Opinion

Democrats face the gathering storm

Even if they can't stop the flood, it would be crazy not to prepare

Imagine you didn't know anything about Joe Biden, Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, critical race theory, Democrats' stalled spending bill, or any of the other personalities or issues that have dominated political commentary over the last several months. How would you expect a new president and his party to fare in the early years of his administration?

The answer is: pretty badly. Since the Civil War, midterm elections have tended to be a disaster for first-term presidents. Consider the fate of U.S. Grant. In 1870, Republicans lost 31 (of 243 total) seats in the House of Representatives to a party composed partly of literal secessionists. Closer to the present, the parties led by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump, and to a lesser extent George H.W. Bush, all faced major setbacks in their first midterm contests. The only true exception within living memory is George W. Bush, who benefitted from a surge of support after 9/11.

The incumbent party's losses aren't necessarily confined to swing states or districts, either. There are almost always surprises. In 2010, the local politician and former male model Scott Brown managed to get elected to the Senate in deepest blue Massachusetts. Whether you look at overall outcomes, specific races, or opinion polls, the historical pattern is clear. Voters quickly turn against the presidents they just elected. 

Considered in this light, the results from earlier this week weren't too surprising. Although there's a year to go until congressional elections, voters around the country are preparing to give Democrats a walloping. It's not just the headline contests in Virginia and New Jersey, where incumbent governor Phil Murphy barely survived a long-shot challenge. Republican candidates have done unexpectedly well even in cities such as Seattle and New York that rarely offer competitive two-party races.

Emphasizing such patterns can be deflating. Why bother participating, donating, or even voting if the outcome is predetermined? The perception of uncertainty generates enthusiasm. That's why trailing campaigns claim they're on the verge of victory until the last vote is cast, while leading ones sometimes pretend they're more worried than they really are. 

Structural explanations also seem dismissive of voters' stated motives. Whether the issue is education, crime, or something else, people choose a candidate or party and actually turn out to vote for reasons that seem important to them. There's something condescending about arguments that conscious intentions are either irrelevant or merely derivative of deeper social currents. 

But the mysterious relation between contingent events, idiosyncratic motives, and aggregate outcomes is at the core of social science. It's difficult and perhaps impossible to predict how any specific person will behave. But there are stable correlations between impersonal conditions and overall results. More than a century ago, that observation allowed the French sociologist Émile Durkeim to argue that while the decision to take one's own life may be unfathomable, we can predict how the suicide rate will respond to exogenous factors such as war or economic crisis.

Academics enjoy the detachment that "thermostatic" theories encourage. If political outcomes are mostly about self-correcting cycles, there's no reason to get worked up about particular issues or candidates. In any given election, the results may be unfavorable to one's own preferences. Over time, though, there's likely to be a correction toward the other side

Political practitioners can't afford this Olympian distance. For one thing, patterns are not guarantees. Although their parties were crushed in the first midterms, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama all went on to be re-elected and left office with high approval ratings. But George H.W. Bush and Trump failed to win re-election, while George W. Bush suffered historic unpopularity in his second term. In the long run, we can probably count on the existence of two competitive parties that follow periodic losses with effective comebacks. But that's little consolation to candidates seeking office here and now. 

The stakes aren't just electoral, moreover. Losing legislative majorities or executive offices means giving up the opportunity to implement preferred policies — and having to live with their competitors. From this perspective, emphasizing structural influences looks like an evasion of responsibility. 

Democrats' predicament, then, might be compared to the situation of people confronting inclement weather. They know winds and rains are coming, but face choices about how to prepare. Should they leave the windows open and hope for a miracle? Or do the best they can to reinforce and waterproof their fragile house?

Even if you can't stop the flood, it would be crazy not to get ready. Although there's never a shortage of free advice in the wake of defeat, I'd encourage Democrats to concentrate in the following areas.  

First, they need to accept that Biden's narrow victory in 2020 was a vote to "be normal and stop the chaos," as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) put it. Beyond the obvious fact that he was not Donald Trump, many voters saw Biden as a representative of stability, competence, and a more inclusive approach to politics. Although Biden has been less combative on social media, that's not what they've gotten. The chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, continuing pandemic, and weak economy all encourage the conclusion that "Sleepy Joe" is out to lunch.

Some of these events are beyond the control of even the most competent president. Virus surges, renewed public health restrictions, supply-chain disruptions, and inflation are happening all over the world, not only in Joe Biden's America. One of the structural ironies of American politics is that presidents and their parties get credit for economic growth and blame for recessions even though they're not the major cause of either. Just ask George H.W. Bush, who had the bad luck to serve between booms credited to Reagan and Clinton, respectively.

All the more reason, though, to emphasize what can be controlled. At the border, where the president has broad discretionary authority, Biden has been erratic and ineffective. Even if the basic decision was right, the administration's performance in Afghanistan was similarly feckless. It needs to avoid another disaster in core areas of executive power.

The administration is not directly responsible for crime and education, where policy is set mostly at the local level. But it allows activists who hold seriously unpopular views about the meaning of race and gender "equity" to set the agenda. Although it had little if any practical significance, the Justice Department's favorable response to the NASB letter comparing critical race theory opponents to domestic terrorists symbolizes the problem. 

If Democrats want to fight elections on the grounds that criticism in these areas is inherently racist, sexist, or otherwise deplorable, they're free to do so. It might be more effective to acknowledge that voters have legitimate concerns about the ideological capture of educational institutions and the tragic costs of violent crime. Contrary to progressive fantasies, these concerns are widely shared by minority voters rather than being the special property of fearful "Karens". That's why efforts to defund or fundamentally reorganize the police failed in Buffalo and Minneapolis

In tactics, finally, last week's results undermine the once-fashionable theory that winning is just a matter of turning out the base. In Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, Republicans successfully appealed to voters who supported Biden in 2020. Even if that phenomenon was, in part, a foreseeable a reversion to the pre-Trump mean, it's still a reminder that political coalitions aren't set in stone. You can't simply assume that groups that offered support in previous elections will do so in the future. They need reasons to stay loyal. 

Last week's elections were a forecast of storms ahead. Will Democrats listen, or will they keep sailing toward disaster?

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