The political satirist Andy Borowitz hit it with his post-election faux headline: “Trump Unable to Stop Caravan of Democratic Women Invading Washington.”
The President’s reaction to the prospect of a Democratic House turning its focus to protecting Robert Mueller, getting his tax returns, subpoenaing documents and records and hauling in his cronies was on display Wednesday in his surreal press conference — where he trashed the Republicans who lost by name, said it would be warfare if the Democrats did use oversight and investigations, threatened to have the Republican Senate investigate them, and then went after the press and barred CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House.
Soon thereafter, his angst turned in a different direction when he forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker, a loyalist who first caught the eye of Trump when he was a CNN analyst brought on to trash the Mueller investigation and talk about ways to quash it.
Trump may have reacted this way in part to draw attention away from the reality and import of the remarkable election, with sky-high turnout and results he did not want or like. But it is still possible to step back from the circus of mid-week and look at the bigger picture.
What is the state of our politics now that power has been at least slightly rebalanced in Washington?
The people have spoken — or at least those whose voters weren’t suppressed have — and, starting on Jan. 3, there will be a new political order in America. We still have some question marks, with a number of House races to be determined, and the prospect of major recounts in Georgia and Florida (paging Katherine Harris!).
But the elections illuminated larger trends that aren’t going away anytime soon.
Tribalism remains the dominant force in American politics. To be sure, there were some notable results that broke the partisan and tribal norm: a shocker in a reliably Republican House district in Oklahoma, another for the governorship of very red Kansas. But overall, the deep divide in the country, not just between red states and blue states, but between red and blue areas within the states, was clear.
At one level, this was a tale of two elections. For the House, Democrats won a number of seats that were in Republican districts. But most of their victories came in districts that had been won by Clinton; Democrats came home.
In several of those, and others, it was a revolt of suburban, educated women against Trump.
But for many House districts and for the Senate, and key governorships in places like Florida, Georgia and Ohio, tribalism reigned. And, strikingly, for the first time in a century, there is only one state where there is a split legislature— ironically, the now solidly blue state of Minnesota.
Red states like Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri tossed out Democratic senators who had prevailed in the past, but lost this time by margins greater than many expected. And in congressional districts in New York, Iowa, Montana and California, Republican incumbents under major clouds — two indicted, one convicted of assaulting a reporter (and praised for it by the President) and one condemned by many in his own party for his white nationalism and flirtation with neo-Nazism — were still reelected, as tribal identities trumped ethical and legal lapses.
The same was true in blue New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez won reelection despite his own ethical difficulties. In Nevada, a longtime brothel owner who died well before the election — labeled “the dead pimp” by pundits — was still elected to the legislature, with voters preferring a dead Republican to a live Democrat.
Our parties are very, very different entities. Of course, there is ideological polarization, but as I and my colleague Tom Mann pointed out some time ago, the polarization is asymmetric. This election accentuated the asymmetry.
Pragmatic conservative Republicans retired or lost, leaving the party more radical, with the Freedom Caucus now the norm. Democrats elected many more pragmatic progressives and moderates, along with just a few Bernie Sanders acolytes.
Other gaps have been there for a long time: a gender gap, a marriage gap, an education gap, a regional gap, a religiosity gap, a racial and ethnic gap — but all are becoming greater.
The gender gap was striking this year: 23 points or more, with women increasingly flocking to the Democratic side. That also was reflected in candidates, where Democrats had more women running, and winning, than ever, while Republicans have not had any notable upsurge in women elected to office. The next Congress will have at least 99 women Democrats — to 19 Republicans.
The same is true of marriage, with the change being that a growing portion of the population is not married.
The education gap is especially interesting, since it cuts across other lines; non-college-educated white men and women are far more likely to be Republican than college-educated counterparts.
The same is true of religiosity: More secular voters tend to be Democrats, more religious ones to be Republicans. But the country is becoming more secular, and the newer gap is between white evangelicals and other religious groups.
The gap between urban areas and close-in suburbs, on the one hand, and small town, exurban and rural areas, is itself large, overlapping with gaps in education, race and income.
And perhaps most important, the racial gap is growing, also at all levels. Republicans are becoming an even more white party than before, while Democrats, still with some white support, are becoming the party of choice for minorities. That is also reflected in Congress. Among Democrats, white males are in the minority. Among Republicans, white males are the overwhelming majority. The charges of voter suppression of minorities levied against Republican election officials, from Kansas to Georgia and Florida, add to the tension.
