As John Green often does in his Crash Course US history lectures, I’d like to consult Me from the Past. My own Me from the Past is from yesterday at 4PM, when it still seemed possible that Mark Begich’s GOTV strategy could lead to a surprise win and Bruce Braley’s ground operation would bring out Democrats in Iowa and North Carolina might actually reelect a Democratic Senator for the first time since Sam Ervin in 1968. What a wonderful world that would be!
But we know it’s not necessarily a wonderful world we live in. Republicans basically swept the table last night, and Democrats can only console themselves by not losing Senate seats in New Hampshire and Virginia that should have easily been theirs. My own fond hope that Kay Hagan could hold on in NC failed by a very narrow margin, and corrupt cue-ball-with-teeth Rick Scott somehow managed to prevail in Florida. (Again, to paraphrase John Green: “Florida, always ruining everything!”)
All this may be true, but I can’t stress enough the importance of looking at the bigger picture. It’s been known for some time that Democrats were going to compete in 2014 on brutally unfriendly territory, defending seats in Arkansas, West Virginia, South Dakota, Louisiana, and the like. And the party in the White House typically loses 6 or 7 Senators in the second term of a presidency. Even St. Reagan lost eight GOP Senate seats in the 1986 midterm elections. Despite reports of an historic loss, it looks like 2014 differs little from the historical pattern—and it’s frankly surprising that races in Georgia and Kentucky were as competitive as they were, given the difficult environment for Democrats.
Look at the broader trends: the electorate in 2010 or 2014 (two big Republican years) was older and whiter than in 2008 or 2012, and the population is steadily becoming more diverse. More importantly, look at the trend-line in recent politics: Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections—1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012. That’s not nothing. And Republicans only barely squeaked out a 50.7% margin in the gay-bashing War-on-Terror-palooza of 2004. Despite the dubious (and geopolitically catastrophic) wins of George W. Bush, it looks like Republicans have not been that great at winning presidential elections lately.
Historians and political scientists talk about party-systems and political coalitions, which is just a fancy way of saying that certain political parties tend to dominate politics for years at a time. The “New Deal Coalition” of FDR elevated Democrats to office fairly consistently from 1932 to 1968, and conservative Republicans had a lock on the White House in the age of Nixon, Reagan and Bush. For example, Jimmy Carter was the only Democrat to surpass 50% of the popular vote in a presidential election between 1964 and 2008.
The last few elections tell a very different story. Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win an outright majority in two consecutive elections since FDR. (Clinton never crossed the 50% threshold in either of his White House wins.) And Democrats won a majority of votes for the House in 2012, despite being unable to secure control of the chamber due to hyper-partisan gerrymandering of House districts after the 2010 census.
All of this may seem like cold comfort to despairing liberals, but it suggests that we may be stumbling into a different political era—something distinct from what historian Sean Wilentz aptly dubbed “the Age of Reagan,” the long period of Republican dominance that began in the 1970s. Yes, Mitch McConnell and his cronies have been elevated to power in the Senate (a development The Onion lampooned by noting that Republicans were “poised to retain control of the Senate.”) But they may not be there for long. Indeed, Democrats in 2014 were defending many seats they won thanks to the Obama wave of 2008, in fairly improbable territory like Alaska. Republicans in 2016 have a similar problem: they will have to protect incumbents who got elected in 2010 in places such as Illinois, a blue state where a Republican Senate candidate is likely to face longer odds in a presidential election year.
Let’s not forget election night 2012: gay marriage, marijuana, and Obama won big. As Buzzfeed confidently asserted at the time, “Welcome to liberal America. This is the country, and the Republican Party has to adapt.” Clearly, Republicans in 2014 made a bet that they didn’t have to adapt, that trotting out the old truisms about pro-life, family values, and the free market would be enough to win big in Kentucky and Arkansas, with a generous dollop of coal to close the deal. Given last night’s results, they bet right—for now.
None of this is to say that the problems facing progressives aren’t real. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling remains a Plessy v. Ferguson for the twenty-first century, and it poses a far greater threat than the GOP’s fleeting victory in the Senate. The power of big money threatens to warp the playing field in future elections for decades to come—regardless of what the trend of public opinion might be. This is the dark cloud hanging over Democrats and liberals, even if changing attitudes and demographics may favor more progressive politics.
It remains unclear whether the unrestricted power of money dumped into every election from dogcatcher to state Supreme Court justice can be curbed. But 2010 and 2014 in themselves are not necessarily portents of things to come. The GOP has leaned on the old bugbears of race-baiting and Bible-beating for a long time, but it’s not clear that the same fears and anxieties will have as much electoral traction in a more diverse and tolerant America. (Indeed, Alaska’s Mark Begich tried a Willie Horton-esque ploy in his reelection bid, much to his ultimate misfortune.)
The fact is that the 2014 Senate verdict in Arkansas or Georgia is not the last word on American politics. Arkansans actually voted for one of the most progressive increases in the minimum wage in the country, joining deep-red Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota, while Oregon and Washington DC legalized marijuana. And 2016 and 2018 beckon. A 39-year-old Jason Carter fell short in his bid for Georgia governor this year, but Atlanta magazine was already wondering in September if the Democrat’s race this year wasn’t just a “a test run for 2018”—when the already changing demographics of the state may lead to a much more hospitable electorate than in 2014. Barack Obama only fell five points short of victory in the state in 2008; a future Democratic presidential candidate could fare better, and if Republicans can’t hold Georgia, they have a serious problem on their hands.
I remember reading in the National Review back in 2001 or 2002 about how long-term political trends looked bleak for Republicans. At the high-water mark of conservative power—in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror frenzy—it seemed bizarre that the august journal of the Right thought the future bade ill. But the columnist pointed out that unmarried women and minorities were growing segments of the population, and Republicans had little entrée with these groups. Around the same time, Ruy Texeira and John Judis made the seemingly counterintuitive argument that an “emerging Democratic majority” was right around the corner, even when Bush and Cheney were exercising near-unchecked power.
The GOP’s hold on power may, indeed, be a “brittle grip,” to borrow Josh Marshall’s phrase. The bigger, structural forces in American politics suggest that the right wing may be living on borrowed time, relying on its trusty strategy of getting older, white, conservative voters to the polls for as long as the good times last. They might not last that much longer, and everything from new voter ID laws to Citizens United looks to me like a desperate bid to nail down the old established order while there’s still a chance. Nothing is guaranteed in politics, of course, but the broader sweep of America’s recent history suggests—at the very least—that last night’s results are not a good indicator of where the country is really headed.