This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Elections are a democracy’s error-correction system, and the United States has never needed an error-correcting midterm election more than it does this fall.
The midterms come at an hour of exceptional danger to the republic from unfit and unstable presidential leadership. They come at a time when the party in control of all branches of the federal government has reinforced long-term trends toward economic inequality and reversed steps the government had taken to slow global warming. They come amid the incitement of racial division and hatred of immigrants, the weakening of the nation’s alliances, the demonization of the press, and flagrant lies and corruption at the highest levels of government.
In short, the midterms could not come a moment too soon.
If America is to pull back from the course it is now on, that change has to start with the voters. But this fall’s election will not be a simple and straightforward referendum. As a result of the structural disadvantages that Democrats face in the battle for Congress, they may not get a majority of seats even if they win a majority of votes. And if they fall short of gaining control, Donald Trump will take it not just as a victory but as a vindication.
Trump’s famous line during the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” has had a practical correlate during his presidency. He has openly abused the powers and privileges of office, yet the Republican Congress has not held him accountable in any respect.
Some restraint on Trump has come from within the administration, or so we have been reassured. The anonymous “senior official” who wrote the notorious op-ed published on September 5 in The New York Times claims that “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” Like the sources for Bob Woodward’s book Fear, the op-ed writer describes an amoral, impulsive president, uninterested in facts, making “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions” that his subordinates “walk back.” But this internal sabotage is both wholly undemocratic and wholly unreliable; it will hold back Trump only until he ferrets out the “resistance” within his administration and no longer feels restrained by circumstances.
That is another potential effect of the midterm election: It may unleash Trump. Senators Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley have suggested the president wait until the midterms are over to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he has been badgering for months for acting disloyally and recusing himself from the Russia investigation. One of Trump’s most astonishing tweets was his attack on Sessions on September 3 for allowing the Justice Department to prosecute two Republican congressmen for corruption, thereby putting “two easy wins” in doubt. The plain implication was that a loyal attorney general would have put partisanship above the law, and that is exactly what Trump will want of a successor to Sessions.
The period right after the election, with a lame-duck Congress, may be the moment of greatest danger, when Trump feels least under restraint in using the powers available to him, such as executive pardons. The big question will be how Robert Mueller’s investigation comes to an end and whether Trump tries after the election to put the Justice Department under his thumb and bend law enforcement to his corrupt purposes. Even a Mueller report with clear findings of obstruction of justice and other crimes will not necessarily lead to any move to hold Trump accountable as long as Congress remains in Republican hands. And that is where it may remain—even with a blue wave, unless it is an unusually big one.
AS CHILDREN IN SCHOOL, we learned that in a democracy, the majority wins. If only that were true in America today. After the midterm election, the federal government could have a perfect trifecta of minority rule: a Republican majority of the House of Representatives, a Republican Senate majority, and a Republican president—all elected with a minority of the popular vote.
Forecasts of the race for the House agree that winning a simple majority of the popular vote nationally will not be enough for the Democrats. The clustering of Democratic votes in metropolitan areas and Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 census have put Democrats at a sharp disadvantage. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, Democrats need a 5.5 percentage edge over the Republicans in the popular vote to be favored to win the House. According to an estimate by Sam Wang, Ben Williams, and Rick Ober in this issue, Republicans could lose the popular vote for the House by as much as six percentage points and still have an equal chance of retaining control. Under normal circumstances, that kind of margin would probably result in a wave election. Republicans picked up 54 seats and gained control in 1994 when they won the popular vote for the House by seven points; they picked up 63 seats and won control again in 2010 with a seven-point margin. But in 2018, a seven-point margin for Democrats might still leave them short of the 23 seats they need. If they do win control, their margin in seats is likely to be smaller than it would be in a typical wave election.
