This newsletter aspires to offer very little horse political writing, but midterm election week is a necessary exception. I’ve resisted making too many specific predictions about the 2022 midterm elections, but I’m sure readers could tell what I expected: my pre-election columns have focused on the issues plaguing the Democratic Party, rather than the struggles of the GOP, and when the New York Times asked columnists to predict a single race, I gave Pennsylvania to Mehmet Oz. (Ha!) I wasn’t expecting a red tsunami, but once the polls tightened after Labor Day, I figured to take the wildcard poll and give the Republicans a few extra points while expecting them to win most of the close Senate races was a reasonable bet.
It wasn’t, and again, clearly I’m not a superforecaster (Philip Tetlock’s term for experts who are actually very good at predicting specific outcomes) but more of a kind of overcorrector more normal, always inclined to read a little too much into the latest election result when it comes time to predict the next one.
So because the Republican establishment was able to push Mitt Romney through the primary in 2012, I expected it could push Donald Trump back in 2016. Because Barack Obama beat Romney quite easily, I expected that Trump also loses to Hillary Rodham Clinton. . Then, because national polls were, contrary to much conventional wisdom, fairly accurate in upsetting Trump in 2016 — giving Clinton a narrow lead in the end, not a large one — I expected that ‘they’re pretty accurate in 2020, and I assumed the race was pretty much lost for Trump when in fact he stayed competitive all the way. And then, because so many of the 2020 polls underestimated the resilience of the GOP, I suspected we’d see a similar effect in the coin toss races in 2022, only to see the Democrats do much better this time around.
In most of these cases, my electoral handicap would have benefited from a less in-depth analysis of the polls and a more global analysis. After all, one of my frequent overarching themes is the power of ossification, stalemate, and stalemate in Western life, and again and again in American politics we see this pattern of stalemate playing out. reaffirm against partisan expectations of a landslide.
So in 2016 you might have thought the Democrats would crush the Republicans if they nominated Trump, but the price of his unpopularity turned out to be much lower than expected. In 2022, you may have thought, the Republicans will inevitably win big if inflation rises and Biden’s approval ratings remain low, but instead the Democrats seem to have fought them almost evenly. And this pattern holds even when dramatic and unexpected crises arise, like a pandemic that only happens once in a generation (God willing). Many liberals hoped that Trump would be completely repudiated due to his mishandling of COVID-19, but instead he was simply defeated by a normal, modest margin. Then many conservatives expected a similar repudiation for Democrats who overstepped pandemic restrictions, based on what happened in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race — but in 2022, many voters had apparently moved on.
The stalemate model is not simply a matter of repeated failure by both parties. Instead, it reflects a mixture characteristic of American society today – unimaginative repetitions and somewhat destructive forms of efficiency.
The repeats come from politicians who can’t think past the path to a mere 51%, who can’t make the leaps that would be necessary to recreate a Reagan coalition, let alone a Rooseveltian coalition, and who struggle to govern under the broader conditions of economic stagnation and socio-spiritual discontent. And repetition also stems from the structure of polarization in the West, which increasingly pits parties of populism against parties of meritocracy, the former constantly self-derailing with incompetence and eccentricity and the latter with technocratic arrogance, in a mutually reinforcing loop.
But efficiency matters too. Last week, I quoted an essay by Derek Thompson about how pro baseball was partially ruined by data nerds who treated the game “like an equation, optimized for Y, solved for X, and proven in the process that a resolved sport is a worse.” The political analogy is a little inexact, but there is a way something similar is happening today with strategists and activists in both parties Strategists are good enough never to leave too many votes on the table, to maximize grassroots participation and mobilization within the broader constraints I have just described. Activists are quite good at maintaining constant pressure on the party leadership to go as far as possible in its preferred direction, and increasingly adept at creating interdependent pressure, with all the different activist groups reinforcing each other’s messages – the American Civil Liberties Union resembling Planned Parenthood, which echoes the Sierra Club etc. And like the Moneyball quants in baseball, together they have created a more effective and ideologically coherent form of national politics that is probably bad for the country in s we together.
It was part of Trump’s particular appeal, in 2016 in particular, even to some people who opposed him – that he stood up to both GOP strategists and ideological enforcers and that he won anyway, proving that a more unpredictable, category-blurring style of politics could still flourish in America.
In every way after this initial shock, however, Trumpism has failed to discover a real way out of the impasse. Now the question for Republican voters is whether they think that will change one way or another — the path widening, the sunny highlands beckoning — if they give Trump himself- even one more try.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.