Four years ago, the founder of Tocqueville 21, Editor Emeritus Jacob Hamburger, mused on the 2018 midterm elections and the evaporation of a much-anticipated blue wave.
It would seem that history repeats. After weeks of media speculation and unclear polling, clarity has finally emerged: there was no “red wave”, merely a “red ripple”. The Republican Party has underperformed, with control of Congress still in play a day after ballots were cast.
This has been widely interpreted as a catastrophic evening for the Republican Party and, much like four years ago, it will no doubt prompt a degree of soul-searching as conservatives seek to attribute blame. That being said, while there are a number of reasons both structural and circumstantial that explain the current predicament for Republicans, there is one that stands out as the most egregious.
A full two years after the election of President Joe Biden, the Republican Party still hasn’t come to terms with the 2020 election.
This should not have been a difficult election for Republicans. With fully seven out of ten voters polled suggesting that a top issue was the economy and with support for Congress and for the President historically low, the precedent would have suggested a landslide for the opposition. But the Republican Party is currently in the midst of a leadership struggle, one dripping with the distasteful sensationalism of election denial. With former President Donald Trump still serving as a kingmaker for a … quixotic array of candidates, and potentially gearing up for another presidential campaign, the pecking order in the Republican Party has yet to be formally established. This disunity resulted in a particularly messy primary season, a hotly contested battle between Trump’s favored candidates and a more conventional stable of establishment figures.
The Republicans were busy airing their dirty laundry with gleeful abandon; it comes as no surprise that moderate voters broke for the Democrats. One can imagine it feels fantastic for the DNC to finally see the shoe on the other foot; messy internecine struggles have historically been more of a left-wing thing, but the charge in the atmosphere suggests a massive reckoning is coming on the right.
But an analysis of the results of the midterms shouldn’t stop at “election denialism, therefore Republican defeat”. Once again, polling suggests that the integrity of democracy in the United States was not the main issue, nullifying one of the major points being made by Democrats across the country. Inflation, crime, and immigration all stood out as important to the American electorate, and the unpopularity of both President Biden and Congress shouldn’t be glossed over. For anyone with an eye on elections outside of America, this should all sound very familiar.
Across the West, from Brazil to France, Sweden to Italy, these are the issues that have precipitated a rightward shift over the past decade. Populism, nativism, a sense of the unaccountability of elected officials … These are the exact issues that drove the appeal of politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson, or Georgia Meloni. Increasingly, Western democracies are collectively experiencing a shift to a new normal – one where a center-left establishment faces off against a resurgent populist right. And with another presidential election a mere two years out, that struggle remains incredibly relevant to the American electorate.
This time, the Democrats benefited from the power struggles in the Republican Party, and could continue to do so, as analysts are already anticipating a showdown for the soul of the GOP between Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Crucially, both of these figures correspond to precisely the sort of right-wing populism that has shown such resilience in other major democracies; the center-right ultimately has no horse in this race. However, DeSantis carries none of the baggage that keeps Trump on the sidelines. Should DeSantis manage to prevail over Donald Trump, it is likely that the entire GOP, both populist and establishment, would consolidate behind him. Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to establish an heir apparent, which is all the more troubling given that fully seven out of ten voters don’t want to see Joe Biden run again.
So what, ultimately, should we take away from the midterms? Not much. While no “red wave” materialized, this was just the prelude. All eyes are on 2024.