The red wave may have turned out to be a red ripple but, despite inflated expectations, it’s not the Republicans who look to have been hardest hit by the midterm election results but the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Assuming that the House is captured by the Republicans, with or without the Senate, it is clear that the progressive policy agenda, the progressive theory of American partisan politics, and the progressive theory of the American constitution are now quite dead.
Let’s start with the progressive policy agenda. The economic agenda of the Democratic Party today is the “low carbon care economy.” This is a synthesis of the Green New Deal, a crash program to kill the oil and gas industries and replace them with heavily subsidized renewable energy sources, and the American Families Plan, a massive expansion of taxpayer subsidies for institutional child care, universal preschool and elder care. The jobs of the future, in this vision, are divided between a small number of gigs assembling windmills and solar panels which will replace coal, oil, and natural gas in America’s energy mix, and a much greater number of positions in federally subsidized day care centers and retirement homes.
To dramatize the low carbon care economy, the Biden White House last year issued a series of cartoon panels, “The Life of Linda,” modeled on a similar Obama administration cartoon, “The Life of Julia.” Biden’s Linda is an apparently unwed mother who works in manufacturing and has a son named Leo, who grows up to work in green energy: “Thanks to his community college training, Leo lands a good-paying, union job as a wind turbine technician.” The cartoon series explains how both Linda, the single mother, and Leo, the fatherless child, will flourish within an expanded system of cradle-to-grave welfare and education subsidies. As the fantasy world of the cartoon suggests, the progressive agenda sought to appeal to different groups of key Democratic Party supporters who do not share many economic interests. To work, the progressive vision had to unite the Democratic Party’s green donor class with overwhelmingly Democrat-supporting service sector unions like the teachers unions and SEIU as well as the “anti-patriarchal” feminists for whom husbands and fathers are unnecessary and oppressive.
Following Biden’s election in 2020, progressives hoped to use their guaranteed two-year trifecta of control over the White House, House, and Senate to ram through the massive subsidies for renewable energy and vast expansions of caregiving and education jobs at the core of their policy agenda. They planned to do this by means of the parliamentary maneuver known as “reconciliation,” which allows a bare majority in both houses to circumvent the Senate filibuster’s de facto supermajority requirement. The opposition of two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, derailed that would-be juggernaut.
The low carbon care economy is now as dead as a doornail, even if the Republicans end up controlling only one house of Congress. In the unlikely event that the Democrats win another trifecta in the next few electoral cycles, it will be difficult if not impossible, given the impacts of rising energy costs, for Congress to oppose greater extraction and use of oil, natural gas, and even coal in the U.S. Moreover, if there is a turn toward austerity to reduce inflation or the debt built up during the COVID pandemic, the money will not be there for the enormous increase in spending on day care, elder care, preschool and community college that makes up the other half of the progressive agenda. The low carbon care economy blew up on takeoff.
Just as dead as the energy-and-care agenda of the progressive Democrats is their theory of American partisan politics. The Democratic left, backed by their echo chamber in the media and the universities, attributed the 2016 election of Donald Trump to racism on the part of resentful, lower-class white “deplorables,” and the supposed epidemic of “disinformation” coming from Russia and malicious saboteurs online. The party’s progressive wing took comfort in their conviction that, as immigration made Hispanics a larger share of the electorate, a “coalition of the ascendant” made up of college-educated whites and “people of color” would soon establish one-party Democratic rule at all levels of government.
Oops. Between the 2018 and 2022 midterms, the Democratic advantage over Republicans among Black women dropped 7 percentage points, while that among Black men dropped 11 points. For Hispanic voters, who were supposed to secure the Democrats their permanent majority, the advantage declined by 14 percentage points among women and 21 percentage points among men.
Racial depolarization was accompanied by educational polarization. Between the 2018 midterm and the 2022 midterm, the Republican advantage among non-college-educated white voters climbed from a 24-point margin to a 34-point margin, and Republicans even gained slightly among college-educated whites. According to CNN, from 2018 to 2022 “voters of color,” both non-college and college-educated, while mostly voting for Democrats, shifted in significant numbers from the Democrats to the Republicans.
As I have argued elsewhere, “educational polarization” is really a marker of class polarization, inasmuch as the children of college-educated parents in the U.S. are much more likely to graduate from college, making a college degree a semi-hereditary title of nobility. Underlying racial depolarization and educational polarization is the trend, seen among Western democracies in general, for “the left” to be identified with affluent, educated whites and for “left” parties to lose not only working-class whites but many minority group members to the increasingly downscale and populist parties of the right. In 2022, that trend continued in the U.S.
Last but not least is the politics of the American constitution. Anticipating a Republican tsunami that would sweep them out of both houses of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024, many progressive pundits and academics hysterically argued that the 2022 election might be the last small-d democratic election in American history. Before the midterms, the presidential historian Michael Beschloss warned that if Republicans won control of the government, “our children will be arrested and conceivably killed” by a MAGA regime which, to use President Biden’s phrase, was “semi-fascist.” Less apocalyptic Democrats like the pollster David Shor warned that without greater appeal by Democrats to the working class, “the modal outcome for 2024 is Donald Trump winning a ‘filibuster-proof trifecta’ with a minority of the vote.”
In spite of the alleged biases of the Senate and the Electoral College, in 2020 the Democrats won the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. When this year’s midterm votes are all counted, the Democrats may end up controlling the White House and the Senate while losing the House, the body in which Democrats should do best under the theory that the Constitution is rigged against the Democratic Party.
America’s progressives suffer from bipolar mood swings. Now, thanks to racial polarization, they predict the inevitable triumph of the Democratic Party with the help of “voters of color,” while the Republicans survive only as a permanent minority party filled with resentful whites. At the same time, according to other progressives, it is the Democrats who may forever be frozen out of the federal government, thanks to an unfair Constitution designed by slave owners that permanently advantages white supremacist Republicans who want to arrest and kill Michael Beschloss’ children.
The boring truth is that the pendulum in American politics swings back and forth. Parties that get tired of losing sooner or later change their appeals to win over some members of the other party, making elections more competitive again.
For the time being, the U.S. remains a 50-50 nation, with the political branches of the federal government going back and forth between the two national parties. The kind of generational hegemony enjoyed by the McKinley Republicans after 1896 and the Roosevelt Democrats after 1932 is unlikely to return. That is bad news for progressive Democrats, who dream of the kind of sweeping structural transformation of the U.S., led by the federal government, that can only occur through a supermajority. It is bad news as well for those on the libertarian right or New Right with ambitious schemes for public policy reform. It is not necessarily bad news for status quo Republicans or for incrementalist centrist Democrats, two factions that can flourish in conditions of divided government and narrow majorities.
Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.