We’re just 18 days from the midterm election. Right now, the environment seems to favor Republicans. Inflation and a souring economy dominate the political conversation and the low-information voters who will determine the elections aren’t focused on either Democratic accomplishments or Trumpists transgressions. They are, as usual, worried about paying the bills.
Regardless of the outcome, the election is going to be instructive for the country and both parties. Democrats have long been involved in an internal debate over whether the base or swing voters matter the most. Republicans have a divide between the reactionary wing of Trumpists and the establishment wing of Reagan-era free marketeers. The results of this election might not end those debates, but will almost certainly provide directions for future electoral strategies.
Within the Democratic party, the more progressive wing has long argued that if the base turns out, Democrats win. They believe that if Democrats deliver on a progressive agenda that a groundswell of voters will support the party in the voting booth. The more centrist wing of the party, I’ll call them liberals, has long believed that the party needs to expand its base by appealing to people who don’t think that much about politics. They don’t really believe that the country has a large progressive base just waiting for the right policies and think the party should focus their message more on kitchen table and pocketbook issues than social problems.
If the progressives are right, then Democrats should expect to have a good night in November. Joe Biden and the Democratic Congress just delivered on the most progressive record in over 50 years. They passed gun control, delivered on climate action, provided prescription drug benefits, offered student loan debt relief, and passed a long-needed infrastructure bill that has eluded presidents of both parties for decades. And they did much of it with bipartisan support.
In addition, Republicans gave the party something to run against, too. The stolen Supreme Court gutted Roe v Wade, leaving many women without options for abortion services in states across the country. The GOP also blocked a measure that would cap insulin prices at $35. Finally, the January 6 Committee laid bare Trump’s role in the attack on the Capitol and the GOP’s coverup by refusing to hold him accountable.
Over on the Republican side, the reactionary populists are ascendant. They harbor authoritarian and anti-democratic instincts and call themselves Christian Nationalists or National Conservatives, scary terms for students of history. They embody a backlash against the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movements. They’ve been hiding in plain sight as members of organizations like the Moral Majority or Students for America, masquerading as more traditional conservatives, but driven by xenophobia, racism, and homophobia more than any economic or governing philosophy.
The traditional conservatives that have dominated the GOP from Reagan era through the GWB years are split between those who see the populists as an imminent threat to both their political philosophy and the country and those who find them distasteful but believe they will recede back into their holes once the Democrats are defeated. Unlike the progressives and liberals, conservatives have long had flagship publications that provide ideological underpinnings to their supporters.
The alarmed conservatives are represented by the writers and commentators of The Bulwark, the online publication started by Sara Longwell, Bill Kristol, and Charlie Sykes. They believe Trump and his movement present an existential threat to the country and democracy. They urge defeat of the of Trump allies at the ballot box, regardless of the party while voicing disagreement to policies like student loan forgiveness. They have no qualms about joining arms with Democrats in what they see as fight for the soul of the nation.
The Dispatch, the publication put together by National Review alumni Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, is staunchly never-Trump but just as staunchly anti-Democrat. They spend as much time deriding progressive policies as they do mocking the pro-Trump media stars like Tucker Carlson. They don’t seem to see the Trumpists as an existential threat to the country, but an irritant that needs to be beaten back. Where the Bulwark crowd has allied themselves with Democrats to try to crush the populists, The Dispatch folks have found themselves largely politically homeless, willing to cheer the Trumpists and Republicans when they pass traditionally conservative measures and bash them for their most egregious behaviors.
The National Review crowd has taken a largely tribalist approach to politics. Most of their writers are anti-Trump, but they see him as a bit of a clown who is an impediment to passing the conservative agenda that they believe Republicans will enact. They excuse xenophobia, racism, and homophobia, in the part, because they find it preferable to the policies of liberals and progressives. They’ve revealed themselves to be a mostly soulless lot who will excuse anti-democratic and authoritarian behavior if it promotes their conservative agenda.
The libertarian, Cato crowd is finding itself as homeless as The Dispatch folks. They’ve retreated from electoral politics and focused more on free-market philosophy. They aren’t really criticizing anybody and spend more of their time pushing for free trade and less regulations. Once closely allied with the Reagan Republicans, they’ll applaud Democrats who push their agenda and criticize Republicans who don’t. At least they seem to be nominally pro-democracy.
This election probably won’t end any of the disputes between the various factions in the two parties, but it will give insight into which strategies will become dominant. For Democrats, a win in a midterm like this one would be holding Republicans to a single digit majority in the House and maintaining an evenly divided Senate. If that happens, progressives would have good case for continuing to pass good policies but that outcome will also demonstrate that there’s no hidden, silent majority of left-leaning voters out there.
As for the conservatives, the election will help figure out which group is right. If Republicans win in states across the nation and start implementing anti-democratic measures, The Bulwark’s alarmism will be vindicated. If they win and then shift to more traditional conservatism, then The Dispatch folks will gravitate back toward the GOP fold. That said, we might not know whether the authoritarians or conservatives are in control of the GOP until the 2024 election, because we won’t know how power shapes them until they actually govern.