Beto’s Loss Was a Blessing in Disguise for Democrats

And other lessons of the 2018 midterm elections

Supporters react as Beto O'Rourke concedes to Ted Cruz.
Supporters react as Beto O'Rourke concedes to Ted Cruz. (Adria Malcolm / Reuters)

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.

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.

This was not a night of cleansing, righteous fire. It was, instead, an election that accomplished three necessary things.

First, the 2018 vote delivered enough Democratic success to introduce some oversight and accountability into the federal government after two years of executive impunity. The House Intelligence Committee will resume protecting Americans rather than covering up for Russians.

Second, the vote administered enough Democratic disappointment to check the party’s most self-destructive tendencies. If Beto O’Rourke had eked it out in Texas, Democrats might well have nominated him for president in 2020, almost guaranteeing a debacle. 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.

Third, the vote reminded all concerned Americans how very, very difficult will be the struggle to preserve and restore liberal democracy after Trumpocracy. The American system of government has always mixed majoritarian and anti-majoritarian features. It should not have surprised anyone that as the United States evolved toward being a “majority minority” nation, the anti-majoritarian features of its democracy have gained ascendancy over the majoritarian ones.

For three-quarters of a century, the United States expanded and equalized voting rights. In 1913, the U.S. Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of U.S. senators, rather than relying on corruption-tainted state legislatures. Votes for women followed in 1920; Supreme Court decisions against all-white primaries came in 1944 and 1953, and in 1962 against favoring rural over urban voters in state legislatures. Next was the 1964 constitutional amendment forbidding poll taxes; then the Voting Rights Act of 1965; votes for 18-to-21-year-olds in 1971; and a sequence of often misdirected but democratically intended reforms in presidential primaries, election finance, and the operations of Congress from 1972 onward. And then the pendulum reversed.

When the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 produced the first non-plurality presidency since the 19th century, the outcome seemed a freak. But in the years since, the freakish has become the familiar.

You may deplore this, but between now and 2020 you will not change it. In the interim, you must adapt. That means devising your political plans for the terrain you have, not the terrain you might wish for. The names Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy still thrill Democratic hearts. But Obama and Kennedy were realists, who regularly disappointed and vexed their most liberal supporters. Senator Barack Obama voted for ethanol subsidies and regularly went AWOL from political tussles over gun control. Obama was no Beto—which is why Obama actually won his U.S. Senate race in 2004. Beto enthusiasts are today recalling that Abraham Lincoln lost a Senate race in 1858 before winning the presidency in 1860. They are not recalling the innumerably more numerous politicians who failed to win a Senate race before not winning the presidency.

It may not be right that the middle of the country exerts radically more political weight than the coasts, or that white votes typically count for more than nonwhite votes. Right or not, those things are true, at least for now, and as long as they remain true, political realists must reckon with them. If 2018 offered a promise of at least some restraint on the Trump presidency, it also yielded a reminder of the hardest facts of American life and politics. Be guided by that reminder—the struggle for liberal democracy is too real and too dangerous for hearts undirected by heads.