Clearly, 2018 was a Democratic year, as it should have been given a Republican was in the White House. The Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House and seven governorships. The Republicans’ veto-proof “super majorities” were broken in both chambers of the General Assembly. It wasn’t quite the “blue wave” Democrats were hoping for and, indeed, Republicans have strengthened their position in the U.S. Senate. But there is little doubt which party “won” the election.
Enough time has now elapsed for us to ruminate on the midterms’ depiction of American politics more broadly. I think there are two particularly important takeaways. The first concerns the state of the parties. A glance at the Electoral College map from recent presidential contests reveals whole swaths of the country to be red or blue — the Northeast and West Coast are solidly Democratic, the South and much of “flyover country” Republican. Many observers have argued our parties are regional, not national.
To some extent, the results of 2018 continued the trend. There will be only one Democratic senator from the South in the next 116th Congress, and the GOP will have no representatives among the House’s New England delegation. But if you dig deeper into the data, there is evidence Democrats are awakening in red states and Republicans in blue ones.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates snagged back mansions in the Trump states of Michigan and Wisconsin and secured an unlikely victory in Kansas. Democrat Joe Manchin easily won re-election to the Senate in West Virginia “coal country.” Very popular Republican governors were returned in Maryland and Massachusetts, and the party almost scored upsets in Connecticut and Oregon. In fact, near misses tell much of the story. Democratic gubernatorial candidates came close in Georgia and Florida and, the new darling of the left, Beto O’Rourke, gave Ted Cruz a huge fright in ruby red Texas’ Senate race.
The results suggest a party label can be a burden in hostile parts of the country, but it need not be a death sentence. Smart candidates with the right message and an appealing biography can win just about anywhere. Republican governors Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan have persuaded liberals in Northeastern states that sound management and fiscal responsibility are desirable qualities in chief executives. Democrats recruited intelligently for many contests, persuading accomplished and experienced women, minorities, and veterans to run. The party’s biggest challenge will be keeping some new House members with extreme leftist agendas in check. Giving power to them will greatly tarnish the party’s national reputation.
My second observation is of the campaigns’ deep pessimism. Democrats talked of Trump’s America, a dystopic world of creeping authoritarianism, growing racism and sexism, and rampant corruption. Republicans, most notably the president himself, projected a similarly dark image of American values and prosperity lost forever to the forces of socialism, rampant immigration, and divisive identity politics.
I understand why the parties chose such negative messages. It is much easier to demonize opponents than provide reasons why you should govern. Describing an unknowable future is straightforward, explaining a complex reality significantly more difficult.
Yet the narrative of decline was odd. We have our problems, to be sure, but important macroeconomic indicators are positive — growth is accelerating after a decade of near-stagnation, inflation is low but wages growing, and unemployment is non-existent. The employment and incomes data have been particularly strong for the working class, a claim we were unable to make during the Obama years. China’s economy is still less than two-thirds the size of ours and is slowing appreciably.
The United States is not at war. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have wound down and international terrorism — at least its direct threat on the U.S. mainland — seems to have abated. The growth in the immigrant population has nearly leveled off after brisk acceleration between 1980 and 2010. Those who come are increasingly educated.
Violent and property crime continue at historic lows. Racial and religious violence grabs headlines now and again, but FBI data show it has declined over the past 20 years and surveys suggest we are becoming more tolerant toward one another — except when we think of fellow citizens in partisan terms.
Americans were an optimistic people, with boundless confidence in their abilities and more than capable of overcoming challenges the world threw at them. They are individualistic but want unity and a sense of collective purpose. Despite — or perhaps because of — all the gloom, I think we are hungry for leadership that feeds these desires and recognizes our strengths. We got a glimpse of this in the nostalgia invoked by President George H.W. Bush’s passing.
In truth, it is closer to morning than midnight in America. And I believe happy political warriors, like another former president, Ronald Reagan, can still win. This is something President Trump and his Democratic adversaries should keep in mind as they prepare for 2020.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.