The Blue Wave(let?)

I am trying to sort through my feelings about yesterday’s election.  Elation?  Disappointment?  Relief?  I guess some combination of the three, with relief in the top spot.

On the plus side (if you’re a Democrat like me):

•  Democrats prevailed in the most important contest by winning a convincing majority in the House of Representatives.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this result, which restores some balance to our national political life and establishes a check on the President’s worst impulses.  The politics of the next two years are likely to be just as ugly and divisive as the last two, but the outcomes may be less one-sided, and a stalemate counts as progress.  Whew!

•  Democrats did especially well in suburban areas, flipping districts coast-to-coast.  Basically, if you live in an area resembling Westchester, you are probably now represented by a Democrat.  The suburbs have become as vital a part of the Democratic  coalition as the center cities — a circumstance that would have flabbergasted political scientists a generation ago.

•  Democrats were completely dominant here in New York, turning several House seats red-to-blue, and taking commanding control of the State Senate, where our very own Andrea Stewart-Cousins will become the Majority Leader.

On the other hand:

•  Republicans won several of the most high-profile races, including some in which the outcomes count as mild upsets — the Florida and Ohio governors’ contests, for example.  And some Democratic stars fell short; a win for Stacey Abrams or Beto O’Rourke would have been thrilling, and I am in mourning for what might-have-been.

•  Republicans expanded their Senate majority, as a bunch of red state Democratic Senators took a beating.  Some races still need to be called, but if the GOP tally keeps creeping upward, it will have a major impact on 2020 and beyond, potentially putting a Democratic Senate out of reach (or at least harder to reach) for the next Democratic President.

•  Those of us hoping for a comprehensive, across-the-board, resistance-style repudiation of President Trump didn’t quite get it.  Even two years in, the shock of this Administration hasn’t worn off, and it still astonishes me that 40% (or more) of our country can observe the President’s conduct and say “this is alright.”

Something important to keep in mind.  If you tally up the popular vote in the House, it looks like Democrats are headed for a winning margin of 8-9%.  By every modern historical standard, that is a wave election — as big or bigger than the notable waves in 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2014.

So what’s different?  Why does this result feel more ambiguous?  Here’s my analogy.  The partisan topography of our nation has shifted in the last few years, creating much steeper (and more rigid) peaks and valleys.  The Republican high ground in places like Indiana and Missouri is now so elevated and solid that it remains above water, even as the tsunami roils around it.

This has long-term implications.  There has been much commentary about the effect of gerrymandering in the House of Representatives; Democrats need to win big popular vote victories to achieve narrow House majorities.  But at least House districts have roughly equal populations and can be redrawn over time and made more fair.  By contrast, state boundaries aren’t going to change, and the huge disparities in state populations make the Senate wildly undemocratic.  Combine this with the Republican edge in rural areas, and the GOP begins to acquire a nearly unbreakable structural advantage.  I would not be surprised if we enter an extended era in which Democrats consistently win a majority of the Senate votes, while Republicans consistently win a majority of the Senate seats.  That is not only a partisan problem; it’s a legitimacy crisis for our democracy.

A big thank you to everyone who participated in the election beyond casting a ballot — to those who rang doorbells, wrote postcards, made phone calls, or sent contributions.  The only silver lining of the past two years has been the upsurge in political awareness and activism, reflected in yesterday’s high turnout.  It has made a difference, and it must continue.