Race remains a huge issue in American life and politics, and adding a racial divide between our parties to the larger political tribalism is combustible.
The Democratic future just got substantially brighter. Democrats are on track to win over 30 seats in the House, possibly as many as 35 or more. Not a tidal wave, but far more than a ripple. And most importantly, control of a chamber with all that implies.
But the gains were not limited to the House. Democrats gained seven governorships plus at least 333 state legislative seats, and flipped at least six state chambers, in states like Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, New York and New Hampshire. They picked up new supermajorities in Oregon, and broke Republican supermajorities in North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania, giving Democratic governors in those states much more leeway — especially in North Carolina, where the legislature has been a leader in partisan and racial voter suppression.
The gains help replenish a depleted farm team for the future, gave the party advantages in some big states looking ahead to the redistricting after the 2020 Census. And several states passed initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions and to make voting easier.
It’s health care, stupid. Trump worked mightily to make nativism the core issue in the election, including spurning advice from Republicans in Congress and among consultants to focus on the economy, instead doubling down on the faux looming threat from the Central American migrant caravan. It might have helped trigger tribal reaction in some Senate and gubernatorial races.
But the most significant issue to voters was the health care system. It helped many Democrats to victories in the House, and put many Republicans who had voted to blow up the Affordable Care Act on the defensive.
And importantly, a number of states, including red Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska, passed initiatives to expand Medicaid, while Democratic governors elected in Maine and Kansas can move forward after their predecessors blocked the expansion.
The skew in our politics away from popular will is growing. It took a massive vote nationwide for the House for Democrats to gain enough seats to win the chamber; the combination of partisan gerrymandering and geographical sorting means that the House does not provide the direct reflection of popular will that the Framers had in mind.
The skew in the Senate is much sharper, as small, homogenous states have far more power. By 2040, 70% of Americans will live in 15 states, meaning 30% will elect 70 of the 100 senators, and they will not reflect broadly the diversity or changes occurring in the country, leading to more disaffection and a sense of illegitimacy.
More ominous is the Electoral College. Based on House results in this election, it is entirely possible that Donald Trump running for reelection could lose the popular vote by 8 or 9 million votes and still win a majority of electoral votes. That would be the third time in six elections where the winner of the popular vote lost the presidency; the first two times, the gap was, respectively, 500,000 and 3 million.
Each time, the sense that voters do not choose their government will grow, creating a genuine crisis of legitimacy.
There are implications for 2020. For Democrats seeking to regain the presidency, there are two main takeaways. One is that the elections gave a boost to several potential candidates. Sherrod Brown’s victory in reddish Ohio, if not impressive, still gives him some traction, and Amy Klobuchar’s very impressive victory in Minnesota, following on her national profile from the Kavanaugh hearings, does the same for her.
And Beto O’Rourke, despite losing to Ted Cruz in Texas, did far better than most anticipated in a state that is still red. He ran an impressive campaign, and built a huge and enthusiastic base of ardent fans and a massive list of donors, small and large. Ironically, if he considers a run for the nomination in 2020, a loss might serve him better than being tied to an unproductive Senate where he would have had a junior, unproductive minority role.
Just as important for Democrats, many high-profile candidates who ran as flat-out progressives did not prevail, while more pragmatic ones did. Democratic Socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was more the exception than the rule. That means that the Zeitgeist of the party may be more a desire to find a candidate who can win with a broader appeal, not just one who can excite the more ardent base.
For Trump, the implications are mixed. An aggressive Democratic House, getting his tax returns, subpoenaing documents and hauling in witnesses, protecting Mueller and holding investigative and oversight hearings, is a nightmare, as he made clear in his bizarre post-election press conference, where he threatened to investigate his House adversaries and go on a war footing against them. But at the same time, Trump has a foil — one he will try to use to deflect blame for anything that goes wrong.
The bottom line: Division remains the defining characteristic of our politics. The good news is that checks and balances are back in some measure; if the Republicans had kept the House and Senate, Trump would have been unleashed in all his nativist, autocratic and corrupt ways. But we are far from having a political system more focused on solving urgent national problems than engaging in tribal warfare.