"The midterm elections produced a range of results as vast, gorgeous, and idiotic as America itself. A glance at the state ballot measures alone suggests the warring impulses at work in our confused society: Idaho expanded Medicaid, Louisiana repealed its Jim Crow–era jury rules, and Missouri raised the minimum wage, but Washington rejected a carbon tax, Colorado declined to [further regulate fracking](https://ballotpedia.org/Colorado_Proposition_112,_Minimum_Distance_Requirements_for_New_Oil,_Gas,and_Fracking_Projects_Initiative(2018%29), and California crushed a rent control law. Florida, meanwhile, voted to enfranchise ex-felons, but hobbled its already dysfunctional government by requiring a [legislative supermajority to raise taxes](https://ballotpedia.org/Florida_Amendment_5,Two-Thirds_Vote_of_Legislature_to_Increase_Taxes_or_Fees_Amendment(2018%29).
The national political story was no different. Democrats won a narrow majority in the House and a handful of governorships, but Republicans strengthened their hold on the Senate. An exciting new crop of left-wing legislators won office, but some of the country’s most dynamic candidates were (probably) defeated by Trumpist lapdogs, industry tools, and neoliberal flunkies. Scott Walker lost, but Ted Cruz won: it was that kind of night.
The media reaction to this mixed fruit revealed the Janus face of contemporary liberalism. One cluster of pundits arraigned ordinary Americans for failing to “repudiate” Donald Trump with sufficient gusto. “If the midterms were a test of the country’s character,” pronounced Sarah Kendzior, “Americans failed.” Democrats may have scraped back a few seats in Congress, but the nightmare of Trump remains, and with it the frenzy of shame, disgust, and hostility toward popular government that has saturated liberal commentary since November 2016.
At the same time, a parallel brigade of liberal analysts arrived to claim a triumphant victory for the electoral process. “Make no mistake,” declared the New Yorker, “the midterm elections were a Democratic victory.” By reclaiming some of the Midwestern states Hillary Clinton lost, while also making inroads into the New South, Democrats showed they could be trusted to build an effective resistance to Trump’s “populist” demagoguery. Taking back the House, said Nancy Pelosi on election night, meant “restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration.”
Together, these reactions amount to a peculiar style of discourse you might call apocalyptic institutionalism. The chilling march of fascism, from this angle, may only be halted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the US counterintelligence apparatus, and, perhaps, a thunderous condemnation of nonvoters on social media. The Sunday before the election, on a handsome brownstone block in Brooklyn, I watched an adult man scurry up and down the street, urging New York City Marathon runners to rescue the republic by casting a ballot for Andrew Cuomo.
But when it comes to understanding the election, both faces of liberal punditry are wrong: in the language of this increasingly evangelical liberalism, the midterms were neither a confirmation of the apocalypse nor a sign of our coming Democratic salvation.
Elite hysteria about the depravity of the American people makes even less sense in 2018 than it did in 2016. This election was, absolutely, a mass repudiation of Trump and his foul agenda. Republicans lost the popular contest for Congress by millions of votes and over seven percentage points. The true power behind Trump’s throne, we should know by now, is not an irresistible army of zombie racists in the heartland, but the historical structures and top-down tactics that sustain Republican minority rule.
Yet neither did last Tuesday’s results mark the way toward anything like a constructive political realignment. In numerical terms, national Democratic gains were utterly, predictably normal: in midterm elections since the New Deal, the president’s party loses on average about thirty seats in Congress, four seats in the Senate, and 350 seats in statehouses. The Democrats, it turns out, are almost as average as it gets...
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