Well, that was a pleasant surprise.
The elections last week were as clear a rebuke of Trump’s Republicans as one could hope for. It’s no surprise that the Democrats took the governorship of New Jersey, a blue state where the Republican candidate was the lieutenant of the deeply despised Chris Christie.
More surprising was a wave victory in Virginia, where Democrats decisively won the governorship, flipped at least fifteen seats in the state House of Delegates, and may win an outright majority depending on how a handful of close races turn out. Until now, the GOP had a supermajority in that chamber, so these gains were especially unexpected.
Some of the specific races give liberals plenty of reason for schadenfreude. A bathroom-obsessed religious-righter in Virginia who described himself as the state’s “chief homophobe” was beaten by a transgender woman, Danica Roem. A sexist troglodyte in New Jersey was defeated by a woman, Ashley Bennet, who was inspired to enter politics by his bigoted remarks about the Women’s March.
Maine voted to expand Medicare, rebuking its porcine governor. Philadelphia elected a civil-rights lawyer as its chief prosecutor. Democrats took full control of the Washington and New Jersey state governments, clearing the way for progressive measures like gun control, carbon taxes and marijuana legalization.
This ought to be reason for me to feel more optimistic, and I suppose I do. It means the outlook for the 2018 midterms is better than it was. If Democratic voters show up in these numbers nationwide, we’ll take back a lot of statehouses, and it’s just possible that we could take control of the House, the Senate, or (dare I dream?) both. (Yes, the House is badly gerrymandered. But the danger of gerrymandering is that you have to draw a lot of districts where you win by a little, meaning you can lose a huge number of seats if the electoral mood turns against you. That’s just what happened in Virginia.)
2017 seems like the latest iteration of a cycle that keeps reoccurring in America. Whichever party is in power, the thrill soon wears off; their politicians get complacent and their supporters are quickly disillusioned by the ponderous pace of democracy and the compromises inherent in legislating. Meanwhile, the other party gets angry and frustrated by being out of power, and nothing motivates voters like anger. When the next election rolls around, the incumbent’s supporters sit it out, while the other side stampedes to the polls. The parties flip, and the cycle repeats.
We saw it in 2000, when complacent Democrats gave us eight disastrous years of George W. Bush. We saw it in 2008, when Barack Obama swept into office in a historic wave; and then we saw it again in 2010, when a backlash of angry racists handed Congress to the Republicans and resulted in almost nothing getting done for the rest of his presidency. We saw it in 2016, when Democrats again sat the election out, resulting in the current national nightmare. Now they’re angry enough to show up, and it’s happening again.
This is no way to run a democracy. It suggests that people vote not out of reasoned consideration for which candidate’s policies will make the country better, but tribal antipathy toward “the other team”. And that applies to liberals and conservatives alike.
Besides, even a smashing midterm win isn’t going to undo the harm that’s already been done. Republicans can do vast damage while they’re in charge of the executive branch: sabotaging Obamacare, rolling back environmental regulations, deporting immigrant families and refugees while cuddling up to white supremacists, packing the courts with horrible judges whose rulings we’ll be living with for decades, and generally making America the laughingstock of the world. And I wouldn’t put it past Trump and his sycophants to start a war if they feel politically emasculated.
So long as people don’t vote unless they have some kind of emotional motive, our democracy is destined to continue this one-step-forward-two-steps-back pattern. Whatever small progress we make, we’ll have to devote the next decade just to defending it against the inevitable backlash.