Our politics is stuck in neutral

In 2018, Bill Schneider, columnist for The Hill, authored “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable.” Schneider described a stalemate between an Old America that is conservative, white, male, religious, older and rural, and a New America that is progressive and composed of African Americans, young people, working women, gays, immigrants, educated professionals and the nonreligious. Old America resonated with Donald Trump’s call to “make America great again”; New America formed the heart of the Obama coalition. The result, said Schneider, was a standoff that has made America ungovernable and increased party polarization to a level not seen since before the Civil War.

Old America has distinct advantages that have thwarted the political revolution many thought inevitable given how voters in New America are reshaping the political demography of the country. Red States give the Republicans congressional advantages, especially in the Senate, while Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors work to keep Democratic House seats to a minimum. Retention of the Senate filibuster kills legislation favored by New America. The Electoral College exaggerates Republican strength, with electoral misfires a more frequent occurrence, as Democrats pile up huge margins in a few states while Republicans win the heartland.

In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 7,060,520 votes, but a shift of just 42,918 votes in three states – Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin – would have made Trump the winner — thanks to an Electoral College tie that would have allowed  a majority of Republican-controlled state delegations in the House to keep Trump in office.

This standoff is upending old political maxims. Once upon a time, midterm elections could be classified into two types: preludes — namely, elections that forecast a major political shift as the forces for change gathered momentum that became manifest in subsequent presidential elections; and interludes — where the results represented nothing more than a measure of the politics of the moment.

One prelude occurred in 1894, when Democrats lost 113 House seats and five senators, resulting in Republican congressional majorities. That election signaled a party realignment that would commence in 1896. For 28 of the following 36 years, Republicans would rule the White House. 

Another prelude occurred in 1934, when Democrats padded their congressional majorities, signaling a still-gathering momentum for the New Deal coalition that would keep Republicans out of the White House until 1952.

Two interludes stand out. In 1946, Republicans won Congress by running on the slogan “Had Enough?” which encapsulated voter frustration with shortages of material goods and numerous labor strikes, and a lingering perception that Harry Truman was not up to the job. But Truman staged a comeback and won the White House in 1948. In 1982, Democrats gained 27 House seats running on the slogan “It isn’t fair. It’s Republican.” But that election was not a harbinger, as Democrats subsequently lost the presidency by wide margins to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Thanks to today’s standoff, a different pattern has developed. Presidential elections are akin to a political Armageddon, with each side viewing defeat as a catastrophe. Donald Trump’s surprising win in 2016 energized Democrats, and the day after Trump’s inauguration millions took to the streets to participate in the Women’s March. The Mueller investigation, Trump’s installation of two Supreme Court justices and his nearly successful attempt to repeal ObamaCare enraged Democrats.

In 2018, polls showed an infuriated Democratic base eager to send Trump a message, and Democrats took control of the House. But by 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) angered Republicans with her support for Trump’s impeachment following revelations that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for “a favor”—i.e., digging up dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for much needed weaponry. Incensed Republicans showed up to vote in 2020, giving Trump 11,240,692 more votes than he received in 2016, and surprising everyone by adding to the Republican ranks in the House. Democrats were equally energized and determined to oust Donald Trump, with Joe Biden winning 7,060,520 more votes than Hillary Clinton had in 2016.

Today, it’s the Republicans’ turn to be reinvigorated. Rampant inflation, rising crime and chaos at the Mexican border feed into a Republican narrative of a country spinning out of control. Adding to their grievances is many Republicans’ adoption of Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

A new survey finds 57 percent of Republicans view the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as “an act of patriotism.” Republican-led Red States are busily enacting new voting restrictions, believing that millions of illegitimate ballots were cast in 2020 or will be in future elections, and fearing a rising tide of future Democratic voters.

Despite Democrats’ hopes that the coming revelations about Jan. 6 may alter the midterm landscape, or that a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade will energize dispirited Democratic women, the 2022 outcome is set. Only the size of the Republican majority remains in doubt.

But future Republican control of Congress is likely to galvanize Democrats. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) will get the committee assignments that Democrats stripped from her, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) may be removed from the Intelligence Committee. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) will continue his focus on “comms rather than legislation,” and he will be joined by Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Greene and others with their outrageous Twitter posts that raise millions of dollars — making them powerful party spokespersons.

Impeaching President Biden is on the table, with Reps. Bob Good (R-Pa.), Greene and Boebert already sponsoring an impeachment resolution. Hunter Biden will be subjected to intense congressional scrutiny whose purpose is to go after the president both politically and personally. Any hope of more Biden-appointed federal judges, including any potential Supreme Court pick, will be thwarted by a Senate led by Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for whom the exercise of power has no restraints. Donald Trump will view a Republican congressional takeover as an endorsement of another presidential run, and he will become the focus of political conversation.

The result will be two energized parties with another standoff in 2024 likely. In 1930, political scientist Antonio Gramsci wrote that “the old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Today’s standoff, and the morbid symptoms associated with it, will be our unhappy future.  

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags 2020 presidential election 2022 midterm elections Barack Obama big lie Donald Trump Jan. 6 riot Nancy Pelosi Obama Republican Party

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