A step back from the edge of the cliff
Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights.
To call the results of the midterm elections shocking would not be an overstatement. Confounding conventional wisdom and many pollsters (yet again), Democrats dodged the dreaded “red wave” that would have given Republicans, especially in the House, license to initiate any variety of attacks on President Biden and his family, up to and including multiple impeachments as payback for what they insist were unfair and uncalled for attacks on Donald Trump, up to and including multiple impeachments.
At the very least, if Republicans did win control of the House, and perhaps the Senate, they could thwart Democratic policy initiatives and then blame them for inaction in 2024. And while they did win the House, with conservatives still promising attacks on Biden, the nation has told them that their appetite for such shenanigans is extremely limited
But the real winners were not Democratic senators, Kevin McCarthy, or even President Biden, but rather moderation and democracy, both at the expense of the day’s biggest loser, Donald Trump. In the weeks and months before the midterms, the United States faced what seemed the very real prospect of an election marred by widespread claims of fraud, voter and poll worker intimidation, and even the possibility of armed intervention by far-right groups claiming it to be taking patriotic action.
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In addition, many of those projected to win in key races denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election and promised that, once in office, they would ensure that no Democrat would ever be elected in the jurisdictions over which they would preside. Trump had either explicitly or implicitly encouraged each of these ploys, all in pursuit of a return to the White House, from whence he would wield dictatorial power and remain in office until he decided to pass the torch to a chosen successor, likely his son. Even more frightening was that virtually no Republican beyond the soon to be out of office Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger dared voice opposition.
As Election Day approached, those prospects began to look more and more ominous. Many of the stunningly unqualified candidates Trump had forced on the party — Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker and Tudor Dixon, among others — either led in the polls or were within striking distance of victory. Biden was viewed unfavorably by more than half of the electorate, blamed for a post-pandemic economy that was saddled with high inflation, a good bit of it generated by oil companies raking in huge profits, and, because of his struggles with a stammer, once more accused of senility by right-wing pundits, many of whom should have known better.
For most Democrats and some Republicans, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, was certain to be a cataclysm. Trump was so confident that he planned to announce another presidential run on election eve, only at the last minute acceding to his advisors’ entreaties to wait until the election was over. Then, America’s would-be Vladimir Putin would triumphantly begin the process by which he would be swept into office.
But American voters did not cooperate.
Given the opportunity to play into a narrative that could easily have been the first step to the dismantling of American democracy, millions refused. To be sure, millions more did not, but far less than Donald Trump had both predicted and counted on. But many of those Trump millions were in deep red states where most voters would have voted for Osama Bin Laden before pulling the lever for a Democrat. In almost every key race considered “competitive” by most media outlets, extreme right candidates either underperformed expectations or outright lost. Even Oz, running against a Democrat whose stroke had left him often unable to speak cogently in their one debate, lost a Senate seat previously held by a conservative Republican. And Herschel Walker got fewer votes than Raphael Warnock in a state where Gov. Brian Kemp trounced Stacey Abrams. The list of Trump disasters, not the least of which was Ron DeSantis’ huge win in Trump’s adopted Florida, went on and on.
But that by no means implies the Republican Party has fully rejected Trumpism and returned to the democratic ideal. Although Mike Lawler, a newly elected Republican congressman from New York, has called for his party to move on from Trump, tens of millions of MAGA Republicans are sure to brand him as an apostate and vow to oust him in the 2024 primary. Another New Yorker, Rep. Elise Stefanik, endorsed Trump for president before Trump announced he would run.
Control of the Republican Party, therefore, is still very much in doubt, and with it, the survival of the American system of government. The framers of the Constitution, most notably pluralists such as James Madison, neither anticipated nor planned for the rise of such powerful political parties and that they would coalesce into our current two-party system. Instead, they envisioned many, smaller groups of advocates for particular issues and with more narrow points of view arguing for favored initiatives, thus necessitating compromise among shifting coalitions. Such a scenario would have mitigated the minority rule they built into the system, while avoiding what has been termed “tyranny of the majority.”
But that lack of foresight left each of the parties, and thus contemporary America, vulnerable to anti-democratic forces eager to exploit the resulting opportunities. In the first half of the 20th century, for example, the outsized influence of Southern Democrats, operating in what was effectively a one-party system, perpetuated Jim Crow, slavery’s illegitimate offspring. Currently, it is the Republicans who are doing their best to turn a two-party system into a one-party system. Donald Trump merely showed them how to do it more brazenly.
And so, American democracy is still in no way secure. But the pathway to making it secure just may have been revealed. What the 2022 midterms made clear is that issues and candidates, not just ideology, actually do matter to what one hopes is a majority of American voters. If the leaders of both parties can absorb that lesson – which, sadly, is far from a certainty – Madison’s vision of a government that puts a premium on thought, honest debate and policy just might be reclaimed.
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