it makes the results we are witnessing even more stunning.
It is clear that the Supreme Court tossing away the right for women to have control over their own reproductive choices was rejected by a lot of Americans. Exit polls showed that abortion was a big issue for voters. And abortion rights measures won in several states, including Kentucky, Montana, and Michigan. As a highly partisan and reactionary Supreme Court continues to rule more as politicians than as justices, it will be interesting to see how, or whether, this shapes the electorate. Also, most Republicans who did win election favor severe abortion restrictions. This issue is not going away.
Donald Trump had hoped to take a victory lap this week as his candidates swept into office, culminating with an announcement he is running for president. He may yet make that announcement, but Trumpism by and large fared poorly on Tuesday. In a number of high-profile races, voters recoiled at the chaos of MAGA America, the outrageousness of the Big Lie, and the nihilism of candidates who would destroy our democracy.
To be sure, many Republicans who won at all levels of government have pledged their fealty to Trump and his destructive politics. The dangers to our democratic order remain. But we have a clearer sense of the battlefield. Millions and millions of Americans went to the polls and said, “Enough.” It is fair to guess that if Republicans had run more mainstream candidates, they could have had a better night.
One notable exception to this narrative comes from Florida. The state was once a battleground. It now appears to be ruby red under Governor Ron DeSantis. He emerges as a major power in the Republican Party, and it is clear he wants to be president. Many party leaders would love for him to be the standard bearer, but one person who is not on board is Trump.
This dynamic could lead to an intra-party fight the likes of which we have not seen in a long time, if ever. At stake are a few big unknowns: How loyal will the MAGA crowds be to Trump? What about right-wing media? Trump may be wounded and facing major legal jeopardy, but he has always put his personal interests first. If he goes down, he will try to pull others with him, and he doesn’t care a whit about splitting the Republican Party. Dare we say Republicans in disarray?
It is also striking how different the election results are from the way the races were covered. We heard that voter anxiety over inflation, crime, and even immigration would lead to a red wave. We heard that the Democrats were flailing in finding a message that would resonate with the electorate. We heard about major momentum swings. It was considered a given that Democrats would lose the House. And while that might still happen, it is at least going to be close.
We should be reminded anew to take all political prognostications with caution. And the political press perhaps should focus a bit less on the horse race, especially because they aren’t very good handicappers, and a little more on covering the issues that matter. If you want to know what Americans think, you can’t go only to rural diners. As we saw last night, the voters who are shaping this country can also be found in college dorms, Black barber shops, and suburban book clubs. The “average American” isn’t who it was in the 1950s. A diverse, young, and multiethnic United States made a statement this election.
At the same time, Trumpism is not vanquished. The structural challenges to our democracy, such as partisan gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and courts packed with ideological judges, remain. The fight for the soul of this nation continues, but there is a strong constituency for democracy and normalcy.
There is a lot more to say about individual races and broader trends. We will continue to follow the story of American democracy at Steady. For now, however, we can say that there is reason for hope and optimism about the future of this country. Maybe a fever is starting to break. There were Republicans who won last night who are trying to forge a different path forward for their party. We want to have elections between people who differ on policy, not on whether they believe in a constitutional republic based on the principles of freedom and democracy.
So we return to the notion of steady. We can breathe deep, take a moment to reflect on all that is good about our country, and continue the hard work of forging a more perfect union.
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