So here we are.
Because of the nature of our biennial federal elections, unified Republican control of the federal government and a thoroughly pliant Congress, Donald Trump has had free rein, more or less untrammeled, for almost two years. Democrats and all Trump’s opponents have had no recourse or ability to constrain him beyond organizing, protesting and trying to make a public case against the Trumpian slide into quasi-democracy and authoritarian rule.
Sinclair Lewis has long been quoted erroneously as saying: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” It is probably better to say that the collapse of democracy in America will operate with and within the structures and contours of American tradition, much as a repurposed garment, cut up and re-sewn into a different form, will still contain the marks of its original purpose within it. James Waterman Wise said it more aptly in 1936 when he predicted that an American fascism would be “wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and the preservation of the constitution.”
Today is the day when the majority of the country gets a chance to say no, to start placing limits on this dismal slide into the vicious cycle of personal rule and government by aggression.
Polls suggest that Democrats will have a strong showing tonight. But before we see the results, it’s worth taking note of some historical context. 538 predicts a 9.2 percentage point win for Democrats in the national House vote. Their analysis of the polls alone says 8.7 points. RCP averages the polls at a 7.3 percentage point winning margin for the Democrats.
How does that compare to earlier wave elections? In 2010, Republicans won the House vote by 6.8 percentage points and ended up with 242 seats. In 1994, Republicans won the House with 7.1 points. In 2006, Democrats won by 8 percentage points. Two years later in 2008, they took the House with a 9.6 percentage point margin and captured a mammoth 257 seats.
I cite this information not to suggest false confidence. Quite the contrary actually. I cite these numbers to show that if we look at the numbers of people who turn out today and vote for Democratic or Republican House candidates, there’s little question the result will at least be in the range of the major wave elections of the last quarter century. It could easily be at the upper end of the range. But it’s quite unlikely the margin of seats will match those earlier elections because of a mix of aggressive partisan gerrymandering, concentration of Democratic voters in cities and various Republican-backed voter suppression policies.
I note this because it is important to understand the nature of the election we’re conducting today. The Democrats are playing on a significantly tilted playing field in which they have to hit near historic numbers to have a chance to win a majority at all. Most election analysts believe that winning the aggregate vote by say 5 percentage points will leave the Democrats in the minority in the House.
If the Democrats come up short tonight, there will be no end of hand-wringing about how they ‘lost the argument’ or adopted the wrong strategy. Republicans, in the posture of dominance that’s the core of Trumpism, will stomp the point. But it’s not true. A majority wants a check on Trump and opposes him. But for now, Democrats have to more than win to create that check. They have to do that not only to put a check on Trump but to start the process of rebalancing the electoral terrain in its entirety.
The most vivid explanation of the consequences of this election to my mind is this. Think of the last two years, the lying and predation, the corruption and slide to family rule, the upended global order, the pervasive encouragement of racist extremists and street violence, the families separated, the looting at scale. All of this has barely, barely been held in check by the fear of electoral consequences. What do you imagine the next two years are like if Trump and his pliant party wake up Wednesday and say “We did all that and there were no consequences at all. Like zero. Why hold back?” The hell storm released by that permission is ghastly imagine.
For all this, I can’t agree with those who say this ballot is the country’s last chance to prevent slipping into some kind of Trumpian soft autocracy. Because if we say that, what’s the plan for Wednesday morning? Politics is about the long haul. I think they’ll manage it. We can’t know the future, as 2016 so painfully illustrated. But the evidence we have, incomplete and fallible, suggests a good result. Everything over the last two years comes down to this one opportunity.