A Lesson in American Dividedness
What the midterm-election results have to teach us
I’ll be honest: There are times in running this Substack that I struggle to know what to write about. Three pieces a week is (for me) a lot, especially when my “brand” is to focus specifically on the politics of the right. In that respect, writing three columns a week at The Week, as I did for 8-1/2 years, was easier because I was free to write on a wider array of political topics and even occasionally to review a novel or an album by a beloved band, or muse on “the coming death of just about every rock legend.”
But I don’t feel that way at the moment. Last week’s midterm elections were, in political terms, an earthquake, one that’s still rumbling and will continue to do so until all the votes are counted and the races settled. Then we’ll get the midterm aftershocks reverberating through the Georgia runoff election and the lame-duck period. And, possibly very soon, Donald Trump will add to the churn by announcing the launch of his presidential campaign, which will presumably prompt a response from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the rest of the presidential aspirants as well as the institutional GOP.
It’s a lot. So much so that my struggle this weekend was the opposite of what I’m used to. It was less What on earth am I going to write about? than What on earth should I write about first? What I settled on is a remarkably widespread example of a failure to see the wood for the trees.
Eyes on the Right is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Margins of Victory
If the predicted “red wave” had materialized last Tuesday, Republicans would have crowed about how it demonstrated a broad-based repudiation of the Democrats, and many Democrats would have been inclined to believe it. Instead, Democrats did far better than most pundits predicted they would, and quite possibly better than they’ve done in a midterm election since 1950, so the narrative has unfolded in reverse: If Republicans can’t clean up when the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, and when inflation is running at its highest rate in forty years, then when can Republicans hope to win at all?
But is this really what we should conclude from the 2022 midterms? That Republicans—after getting shellacked in 2018, losing the presidency and the Senate in 2020, and now coming up short in the midterms—are doomed, headed for political irrelevancy? My Substack colleague and occasional Twitter interlocutor Michael Cohen (no, not that Michael Cohen) seemed to express a view like that—and in doing so, to speak for many Democrats—when he tweeted the following on November 12:
Now, I don’t want to pick on Cohen. He got closer than many pundits (myself included) to predicting the outcome of last week’s vote. And as I’ll show in a moment, he tweeted something on November 11 that was much wiser than what he expressed a day later. The tweet above is also carefully worded: If you subtract votes in heavily Republican areas from the total, it is undoubtedly true that Republican policies would be supported by less than a majority of the remainder. But of course that’s also true in the reverse: If you subtract votes in deep-blue areas of the country from the total, Democratic policies would be supported by less than a majority as well.
That partisan symmetry points to my reason for drawing attention to this particular tweet: It implies something about one of the two parties that is both commonly expressed and pretty obviously erroneous. We live in a country in which neither party is affirmed or rejected by more than the barest of majorities.
In America’s winner-take-all electoral system, receiving 50 percent + 1 of the vote entitles the victor to 100 percent of the political power at stake in the contest. (And of course, in a race with three or more candidates, where a plurality is a sufficient threshold, the victor can win 100 percent of the power while losing more than half of the votes cast.) This creates a kind of optical illusion in which the narrowest of wins looks like a greater vindication than it really is. When the margin of victory is narrow, a “mandate” proclaimed by the victorious politician or party is, at most, an expression of the will of somewhat more than half the people who participated in the election, with not-quite-half of the voters preferring another person, another party, another set of policies.
It seems like an obvious point, but it clearly isn’t as obvious as it should be. Republicans tried to claim (and govern as if they had) a mandate after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 while losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. Democrats did well in the 2018 midterm, but they frequently spoke as if it was a historic repudiation of the Republicans when the GOP sweep eight years earlier with Barack Obama in the White House had been one-third larger. Democrats congratulated themselves for defeating Trump in 2020 by a margin of 7 million votes, but they usually neglected to note that Trump came within 45,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin from tying Biden in the Electoral College, an outcome that almost certainly would have resulted in Trump being declared the winner in the House of Representatives. Another distressing and rarely noted fact about the 2020 election is that Trump increased his popular vote total from 2016 by 11 million votes.
My intention in raising all of these points isn’t to diss the Democrats or downplay the magnitude of their accomplishment last week. It’s to caution against either party overreading election results that deliver narrow victories. I frankly don’t understand how any person observing the recent American political scene without partisan blinders could conclude anything other than that we are a country very deeply and very narrowly divided. This is something Cohen captured very nicely in another recent tweet:
Yes, the specific details are already a bit out of date. The Democrats will maintain control of the Senate no matter what happens in next month’s runoff election in Georgia, and they will end up with 51 seats (without needing to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote) if Republican Herschel Walker goes down to defeat. The split in governorships looks more likely to end up 26/24 in favor of the GOP. And we still don’t know, and won’t know for several more days at least, about the precise makeup of the House.
But the point still stands, regardless of what the final tally is: We are indeed a hopelessly divided country. Which means that Cohen’s November 12 tweet is wrong. The “political views and policy positions” of Republicans are not “unpopular with a majority of Americans.” They are in fact popular enough to win the votes of almost exactly half of Americans.
Indeed, Republicans look on track this cycle to win the national popular vote by 3-4 points, even though (for a change) the shape of the GOP electoral coalition proved to be relatively inefficient, producing disappointing outcomes on net. That’s the kind of thing that’s bound to happen when the country is so narrowly divided. No electoral system perfectly measures public opinion. So when the two sides are closely matched, we end up with small shifts this way or that determining majority control of institutions, with the direction of majority control sometimes moving contrary to what raw majoritarianism in the aggregate would deliver.
Our Incorrigible Dividedness
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Eyes on the Right to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.