Amazingly, Democrats survived 2022, retaining control of the Senate, and barely losing the House. With inflation and crime up, Biden unpopular, the vast majority saying the country is on the wrong track, and the history of voters’ punishing the president’s party in midterm elections, Republicans found it easy to peddle their “red wave” predictions. Among Democrats, fusillades from the perennial circular firing squad began long before Election Day. And yet, Democrats enjoyed the best midterm results for a presidential party since George Bush’s Republicans in 2002 in the wake of 9/11. Now, before the parties and pundits spin the results into fantasy, some commonsense reflections are in order.
What Worked for Democrats: Abortion and Democracy
Democrats did not offer a coherent argument about the economy or inflation, nor an answer to Republican race-baiting on crime. While Elizabeth Warren and progressives like Bob Kuttner valiantly seek to claim victory for Biden’s economic policies, Biden himself admits Americans haven’t felt their effects yet. CNN’s exit polls suggest that the three-fourths of the electorate that considered the economy not good or poor voted strongly Republican.
Pollster Stan Greenberg was surely right when he bemoaned, before the election, that “by October, Democrats were too trapped in issues—abortion and the threat to democracy—that appeal to their most devoted and best-educated supporters, and had not done enough to reassure voters that they were addressing material concerns.”
Only those issues worked. Republicans railed about crime and inflation. Democrats spent a lot of money on ads on abortion. Their closing argument focused on Trump, his nutcase MAGA candidates, and the threat to democracy.
Abortion ended up a close second behind inflation as the most important issue to voters, and abortion voters went three-to-one for Democrats. Voters didn’t cotton to nutcases, with Trump’s candidates faring badly and virtually every election denier running for election administration positions defeated. Abortion and Trump turned the election from a referendum on Biden to a choice election—and Democrats profited from the choice.
What Didn’t Work: Republican Slanders on Crime
The Third Way, bastion of corporate Dems, warned before the election that liberals had poisoned the Democratic Party “brand,” because they were out of touch on crime, immigration and patriotism. Former Clinton operative Paul Begala wrote, “I have never seen a more destructive slogan than ‘defund the police.’” Stan Greenberg predicted that the “2022 midterms will be remembered as a toxic campaign, but an effective one in labeling Democrats as ‘pro-crime.’”
Really? Republicans certainly painted Democrats as pro-crime and anti-cop. Loony Ron Johnson eked out reelection in Wisconsin using crime as one of the hooks for race-baiting his black opponent, Mandela Barnes. Yet, if anyone should have been vulnerable to the crime issue, it was John Fetterman in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Fetterman had devoted much of his energy as lieutenant governor pushing for release of prisoners. Republicans painted him as soft on crime, and he did little to reply. Yet Fetterman became the only Democrat to flip a Republican Senate seat.
Astonishingly, CNN exit polls report that about as many voters called gun policy (11 percent) the most important issue to their vote as crime (11 percent), and they voted 60-37 for Democrats. For the young generation that voted almost two to one for Democrats, school shootings may seem far more of a threat than the slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement or the largest multiracial demonstrations in our history.
The Entrenched Reality: Polarization and Perverse Parity
After a furious campaign, with expenditures headed toward $20 billion, the partisan division of the country remains entrenched. Neither party is popular. CNN exit polls estimate Republicans were about 36 percent of the vote and voted Republican 96-3; Democrats were 33 percent of the vote and went Democratic by the same margin. Independents—an endangered species—gave Dems an edge. Republicans won the total vote by a small margin.
In an insightful article, Ezra Klein outlined the polarization and virtual parity of the two parties. What he omitted, however, was how much of the parity is a perverse product of the undemocratic structures of US politics.
Democrats have lost the popular vote in presidential elections only once in 34 years. Republicans lost moderate voters by 15 points in 2022. The Electoral College (aided by the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court in 2000) is the only reason Republicans have taken the presidency over the past 40 years. The structure of the Senate—two seats allocated for each state—keeps Republicans competitive. The Democratic loss of the House came significantly from partisan gerrymandering: DeSantis successfully imposed a map that gave Republicans four more seats in Florida, while New York Democrats (thank you, Sean Patrick Maloney) abjectly failed, helping Republicans to five seats in New York.
As ballot measures and surveys show, voters support progressive reforms—on abortion rights, health care, a higher minimum wage, collective bargaining, legalizing pot. Nebraskans approve a $15 minimum wage. South Dakotans voted to expand Medicaid. Missouri voters legalized pot. And, despite opposition from the party establishment and big money, progressives continue to grow in number, with Maxwell Frost in Florida, Delia Ramirez in Illinois, Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, and Greg Cesar in Texas winning their races.
What Comes Next: The Allure of Moderation
Having survived as defenders of democracy and basic rights against the MAGA extremists, corporate Democrats will push for consolidating the center, and extolling bipartisan cooperation in a divided government.
Strategically, this translates to more of the same: write off the white working class (and slowly increasing numbers of blacks and Hispanics), consolidate the Democratic Party’s edge among the college educated, and expand its inroads in the suburbs.
Similarly, on the Republican side, after MAGA candidates failed big-time, Mitt Romney opened the call or a return to “classic fiscal conservatism.” Matthew Continetti argues that Republicans can regain “big margins among independents and suburbanites and narrow their differences with moderates,” by “seizing the commonsense mainstream and addressing public concerns calmly.”
But a viable moderate centrist majority is a false illusion. Exit polls report that more than seven in 10 voters say they are “dissatisfied” or “angry.” Americans need fundamental change. Climate and contagion, stagnant wages, obscene inequality, and racial reckoning demand action. Basics—housing, health care, college, and child care—grow less and less affordable for more and more people. Big money corrupts our politics. Policing the world is unaffordable. The coming recession that the Federal Reserve is intent on creating will add to the misery.
Moderate conservatism offers no answer. Trump consolidated Republican support among white working-class voters with blatant race-bait politics, but also by railing against the Washington elites, taking on China and the neoliberal trade policy, opposing the endless wars, and standing staunchly for Social Security and Medicare. He gave the masses circuses and the rich tax breaks and deregulation. His successors are unlikely to be able to moderate his extremism and still maintain the hold on working families that they do not serve.
Similarly, Democrats can’t consolidate a governing majority without gaining greater support among the white working class. That requires a populist economic reform agenda that produces material support for working families. But in an age of deserved cynicism, promise isn’t enough; they have to produce.
What Comes Next? Go Big
Democrats would be wise to follow Elizabeth Warren’s advice and go big, particularly in the lame duck session before gridlock sets in completely. Enact a budget reconciliation bill that revives the child tax credit, raises taxes on corporations and the rich, fully funds the NLRB to support the surge in worker organizing, lifts the debt ceiling to frustrate Republican plans to hold Social Security and Medicare hostage, and expands initiatives to make college and health care affordable. The lame duck session will offer the last chance to get major reforms passed. Democrats can forge a governing majority, but only by championing—and producing—reforms that make a material difference in the lives of working people. The time to begin that is now.