The results of the 2022 US midterm elections vindicated the Democrats’ conviction that fears of Republican overreach on abortion and the threat to democracy, represented by politicians who still deny Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, would allow them to avoid the normal losses for the party in power. Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives, although on a smaller scale than the average pickup of 28 seats measured over the past century, while Democrats held onto their majority in the Senate. This is no small feat in historical terms.
Exit polls indicate that abortion was the second most important issue for voters, with a peak among women under 50, and votes on ballot measures in states from Michigan to Kentucky produced results protecting abortion rights. As for President Biden’s warning of a threat to democracy from candidates who refuse to accept the results of elections that they do not win, despite some worries among pundits that Biden actually risked aggravating political polarization, the strategy seems to have done more good than harm. The memory of January 6, 2021 clearly has not faded among key segments of the population.
Yet the top issue for voters was the economy, and specifically the effects of inflation. Republicans seemed to have an easy time blaming the Democrats for price rises due to “reckless” spending in the first year of the Biden administration, while of course omitting the fact that they had approved plenty such spending during the height of the pandemic under the previous administration. Shortly before the November 8th elections, as the feeling spread that Republicans were heading towards a decisive victory, a number of Democrats rang the alarm bell, warning that too many in the party were leaving economic issues to the other side, rather than focusing on effective measures to help people make up ground. This led to an expanded focus in the late stages of the campaign on pocketbook issues, and reminding voters that leading members of the GOP have telegraphed their intention to hold the federal budget hostage while demanding cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
Results seem to show that the criticism of having focused too much on abortion was overblown, but there is little question that in recent years the party has lost its cred with “working class” voters, as well as with a growing share of minorities erroneously expected to vote a certain way based simply on ethnic identity. The party has a problem convincing Americans from outside of urban areas that Democrats understand them and will fight for their interests.
In a certain sense, abortion offered a fortunate reprieve for Democrats this election cycle, allowing them to blunt the potency of Republicans’ cultural attacks. Despite Joe Biden’s attempts to distance himself from what are seen as extreme positions on the left of his party, such as defunding the police, Republicans often succeed in using such demands as an effective political tool. In this election, they hit hard on widespread worries about crime, and sought to continue their success in mobilizing voters over concerns about school programs; but fears of extremism clearly benefitted the Democrats this time, following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the concerted campaign to elect state-level officials who were ready to interfere in the election process.
If we take a broader view of the direction of the United States, these midterm elections will actually have a limited impact on policy decisions. The season of legislative activism for the Democrats had already come to an end, and a divided government will ensure that neither side can get what it wants, although the political fights around the budget and investigations of the administration will be anything but tame. There will be a substantive stalemate on big policy decisions, but that comes in the wake of a significant shift over the past few years – starting under Trump and continuing under Biden – to a greater public role on economic issues, such as “industrial policy” measures seeking to boost investment and jobs in key areas related to technology. This comes with the recognition of the link between the strength of the country’s productive economy and its ability to project international influence, stressed repeatedly by the Biden administration over the past two years. There is a long way to go before actually recovering from four decades of post-industrial globalization, but the institutions of Washington have taken some important first steps in that direction.
Yet there is a new danger lurking on the horizon and, ironically, it could come from the success of the Republican Party in putting out the most urgent fire threatening American institutions today, a potential constitutional crisis in 2024 if Donald Trump were to be the Republican nominee for president again. If the midterms pass with only minor legal battles and no success in blocking the certification of election results, it will be an important sign that the scorched-earth strategy pushed by Trump and his most ardent supporters has lost, rather than gained, ground. This augurs well for 2024 – especially if the Senate follows up by passing the bipartisan election bill under negotiation – and the poor showing of Trump’s favored candidates is giving Republicans “permission” to finally move past the 45th president, as can already be seen with the unenthusiastic reactions to the announcement of Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign.
As of today, the biggest beneficiary of this change is clearly Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who already leads Trump in a number of polls among Republicans. DeSantis’ big re-election win and his ruthless political instincts are contributing to a narrative that could make him the 2024 front-runner for Republicans, although numerous other candidates are sure to jump into the fray.
The challenge is this: while the resumption of something resembling “normal order” in the political clash between the two major parties, without the risk of a constitutional crisis around certification of the next presidential election, would certainly be positive, on substantive issues, DeSantis seems likely to take the Republican Party backwards, along with the country as a whole, if he were to make it to the White House.
Donald Trump contributed to a significant change in direction while president, triggering the start of correctives to decades of economic globalization and regime change wars (although Washington’s approach to the Ukraine conflict shows the persistence of the interventionist faction). Yet, rather than trumpet his actual successes, Trump prefers to throw it all away through his personal fixation on “winning” regardless of the consequences for society, and despite no evidence that he did so in the past, or could in the future.
Ron DeSantis is not a different form of Trump, as some commentators posit. Yes, he clearly knows how to speak to the populist base of the Republican Party, picking fights with the Democrats and playing on cultural issues, from exploiting widespread opposition to allowing the teaching of LGBTQ issues among young school children, to sending migrants to Democratic-run states to win points among conservatives worried about the spike in immigration. But on substance, he seems more linked to traditional Republican policies in both economics, i.e. free trade and opposition to state intervention, and foreign policy, where he appears cut from the neocon cloth.
His positions on these fundamental issues are not entirely clear, and it may be that DeSantis is enough of an opportunist to go with the flow given the institutional changes in the national political environment; but it would be a supreme irony if the candidate whose success defuses the electoral threat of Donald Trump also inaugurates a reversal of the paradigm shift initiated under his administration in response to the socioeconomic effects of post-industrial policies and the exacerbation of the weaknesses of our economy highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Too many Republicans in Washington have shown that they are still wedded to an outdated neoliberal, austerity ideology, rather than a healthy conservatism that recognizes the role of government in reviving America’s leadership in private sector industry and innovation. The party would do well to not throw out the baby with the bathwater as the country prepares to finally move beyond Donald Trump