Political arms race ends in a coin flip
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The full results of the election aren’t yet in, and, with the Georgia Senate race apparently headed for a run-off, they likely won’t be for another month. But, for now, it appears that the expected Republican “red tsunami” has not materialised. The big coin flip of the midterms has resulted in a near miracle: the coin landing on its edge, leaving the government about as divided as before.
Given the ferocity of emotion on both sides of the political divide, and the general turbulence in the system — what with a proto-world war in Ukraine, staggering inflation, the uproar over abortion, soaring housing prices, climate chaos, and so much more — it seems nothing short of miraculous that the result could possibly be anything like a tie. So I wonder, Ed, is the US now subject to the political equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion by which every force in nature is subject to an equal and opposite one?
No question, ours is a strange time across the board — but it is almost a unique one in its electoral politics. Only a few times before, in all the federal elections since the very first one in 1789, have both houses of Congress been so evenly divided between the two reigning parties.
Most recently, the 50-50 split in the Senate of the 107th Congress reflected the epic George W Bush-Al Gore presidential contest of 2000, when the result depended on the infamous “hanging chads” in Florida — a matter that needed to be settled in the Supreme Court. Statistically, it is perhaps not all that improbable that, twice in 117 tries, the result should prove so tight. So maybe the question isn’t so much why it happens at all, but why it happens when it does. More to the point, why is it happening again now? It wasn’t as if the electoral coin was buffeted about by a breeze before it came to rest on an edge. It seems to me instead that the electoral results are the product of massive, and seemingly immutable, opposing forces not unlike the ones in nature that Newton cited to lock all of existence in permanent equipoise.
Each side is fuelled by boundless mutual hatred, backed by seemingly inexhaustible sums of money after the Supreme Court’s fateful Citizens United decision regarding campaign finance laws. When one side sees the other bulking up, it does too, producing an arms race that can only end in a stand-off just as it does with nuclear weapons. In such an existential context, issues that might, logically, swing a race one way or the other, somehow get zeroed out. The abortion anxiety aroused by Democrats is countered by the crime threat stirred by Republicans; inflation angst is countered by relief over low unemployment; dislike of Biden is balanced against loathing of Trump.
And any personal defects in individual candidates get lost in the shuffle. Mitch McConnell famously complained about the weakness of his party’s Senate candidates. In this, he must have had the candour-challenged former American football running back Herschel Walker uppermost in mind, as Walker would surely be ineligible to run for any public office, let alone the US Senate, if any of the many moral claims against him were fairly weighed. If you asked me, he should have lost 100-0, yet his race against the incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock is so tight, it’s the one headed to a run-off, potentially to decide control of the Senate.
Unfortunately, when the coin ends up on an edge like this, it leaves us all on edge, too. I welcome you Ed, and all Swamp Notes readers, to offer up predictions of where the coin may land in the coming weeks.
PS Join us today at 8am EST, along with FT’s James Politi and veteran commentator Norm Ornstein for a subscriber-exclusive webinar to discuss the US midterm results. Register for free here.
Markets usually enjoy a rebound after midterm elections, and this one is no exception. But don’t forget the wise and very sobering worldview put forward recently in the pages of the FT by hedge funder Paul Singer.
I thought The New Yorker’s coverage of the midterms was particularly good.
I really liked Elizabeth Spiers’ smart take about Tom, Giselle, and the nature of marriage. There are many seasons of matrimony, and sometimes you have to call it game over.
Leo Lewis is quickly becoming one of my favourite colleague columnists — his take on Marxism for the modern age is a must read.
And The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip does a wonderful job spelling out the latest debate over monetary policy, which is a battle of acronyms — FTPL versus MMT (I’m betting on the former).
Edward Luce responds
Indeed Rana: we will all be on edge for at least a month to see who controls the Senate — although it is possible, should Catherine Cortez Masto retain Nevada and Mark Kelly hold Arizona — that Georgia won’t be a decisive run-off this time. It is also therefore conceivable that Democrats could end up with 51 Senate seats, which would deprive Joe Manchin of much of his recent leverage at precisely the time it would no longer matter. I would give very low odds of anything bipartisan emerging out of a Republican House of Representatives. Again, though, we won’t be sure of the House outcome for a couple of days. If Republicans do take control their majority will be slender.
In terms of your larger question, there is an Einsteinian flavour to the almost even split in the US electorate. As you point out, that means that every election involves a potential change of control of both the House and the Senate, which means the two parties have ever-diminishing incentives to do deals with each other in the absurdly short two-year window between elections. It is all or nothing now in a system riddled with veto points. It is worth stressing that until now this has never been the case in US political history. Many cycles would typically go by in which one party would control the lower chamber. The Republican midterm victory of 1994 broke a 40-year Democratic monopoly on the House, for example. Breaking that one-party stranglehold was Newt Gingrich’s primary motivation for unleashing the hyper-partisan tactics that we are now reaping.
Will it ever end? It must at some point. But writing this five days before Donald Trump potentially launches his 2024 presidential campaign from Mar-a-Lago, I feel overwhelmed by a mix of déjà vu and dread. If you cross A Nightmare on Elm Street with Groundhog Day, that is roughly how I feel.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to “Sanctimony won’t save the republic”:
“Hillary Clinton’s problems with the blue-collar vote are on her, as noted today. I continue to think that simple misogyny cost her at least a percentage of the vote nationally, and could well have shifted states like Wisconsin against her, however. Yes, women win as governors and senators, but they still have to overcome a burden that men do not.” — William Davnie, Minneapolis
“The North (and my beloved hometown of NYC) [profited] from trading in people and products from the antebellum South, and has never had clean hands on racism, especially in comparison to the Quaker influenced Pennsylvania. That said, I can’t imagine that a candidate like Herschel Walker, who single-handedly embodies almost every negative stereotype of African-Americans imaginable, could run anywhere but in the formerly segregated South. Their brand of racism has always been blatant and rooted in inhumanity . . . I also think those roots of humanity in Pennsylvania points to why that electorate would have the grace to coddle a recovering stroke victim in the expectation of his recovery; there may be a risk in that, but I do think it says something else about their values.” — Swamp Notes reader
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