We don’t know what’s going to happen tonight, and anything is possible — from Republican control of the House and Senate to a Democratic takeover of both. But if, as looks highly likely, Democrats emerge from today’s elections with a House but not a Senate majority, they should still take a moment to appreciate the scale of what they achieved. After years in an ink-black political basement, they should allow themselves the luxury of blinking a few times before adjusting to the unaccustomed joy of sunlight.
It would be an unusual victory, by some measures. The economy is in the midst of an eight-year expansion and unemployment at its lowest levels since the 1960s. Democrats will have fought through these positive economic times, as well as a series of structural obstacles, to reclaim the House. On the other hand, they have regained it from the feckless and reeling Republican Party, whose leaders gambled that doing almost nothing with unified government for two years other than providing covering fire for their feral president was a winning strategy.
The House Republican majority will have been vanquished despite defending a map that they ingeniously gerrymandered after 2010, and which extended the dominion of an increasingly out-of-touch GOP over our national life. And they will have gone down in the bewildering and hateful din of the president’s incoherent xenophobia in the closing weeks of the election cycle.
Getting here was not fun. From virtually the moment that Donald Trump was inaugurated and signed his bumbling Muslim ban, politics has felt like a long series of emergencies, with progressives constantly having to scramble to get the fighters in the air before a bombing raid that, all too often, they knew they had no real chance of stopping.
It has occasionally been exhilarating, and more rarely, rewarding. The president and his allies unleashed an endless barrage of policy outrages and threats — travel bans and trans bans; an end to loan repayment programs and birthright citizenship; paper-shredding the Paris climate agreement, the Iran deal, the INF nuclear treaty, and the Universal Postal Union; rolling back Dodd-Frank and coal regulations; siding with rapists on campus and on the Supreme Court; and killing net neutrality and green energy initiatives. The list of indecencies presented here is less exhaustive than it is exhausting. Discerning the difference between a real policy initiative and a bullshit trial balloon has been a full-time job.
It is perfectly understandable to want a break from all of this and to interpret a Democratic win as permission to check out for a while. On Twitter, you’ll frequently see a sentiment that goes something like, “I miss being able to live my life without worrying about whether the president is going to get us all killed.” And certainly, Democrats will get a small and welcome mental health reprieve in knowing that someone with real power in DC is acting as a check on the president.
But if there’s one thing that progressives should have learned during this dispiriting period in our history, it’s that politics should really feel like this much more often.
It was precisely the decision of the party’s activist base to demobilize after Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory that led to so many demoralizing and highly consequential election losses over the past decade. Sustaining and building on any of today’s victories will require the permanent engagement not just of the activist class but also of all the ordinary citizens who got woke over the past two years.
Complacency kills. There can be no respite from fighting today’s Republican Party, a uniquely dangerous organization that combines white racial supremacism with a reactionary hostility to modern social democracy and a deranged attachment to climate denialism. Nowhere else is there a political party that combines such a regressive economic agenda with pre-genocidal levels of racism and ethnic grievance. And make no mistake, the Republican Party will remain the most powerful political organization in the democratic world no matter what happens tonight.
Even if Democrats sweep into power in the House, or even both chambers, we can’t be confident that their triumph will be long-lasting — or even repeated in 2020. The last 16 years of politics in this country have been a long exercise in near-total futility for both Democrats and Republicans. Each have, at various times, been elected in waves on the promise to enact major new policies. The voters have sent them to DC with what seems like a clear mandate to do precisely those things and then, usually just months later, the voters revolt. The Affordable Care Act spent eight years as the target of popular ire, only to start polling with majority support the day before Donald Trump took office with a Republican majority dedicated to repealing it.
More worrisome is that the supporters of the president’s party frequently can’t be bothered to turn out for more than one election in a row — voters seemingly grow dispirited and disaffected by the slightest failure or affront. That’s how you get wave elections in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and now presumably 2018. No matter who is in charge, everyone despises Congress, and recent presidents have spent most of their time with approval ratings in the 30s or 40s. Triumphant coalitions appear and disappear. It was just a few months ago, after all, that conservative columnist Salena Zito and GOP strategist Brad Todd in The Great Revolt were hailing Trump’s victory as “the first success of a coalition that is not likely to soon separate.” Well, so much for that.
The political scientist Morris Fiorina calls these seemingly ephemeral coalitions “unstable majorities.” As he notes, “one cannot assume that an election outcome that is consequential implies that the electorate or some large segment of it intended those consequences.” His words now retrospectively ring very true for 2016, when voters gave total power to a Republican Party whose issue positions they appeared to loathe. Whichever party figures out how to break this pattern of oscillating, narrow victories — whoever can turn out their core supporters in sufficient numbers for multiple elections in a row — could dominate politics for the foreseeable future.
Can that be the Democrats? They certainly seem to have the raw numbers on their side. Democrats have won the popular vote in 6 of the 7 last presidential elections, have picked up 30 million more votes for the Senate since 1992, and now, finally, they are likely to get their first majority of House votes since 2012. But the political institutions of the United States are dreadful at translating popular victories into governing majorities, instead repeatedly handing control of the country this century over to a Republican Party with minority support.
In fact, there is still roughly a 1-in-7 chance that Democrats will win more votes tonight but only a minority of seats in the House. The aggressive, unapologetic ineptitude and divisiveness of the Trump administration may well make it possible for Democrats to overcome these obstacles over the next two cycles and recapture total power in DC. If they do, they must move aggressively to pass national voting rights legislation, admit Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico as the 51st and 52nd states, and consider more radical proposals like court enlargement and ranked-choice voting for the House.
But perhaps the other way to break the national stalemate is to run more campaigns like Beto O’Rourke’s in Texas, like Jess King’s in Pennsylvania or Lauren Underwood’s in Illinois, and like Stacey Abrams’ for Georgia governor. These inspirational operations are powered by enthusiastic volunteers, people motivated to work for good, smart, decent candidates who haven’t been captured by the DC-based blob of campaign consultants and warmed over ads that people literally laugh at. What links these campaigns together isn’t some bland, centrist median-voter-trolling operation but rather sharp, progressive issue positions presented with style, energy, and a total absence of cynicism.
That’s the kind of politics that people might be able to stay engaged with, that Democrats might win consistently with, and which might just save us all.
David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University, a contributing writer at the Week, and the author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics.