It’s hard to tell how large they are exactly, because Twitter is not the real world, but it does seem safe to say there are significant factions in the country that believe we are living in a revolutionary moment. I don’t mean to evoke here lurid fantasies of a hot civil war. I have in mind instead the Jacksonian revolution, or the many revolutions of the New Deal—punctuations in our punctuated equilibrium, when faith is lost in our institutional armature and there appears both the opportunity and the impudence to fundamentally reshape it.
From the left, we hear that whole articles of the Constitution are now illegitimate, encounter bizarre locutions like “the Senate national popular vote” (shades of the Rousseauvian “general will”), and receive casual assurances that full-throated commitment to court packing will be a litmus test for all 2020 candidates.
From the right, we hear—well, you know. Take your pick. There are umpteen conspiracies against the public supposed, and just as many quasi-authoritarian solutions on offer.
There’s a kind of Leninist glee taken in heightening the contradictions, in the belief that conditions must be made worse before they can get better. It proceeds mostly by troll tweet and podcast, but occasionally by actual violence. The consensus is that the status quo is crisis, and the collective desire seems to be to get on with whatever it is that is surely coming next, however rough the beast.
If you are one of the people who thinks this way, you were no doubt greatly frustrated by the midterm results, by their woolly indeterminacy, by their abject failure to live up to their billing as “the most consequential election of our lifetime.” Your side didn’t really win big enough, and what’s worse, the other side didn’t lose painfully and definitively enough.
But if you’re like me, a friend of Ed Burke and one of the last seven Buckleyite conservatives not bred in captivity, then you’re probably experiencing the closest thing to contentment that events have allowed for in some time.
That’s because the midterms were a victory neither for revolutionaries nor reactionaries, but for muddlers-along who hope that our present troubles are not prelude but interlude, just another thing that too shall pass. For us, Tuesday could scarcely have gone better.
The Democrats have taken the House. They’ll no doubt spend a great deal of time with their newfound subpoena power investigating the real-estate huckster and brand ambassador who leads the executive branch. That suits me fine. If the president is crooked in additional ways beyond those that are already matters of public record, then the public should probably know. But the ground will not buckle in the near term. It isn’t that a third of Americans would shrug if the president were to shoot a man on Fifth Avenue; it’s that they’ve priced in the likelihood that he already did so at some point in the 1980s and aggressively wrote off the depreciation on the pistol.
The new House majority will also no doubt audition policies for the 2020 election. Universal basic income, say. These dead letters, which will likely go directly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s spam folder, might even prompt something approximating earnest public debate about the future of entitlements (even muddlers-along can dream), but they will not become law in the 116th Congress. Indeed, the greatest likelihood is that there will be no new major legislation for the next two years.
Sure, there will be whisperers in the president’s ear urging him to reach across the aisle with a big infrastructure package. Democratic leadership might even go for it. But even if they do, any new fellow feeling will be quickly metabolized. Ours is a machine that runs on negative partisanship now, and that won’t change just because a few bridge abutments get fixed. On Monday, lawmakers may be all grins and backslaps at a bipartisan bill-signing ceremony. On Tuesday, their opponents will go back to being not just wrong, but evil.
Far likelier is that the effort at bipartisanship will never get off the ground. And that while House Democrats spend all their time worrying at the president’s flanks, McConnell will continue to remake the federal judiciary. His majority expanded by pliant freshmen, he’ll no longer have to run his offense through Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a waking nightmare for vast swaths of the progressive left, becomes a live possibility. More broadly, the Federalist Society, the last functioning limb of conservative intellectualism and the one least dependent on a personality cult, will through a combination of design and accident have control over a kind of constitutional Khyber Pass. In other words, the only things that will move with any speed through our institutional order—judges—will do so under the guidance and at the direction of just about the last people left who care about the same things I do.
The Resistance will holler, and the Deplorables will rah-rah, but the action will have almost nothing to do with either of them, and will outlast their present sorry squabbles.
Another salutary effect of the midterms is that they have produced morality tales that with any luck will deeply shame great numbers of people. Republican voters reelected frauds under criminal indictment and a white nationalist who isn’t even bothering to hide it at this point. (Though, gladly, voters dropped Representative Steve King’s bosom-buddy-slash-Kremlin-stooge, Representative Dana Rohrabacher). Democrats, who count Robert Mueller and Christine Blasey Ford as beatified saints, couldn’t be bothered to stop Senator Bob Menendez, whose alleged corruptions run both pecuniary and carnal, in a safe seat.
And, of course, the skateboard. I still believe enough in the possibility of redemption to think that years from now, a whole host of progressives will be embarrassed that “in 2018” they invested their hopes and dreams in the prep-school-jock son of an eminent-domain real-estate billionaire who failed all the way upward from a felony DUI, riding an appropriated Latin identity and a record-breaking fund-raising haul to a pedestrian Senate loss. As the kids say on the internet, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.
Beto, mononym and whatnot, has rightly been upheld as an example of the “rock star” politics that afflicts the major parties. But it’s the Beto lawn signs in California and Northern Virginia that so perfectly encapsulate a more salient and troubling trend: the extent to which our politics has been decoupled from place. Indeed “the Senate national popular vote” can only be rendered coherent under a psychology in which political communities aren’t places like Cincinnati or Waukesha County or Pennsylvania, but the circle of friends who “liked” your “I voted” pic on Insta. To the extent that Beto O’Rourke’s loss and the exposure of his far-flung supporters’ naïveté undermine this new frontier in carpetbaggery, the muddlers-along can only stand to benefit.
Of course, it’s not all bad news for the revolutionaries. As has been noted by many, the Republicans who survived the night are as a group MAGA-ier than those who were ousted. The smaller GOP caucus is thus more hard-core. The same can be said for the Democratic members-elect. Though the left’s “progressive superstars” fared less well in Senate and gubernatorial races, plenty of them made it into the House. And this group of young, diverse firebrands will be led by the fresh voice of … once and future Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Wait until the people who hate the Electoral College realize that an aspiring octogenarian elected by almost all of San Francisco is second in line to the presidency).
Or, it’s possible Pelosi will lack the votes and so will Representative Kevin McCarthy on the Republican side, and one or both leadership races will turn into a bloodbath, with hard-liners emerging as winners. And it’s entirely plausible that the progressive presidential hopefuls in the Senate will ramp up their performative arms race, unchecked and indeed encouraged by a younger, more radical caucus, with stunts that make the Brett Kavanaugh hearings look like the proceedings of the municipal water commission.
Last, the ultimate agent of chaos, who sleeps less than rust, has as I write this forced the resignation of his attorney general. So long as the president is the president, then what comes tomorrow, much less January 21, is far from assured. The worse could still very much get the better of us. But the midterms did not.