The Senate poses an even steeper challenge for Democrats. While Republicans are defending only nine seats in November, the Democrats are defending 26, and ten of those are in states that Trump won two years ago. The source of the problem for Democrats is not only this year’s Senate map. With its overrepresentation of rural, low-population states, the Senate is necessarily a challenge for a party whose voters are now even more disproportionately urban than they used to be. Paul Waldman, a senior writer for the Prospect and a Washington Post columnist, has calculated that the current Democratic members of the Senate collectively received 15 million more votes than the Republican members. In the new Senate, Republicans may well retain their majority despite winning fewer votes overall.
The net result of all these trends, as congressional analyst David Wasserman has written, is that “the pro-GOP biases in both chambers are at historic highs.” That does not mean Republicans are certain to retain control (as of mid-September, the forecasts indicate Democrats are favored for the House, though not the Senate). The point is that because of the formidable advantages Republicans enjoy, they could lose the popular vote by a significant margin yet still keep control, protecting Trump from accountability and enabling him to fire Sessions, end the Mueller probe, and more deeply politicize Justice and other departments.
The danger is also that the election may leave the Republican Party even more Trumpified than it is now. Before the primaries, a number of Republicans critical of Trump, most prominently Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, decided not to run for re-election. Trump then flexed his power in primary contests, successfully backing candidates to his liking. So, unless they lose the election, congressional Republicans seem even less likely to oppose him in 2019 than before. They may also conclude that the policies they have enacted are a success. Although the public has never approved of the tax legislation they passed last year, Republican donors have rewarded the party by returning a portion of their gains in the form of millions of dollars in campaign money. If Republicans survive the midterms, they will have every political incentive to continue along the same path, enacting legislation benefiting corporations and the rich regardless of its popular support—minority rule redoubled.
THOSE ARE THE STAKES and the risks in November. But, as grim as those possibilities are, there are also encouraging developments for Democrats that ought to boost their chances and their spirits as they look not just to 2018 but to 2020 and beyond.
The Democratic Party is more unified than is generally appreciated. At the grassroots level, the resistance groups have brought together liberals, progressives, and many people with less-defined positions who are appalled by Trump. Although the primaries this year saw some hard-fought contests, they haven’t left behind the bitterness of the 2016 Clinton-Sanders fight. Progressive insurgents won a few notable victories mainly in urban districts long represented by liberals, but this was not the pattern overall. The candidates who emerged from the statewide primaries for the U.S. Senate and governor are overwhelmingly mainstream liberals who have moved a step to the left compared with where their counterparts were a decade or two ago (for example, in their support of a $15 minimum wage). The party is fielding more socially conservative candidates in more conservative states, but it is a testimony to Democrats’ increased unity that instead of running away from the Affordable Care Act, even these moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia are campaigning on health-care reform. To be sure, there are real differences of both substance and strategy in the party, yet those differences have not been the source of debilitating feuds. Trump, it turns out, has been a uniter—of Democrats.
In addition, the early election surveys indicate that Democrats are at least as likely as Republicans to turn out to vote in November. In midterm elections, Democrats have tended to suffer from a gap in turnout because of their dependence on young, minority, and low-income voters who show up more irregularly at the polls. Two developments, however, may erase that gap this year. One is the shift of better-educated suburban voters to the Democrats, while Republicans are becoming more dependent on less-educated, working-class votes. The other is the greater intensity of conviction and grassroots activism among Democrats.
Increased Democratic turnout in 2018 could have repercussions extending into the next decade. It was a sharp decline in Democratic turnout in 2010 that enabled Republicans to win control of statehouses across the country that year and then gerrymander congressional and state legislative districts. As Sam Wang and his co-authors argue, voters this fall have the opportunity to “untilt” each one of the eight states with the most egregious partisan gerrymanders. Democrats are lucky that Trump has energized their voters at so crucial a moment.
No midterm election can undo all the damage that Trump has done and is likely to do as president. A change in Congress and the states, however, could at least restore some of the checks on the misuse of power that our constitutional system expects and Republicans have failed to provide. It’s a hard road that Democrats face, and it’s the only one there is.