Misplaced Hopes for the Midterms?

Democrats read special congressional elections, such as the soon to take place runoff in Georgia’s Sixth between Ossoff and Handler, as tea leaves by which to forecast the 2018 Midterm elections. They have set high hopes on taking back the Congress because the Congress will do nothing or because Trump will do something awful in the meantime. How could anyone who voted for him (aside from his true believers) not be disappointed by the actuality of his Presidency and so overcome whatever were the motives that led them to vote for him in 2016? Moreover, there is the ever looming prediction that sooner or later the demographics of the South will catch up with it and return it to the Democratic column because the South is so far better educated than it was in the past, has put its regional issues, especially those of race, aside, and Hispanics and Blacks and retirees from the North will all contribute to swinging the South to being part of what will become a permanent Democratic majority. So Democrats look forward to the deliverance of the country to them. But I am not sure it will happen and I want to explain why.

Party loyalty runs very deep, and so makes for a two party system in the United States that outlasts demographic trends that would make one or the other party dominant for a generation or two. Remember that a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected just a generation after the Civil War. It is not at all clear why this two generation swing, Democrats were in charge, more or less, from the Thirties to the Sixties, Republicans in charge, or less, in the Seventies and Eighties, takes place. It can’t be the demographics because there is no reason background characteristics would always even out after a generation or two rather than continue to trend in one direction or another. Seymour Lipset thought it was more or less fortuitous that the coalition of interest groups that made up each of the two parties were more or less equal, a set of swing voters making the difference in each election. But was it also fortuitous that every democracy in the world had the demographic characteristics that more or less balanced off into a two party system? That doesn’t stand to reason. There is also the question of how the groups that make up what are supposedly the two grand coalitions evolve. The suburban middle class replaced the working class as the dominant voting group and so switched the country from Democratic to Republican rule in the Fifties, but the working class and its urban allies were still the majority of the population and the working class shifted allegiance because of cultural reasons like abortion or because they were now successful enough to want to vote like Republicans did, rather than because they had stayed the same and there were just more or less of them. Voters are fickle sorts. They vote the way they perceive their interests to run, not the way analysts say their interests run. Sometimes they think poking the Establishment in the eye by supporting an obnoxious figure like Trump is in their interests.

There is another way to look at elections. Look at them structurally rather than demographically. Democratic societies tend to develop or settle down into two party systems. That has been true of Great Britain and the United States since the Eighteenth Century. There is a Federalist or conservative Party and a liberal or Democratic Party, even if the conservative party in the United States was also called the National Republican Party and the Whig Party before it became known as the Republican Party. Yes, there are multi party states like France, but they also break down into two major parties with small special interest parties carrying the balance of power. Sunday will probably see the start of a runoff campaign between a center and a right candidate in France. The religious parties in Israel go into coalition with Likud so as to serve their interest in keeping up subsidies and other special favors for the Ultra-Orthodox. Otherwise, there would be Likud and Labor, even if the leading opposition figure to Likud keeps coming up with a new party label.

Once a two party system settles in, elections become a binary system. You vote for one or the other party. Independent parties have very little sway in the United States. The 1912 election turned out to be a two party election, between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the regular Republican, William Howard Taft, left far in the wake. The last two times independents garnered a significant segment of the vote was when George Wallace and Strom Thurmond ran as regional candidates in support of racial segregation. They were unsuccessful and so the next time the segregationists got mad they just abandoned the Democratic Party and went over to the other side, becoming Republicans, and so giving the party their stamp up to and including the present day, now holding the position of Attorney General in the Trump Administration and having delivered the South, once again, to the Republican Party.

It isn’t just that the constituencies change the parties, but that the leaders change the parties. Donald Trump campaigned to put Hillary in jail. People who voted for him now say they are not too disappointed because at least Hillary was kept out of office. So Republicans, even if they have or had working class interests, will continue to support Trump however grudgingly as being better, all things considered, than the opposition, and may continue in their allegiance to the Republican Party even after he is gone. Similarly, country club Republicans can maintain that at least he is correct on the economic issues, however obnoxious he is as an individual. And so voters will not so quickly abandon their perhaps newly found allegiances unless something awful happens or not even then, given that George W. Bush was reelected after having led us with lies into a disastrous war in Iraq, or unless the Democrats come up with some charismatic figure on the level of JFK or Barack Obama who can seize the imagination of the American people and so get himself elected. Politics in a democracy are not clear-cut, either ideologically or demographically, but a matter of happenstance. Democracy is always an experiment.