Imagine a career that requires keeping up with and offering detailed, intelligent commentary on a fast-moving, endless, all-star basketball game in real-time. The analysis can focus on the broader arc of the unfolding competition or on some small aspect of it — one player's contribution at one fleeting moment on the court, or the nuances of a single pass, bank shot, or foul. And now imagine that the stakes of the game are enormous, with individual plays potentially effecting the lives of millions, the fate of the country, and even the course of world history.
That's a little bit what it's like to work as a political pundit, especially in the Trump era, when the news cycle has truly become 24/7, passions perpetually run high, and the president's persona and policy positions seem deliberately crafted to provoke maximal polarization.
Given the exhausting pace of politics, I suppose I should take satisfaction in not finding very much in the 140-odd columns I've written this year that inspires acute embarrassment. Actually, I stand by almost everything I've written — on foreign policy (time for a course correction); on the left's recurrent hopes for winning power through demographic change (foolish); on the rise of right-wing populism around the world (ominous but also potentially fruitful) and collapse of the neoliberal center (you know what they say about all good things); on Brett Kavanaugh (I started out skeptical but ended up believing Christine Blasey Ford); on Democratic prospects for 2018 (bullish) and 2020 (somewhat ... less bullish); on the Catholic Church (I'm outta here). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the columns I'm proudest of are those least tied to fleeting events in the news — those that attempt to take in a wider view of the country and the world.
When I got things wrong, it was usually a result of writing under a tight deadline in the midst of unfolding events. The best example is probably my election-night analysis, "What happened to the Democrats' blue wave?" That one was conjured up in the 90-minute widow around 9 pm on Nov. 6 when it briefly seemed like the Republicans' own red wave could end up big enough to cancel out the one coming from the left. By the time the column appeared late that night, it was already a little out of step with the results. Two weeks later, with the impressive size and scope of Democratic wins that night fully apparent, the column seemed faintly silly.
Yes, the GOP took more seats from their opponents in a couple of midterm routs over the past few decades (in 1994 and 2010), but Democratic victories in 2018 were nonetheless large and broad-based, fueling substantial gains in the House, preventing a rout in the Senate, flipping state houses and governors' mansions, and grabbing several congressional districts long held by the Republicans. That's a wave by any reasonable definition of the term.
That column was written in the midst of one kind of uncertainty — the kind that follows from an incomplete vote count. Several other columns responded to uncertainty surrounding the trustworthiness of American electoral institutions.
Before the midterms, such worries seemed amply justified. Several analysts predicted that the combination of gerrymandered House districts with the tendency to Democratic voters to cluster in densely packed urban districts could lead to a badly skewed outcome — one in which Republicans held onto the majority of the lower chamber of Congress while losing the aggregate House vote by 3, 4, 5, 6, or even 7 percentage points.
That would have been bad — especially coming just two years after Donald Trump won the presidency while losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. It's one thing for our institutions to include checks on majority rule. It's quite another for all of them to systematically favor a party that consistently receives fewer votes.
That seemed to be happening as we headed into the midterms. The Senate overrepresents states with small populations, which tend to vote Republican. The electoral college does the same thing. The GOP-skewed presidency and Senate then place judges on the federal courts with lifetime appointments. If the House, ostensibly the most democratic, majoritarian branch of the federal government, began to do the same thing, amplifying this systematic advantage in favor of the Republicans, we would be well on our way to a situation in which the American majority would feel, with justification, that the government thwarts its will at every turn. That would be a serious breakdown of democratic representation.
As I said, if it happened, it would be bad. But it didn't happen. Not even close. Democrats won 53.4 percent of the House vote while Republicans received 44.8 percent, and that has translated into a Democratic House majority of 235 out of 435 seats (or 54 percent of the total). That's a pretty close match — and a sign that our representative institutions aren't quite as bad off as I'd feared. It's also evidence that I got it wrong — that some of my pre-election writing about the House was the rhetorical and argumentative equivalent of hyperventilation.
My mea culpa extends even to some of my critical writing about the Senate, about which a number of left-leaning commentators wrote some shockingly innumerate and ahistorical takes in the days following the election. I wasn't one of them. But in the months leading up to the vote, I painted the electoral situation for Democrats as considerably more dire than I should have.
I stand by my sharply critical take on the electoral college, which I still consider a civic abomination and a "dumb idea" from the get-go. But, despite some Republican mischief-making in a few states, our way of electing both houses of Congress is considerably less broken than I described them to be through the late summer and fall. I've learned my lesson and will strive to be somewhat more circumspect in the future.