There Is No Progressive Majority in America

“Anti-left” still beats “anti-Trump” in Texas, Georgia, and Florida, and in many other places besides.

A supporter cries as Beto O'Rourke concedes at his election night party.
Mike Segar / Reuters

As the mail-in votes are counted and the recounts finished, the Democratic advantage in the 2018 elections grows and grows.

  • In the House, the biggest swing to the Democrats since Watergate on the strength of a 7 percent advantage in total votes cast.
  • In the Senate, Republican gains capped at perhaps two instead of the Election Night projection of four.
  • Large pickups in state legislatures, in ways that offer Democrats hope of halting or even reversing the gerrymandering and voter suppression imposed after 2010.

In light of these changes, should we revisit immediate post-election analysis that struck a more muted note? I wrote then:

The midterm elections delivered a less than fully satisfying result for Democratic voters, but an ideal outcome for the Democratic Party.

For Democrats, Election Night must have felt like the world’s slowest championship baseball game. Runner on base; runner on base; strike out; runner on base; run scored; fly out—and so through the night.

And I added:

Almost every candidate in whom Democrats at the national level invested emotional energy—Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia—appears to have lost. Almost every detested Republican appears to have survived: Devin Nunes, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, even Duncan Hunter, a California Republican under indictment.

Putting the cat truly among the pigeons, I also wrote:

There is no progressive majority in America. There is no progressive plurality in America. And there certainly is no progressive Electoral College coalition in America.

Even as Democratic vote totals climb, those observations still seem to me to hold true. Democrats racked up their most important gains in suburbs and among better-educated voters, especially women. They won seats such as the Seventh Congressional District of Texas, a seat won by George H. W. Bush in 1966 and held continuously by a Republican until now. The winning Democrat in the Seventh, a business-oriented attorney named Lizzie Fletcher, gained her party’s nomination by first winning a brutal primary against a rival fiercely backed by local activists and veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Anti-Trump Republicans will swing against his party if offered an acceptable alternative—but if not, not.

Here’s the loudest warning I draw from the midterm elections in retrospect:

In past “flip the House” elections—2010, 2006, 1994—the party of the president suffered large-to-calamitous drops in vote total as compared with the previous presidential election. Democrats lost 44 percent of their vote from 2008 to 2010. Republicans dropped 42 percent from 2004 to 2006. And even in 1994—a three-way election that Bill Clinton won with the narrowest share of the vote of any president since before the First World War—the Democrats still managed to shrink a further 30 percent beneath their already underwhelming total two years before.

In 2018, however, Republicans dropped only 20 percent of their votes cast as compared with 2016. To put it another way: In the painful loss of 2018, House Republican candidates won 5 million votes more than in their landslide win of 2010!

The secret to the Republican raw-vote success is that 2018 proved itself a uniquely high-turnout midterm election, again apparently the highest since before the First World War.

And behind that success is this not-to-be-forgotten fact: Donald Trump’s strategy of division and provocation is working for him, and will likely continue working for him at least so long as the U.S. economy remains strong. Very possibly, it may continue working even if the economy weakens. Trump remains only a minority president, yes. But it’s not only a uniquely robust minority—it’s also a minority favored by the increasingly unequal American electoral map.

Even as Democratic vote totals climb, the party’s progressive heartthrobs—O’Rourke, Gillum, Abrams—still appear to number among the defeated (although two of those races are not formally resolved), not because they did not boost progressive vote totals to previously unimagined heights in tough states, but because the very strength of the progressive challenge mobilized opponents to an even greater degree. “Anti-left” still beats “anti-Trump” in Texas, Georgia, and Florida, and in many other places besides. To their credit, the Democratic Party’s unillusioned congressional leadership recognizes this truth. The outcome of the 2020 election will depend on how successfully those leaders can impress that lesson on their commentariat and presidential primary electorate.