Not Dark Yet
Why the lights are still on in America and what this week means for 2024
We all know Obama won it really. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty.)
The liberal temperament is an anxious one. After a burst of jubilation on Thursday, some commentators on the left retreated to their discomfort zone. On his New York Times podcast, Ezra Klein, brow almost audibly furrowed, somehow managed to make the results sound like bad news for De Santis, Trump, Biden, Republicans and Democrats, America; everyone. He didn’t, even for one second, whoop and holler with glee, which is what I’d be doing all day if I were him. We will look at a few of the trees in a minute, but please, let’s take a moment to admire the forest. This week’s elections were authentically great news for Democrats, and more importantly, they were great news for the future of American democracy - which is great news for every democrat, left or right, in the West.
Things have not been looking good over there. No, nor here either, but while British politics has been farcical, American politics has seemed to be in the grip of a more tragic and profound malady, one inherited at its birth, not so long ago. The bearish case on American democracy is laid out in an interview that Klein conducted, the week before the elections, with the political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides. After every presidential election, Vavreck and Sides pore over the voting data in granular detail and, a couple of years later, long after the hot takes have died, publish their verdict. This year’s book is entitled The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy, so you just know it’s a bundle of joy.
You should listen to their podcast interview or read the transcript here, but the gist of it is that American politics has “calcified”. Voters are less flexible in their voting habits than ever. They have sorted into two camps, which don’t represent temporary political preferences but permanent worldviews, and these worldviews are not close. In 1952, 50% of voters agreed that they “perceive major differences” between Democrats and Republicans. In 2020, that figure was 90%. As Vavreck puts it, “Within parties, people are more alike than ever. And between the parties, there’s more distance than ever.”
In the old world, if you were dissatisfied with your party or you didn’t like its candidate, you might switch sides. But if you see the other party as representing an alien and repugnant worldview, you’ll put up with almost anything from your own side in order to keep the aliens out of power. So the system is stuck in stalemate, with two camps of voters equally matched in number (why they are in parity and have remained so, despite prognostications one way or the other, is an intriguing question, which baffles the academics). Power still changes hands since the tiny number of remaining swing voters decide elections at the margin, but whoever is in power, half the country feels furious, increasingly hostile to the other side, and increasingly cynical about democracy. That’s why the Trump/MAGA campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 results has seemed so potent, and so poisonous.
Vavreck and Sides are not alone in their bleak view, of course. In recent years, these axioms have become increasingly accepted among analysts and activists:
Candidates don’t matter much. Voters are so partisan they will vote for anyone with their party’s endorsement. So a party can put up any random idiot who happens to appeal to their activists or donors and be confident that their voters will still, enthusiastically or otherwise, show up.
Split-ticket voting is over. It used to be that many voters might select candidates from different parties for, say the Senate and the Statehouse. Now they just check all the boxes for their party, on every ballot.
Politics is national. Partly due to the collapse of local newspapers, everyone gets their news from national TV and from social media, which makes politics more about culture wars than policy.
What matters is turnout, not persuasion. Politics is a just a grinding ground game of riling up your side and nobody can persuade anyone of anything.
None of these propositions survived unscathed from this year’s midterms. Now, I do find the overall case made by Vavreck and Sides to be a powerful one. Generally speaking, I’m a pessimist about U.S. democracy, which really does seem to be at the mercy of an entropic, unwinding force. But believing that American democracy may fail in the next five years is very different to believing it may fail in fifty or a hundred. A long-term pessimist may still be counted a short or medium-term optimist. What last week did is significantly undermine the case for short-term pessimism. There is life in the young dog yet.
I’ll explain why I think so after the jump but first, an ad. For me:
Last week I gave two talks, both on aspects of productive conflict, to two different businesses (one at a conference on leadership, organised by a private equity firm, the other at a, well the, management consultancy). As I mentioned recently, I also visited an American university to speak to students and faculty on curiosity. All this is to say that if you’d like me come and speak to your organisation in 2023, get in touch! (Hit ‘reply’ here or email via my website).
Below the fold: how the midterms changed my view about American democracy, and what they mean for the 2024 presidential election.
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