The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is a hugely consequential and, to my mind, hugely negative event. But I want to say a few things about how we interpret this election and particularly why we shouldn’t over interpret it.
Going into Tuesday many Democrats believed that the rapid growth of the non-white voting population – and the deep liberalism of millennials – made it increasingly difficult if not impossible for Republicans to win national elections if they continued to pursue a politics that had little traction beyond white people. That was one basis of the confidence that Donald Trump would have an extremely hard time beating Hillary Clinton. Clearly that was wrong.
Today I’ve heard many paint an equally dire picture for the Democrats. They may have bare majorities of the national electorate who vote for their candidates. But they’re in the wrong places – heavied up on the coasts and spread thin in the swing states where national elections are now decided. There are more white voters than pundits and political scientists thought. So the whole ‘demography is destiny’ storyline is simply wrong. The Democratic party is a shambles. Not only did the Democrats lose the White House. They control neither house of Congress. The GOP is primed to maintain the conservative lock on the Supreme Court for another generation. And below the federal level Republicans have near or total control of the great majority of state governments. In other words, this isn’t just a single loss. The Democratic party has been essentially decapitated and beneath the presidential level it’s been completely hollowed out.
There are many hard realities in that picture I just painted of the post-2016 consensus about the Democratic party. Many of them are accurate. But a little historical perspective is in order. In fact, a lot of historical perspective is in order. After most presidential elections there is a strong move to take the lessons or apparent lessons of that election and project them out into the indefinite future. This is routinely wrong.
Let’s go back a mere 12 years to 2004. George Bush had been elected four years earlier in what many Democrats regarded as a fluke. There was good reason to believe he would not have been elected at all had there been a fair and complete counting of all the votes in Florida. Gore actually beat Bush in the popular vote, as Clinton did two days ago with Donald Trump. Two years later Democrats were looking for the traditional out year pick up by the opposite party. But they were sorely disappointed.
For a variety of reasons, most notably the continuing electoral fallout from the 9/11 election terrorist attack and the build up to the Iraq War, which was carried out as a feature of the fall election, Republicans bucked the trend and actually picked up seats. Two years later Bush’s popularity was already declining. But he managed another hard fought victory over John Kerry. It was the only presidential election in which Republicans won the popular vote in the seven presidential elections between 1992 and 2016.
Coming out of the 2004 election there was a resounding conventional wisdom, reinforced by a slew of books by very smart people, arguing that the Republicans had built a permanent governing majority. It was built on the new politics of anti-terrorism, cultural and religious conservatives and an iron triangle of pro-business legislation, exclusive access to lobbying and corporate campaign money which in turn made the GOP’s congressional majorities unbreakable. This was Karl Rove’s vision and many very insightful journalists and pundits bought into the idea even if they deplored the result.
And yet, just two years later, Republican Congressional majorities were decimated in a Democratic wave election. Democrats gained majorities in both houses of Congress and swept Republicans around the country. 28 GOP governorships were reduced to 22 GOP governorships. Then two years later Democrats managed a second consecutive wave election, with a new Democratic President and expanded congressional majorities. The 28-22 governorship split for the Democrats improved to 29-21.
Beyond these high level numbers, Democrats were winning elections in the deepest red parts of the country.
Coming out of the 2008 election, many predicted a lengthy Democratic ascendency. Not only had the Republican party been discredited. But the 2008 financial crisis appeared to have discredited its governing ideological of unregulated laissez-faire capitalism.
Needless to say, just two years later Democrats lost their House majority and only barely hung on to the Senate. Two years later Barack Obama won reelection. But Republicans gained total control over Congress in 2014. Along the way, Republicans had not just won governorships (34-15 for the GOP by 2016) but unified control of numerous states.
I ask your pardon for the thumbnail political history that most of you likely lived through and remember. But a few points can be drawn from this. One is that one party holding unified control of the government does magic for the organizing potential of the out party. The second is that election victories drive narratives that induce a profound presentist myopia.
It is very true that the Democrats hold power almost nowhere. They run some blue states. But even in the blue states they run they often don’t have full control of the state governments. At least on the face of it Republicans have unified control of the federal government. If you’re a Democrat, that’s a pretty rough picture.
But the most consistent dynamic of the last generation of American politics is its sharp reversals. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a Democratic wave election in two years is a done deal or likely. I’m not saying things are awesome, don’t worry. But I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that rapid turnabouts are the most consistent dynamic of contemporary politics, for better or worse. While it does not matter for who won this election, Democrats should also not forget that they did win a majority of the popular vote. Republicans claimed the electoral college by having the right voters in the critical states. But that is brittle hold as a governing coalition.
There is a huge amount that a president whose party controls Congress can do and do quickly. So I don’t for a moment second guess the potential consequences of this election, which look dire. I also think Democrats need to think seriously about how to reshape their party around an agenda that more directly addresses the economic prospects of middle class voters and finds ways to combat rising economic inequality. So the consequences of this defeat are potentially vast. It’s a good time to give a lot of thought to what went wrong, why and how Democrats can do better. But let’s remember: things can and do change very quickly. We’ve seen it happen twice or arguably three times just in this young century.