This morning, Democrats are feeling pretty good. We shouldn’t be.
With many races still too close to call, it appears that this year’s elections were not quite the cataclysm for Democrats that they could have been. We have a decent chance of preserving a 50–50 tie in the Senate and will probably only lose about ten seats (and the majority) in the House. That, combined with weeks of lowering expectations, will help the party put a positive spin on what was really … a disturbing defeat.
Sure, last night was not as bad as some other first-midterm elections (see 1994 and 2010). But think about it. The Republicans have openly revealed themselves to be a systematically dishonest, anti-democratic, misogynist, extreme-fundamentalist party, whose members delight in promoting baseless conspiracy theories, forcing women to give birth no matter the costs, humiliating children because of their sexual identity, and stoking race hatred. In overturning Roe v. Wade — thereby showing themselves to be bald-faced liars as well — the Supreme Court’s theocratic majority gave Democrats what should have been the greatest political gift of the past half century. On hot-button issue after hot-button issue — the 2020 election, abortion, guns — the Republicans are on the wrong side of the American electorate. With every year that passes, our demographic advantage (young people) should be increasing. There is even a fatal disease that disproportionately targets people who hold conservative beliefs about science and the government.
Any visitor from Mars would say that we should have crushed the Republicans. Voters should have decisively rejected a party that inhabits an alternative universe and has no respect for half of the human species. Yet we just lost the House and at best will count ourselves lucky to squeak by in the Senate on a fortunate map (only 14 of the 35 seats up for election were ours). We can’t blame gerrymandering: the aggregate Republican advantage in House races is at its lowest point in decades. How can this be?
The truth is that the Democratic Party has failed — failed to stand for anything that ordinary people care about and failed to deliver basic economic security. We are pretty good at arming Ukraine to fight against a brutal Russian invasion, pretty bad at helping the working- and middle-class people who were once the bedrock of our party.
The Democratic strategy boiled down to hoping that people would vote to protect abortion rights and repudiate election-denying would-be authoritarians, and then getting mad at voters for caring more about “inflation.” Sure, inflation has been over-hyped by the media, is actually good for people who have fixed-rate debts, and is not the Democrats’ fault. But “inflation” is just the current label for the thing that has worried most Americans most of the past three decades: in a world of precarious jobs, stagnant wages, extreme inequality, and increasing health care and housing costs, will I be able to pay the bills and feed my family? People know that Republicans don’t care about their economic security, preoccupied as they are with voting machine software and the sanctity of school bathrooms. But if we won’t deliver for them, despite holding the White House and both houses of Congress, why should they think we care?
You may point out that, with a Senate majority dependent on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, there was little that we could accomplish in the past two years. But that is to mistake the symptom for the disease. The Democratic Party has for decades been held captive by its “moderates” — people we used to call “Republicans”—because it has failed to establish a meaningful identity as the champion of the 99%, instead seeking to be a hard-headed party of fiscal responsibility, competitive markets, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. (I’ve told this story at length in Take Back Our Party; the latest chapter is President Biden saying that eliminating the debt ceiling would be “irresponsible.”)
The strategy of “vote for me because the other guy is crazy” has failed. Given the alternatives, about half of all voters prefer the crazies. Democracy is barely holding on, with the Supreme Court likely to hand control over the Electoral College to Republican state legislatures in swing states like Georgia and Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the only thing standing between our country and authoritarianism is the Democratic Party. And Democratic politicians think they can win elections simply by imploring voters to turn out (and donate money over and over again) to protect democracy. The problem is, not enough people care that much about electoral integrity (and most who do are election-denying Trumpists). The result is that we are closer now to authoritarianism than ever.
What people care about are the everyday challenges that most Americans have to worry about: getting and keeping a job; paying the rent and putting food on the table; decent schools for their children; affordable health care; and saving something for retirement. Too many people don’t see Democrats as the party that can solve those problems. Instead, they see us as the urban, overeducated, technocratic, internationalist, secular, diverse party, and they ask themselves why they should vote for us. For many of them, we don’t have an answer.