The Divided States of America

Frantic partisan combat and frequent changes of power are the new normal.

A figure silhouetted against an American flag
Nam Y. Huh / AP

If you’ve come to enjoy the bare-knuckle, closely divided, and high-anxiety American politics of the past few years, then the 2022 election brings good news for you.

The final balance of power in the U.S. Congress and state Houses won’t be clear for days or in some cases possibly weeks, but early results suggest that Republicans will likely retake control of the House, while the balance in the Senate remains too early to predict. GOP gains on Capitol Hill are the most important headline in immediate policy terms, because they mean that President Joe Biden will be unable to move his priorities through Congress and will face new investigations and oversight.

But the first round of results also suggests a smaller Republican victory than expected, and certainly smaller than some of the party’s leaders had at times predicted. This may prove to be the best midterm performance by the sitting president’s party since 2002. Several factors might explain Republicans’ underperformance, including weak candidates, backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs overturning abortion rights, and continued anger at former President Donald Trump.

More than anything, though, the relatively small changes—despite high inflation, widespread economic jitters, and Biden’s consistently poor approval ratings—demonstrate how calcified American politics has become, resisting major shifts even at times of upheaval and rancor.

One symptom of this new normal is that the results in different parts of the country look more different than they did in past change elections. In Florida, GOP Governor Ron DeSantis trounced Democrat Charlie Crist, a former governor and current U.S. representative, by a double-digit margin, far outpacing Trump’s performance in the state in 2020. Senator Marco Rubio also cruised to an easy win over Democrat Val Demings.

Yet even as Republicans ran up the score in the Sunshine State, they were falling short of expectations elsewhere. Representatives Jennifer Wexton and Abigail Spanberger, both endangered Virginia Democrats, were projected to win. In Rhode Island, Democrat Seth Magaziner defeated favored Republican Allan Fung. Other Democrats expected to be in trouble were on pace to win their races. In Ohio, Republican J. D. Vance was projected to beat Democrat Tim Ryan for a U.S. Senate seat, but Democrats won several of the state’s most contested House races.

Because the country is so closely divided, prognosticators and polling labeled many races toss-ups. Historically, toss-up elections tend to break mostly in one direction—whatever party has the better night wins the large majority of them, because voters in different state and districts are responding to many of the same fundamentals. Yet toss-ups are splitting so far in 2022.

One reason is that voters of both parties now view elections not just as chances to shape the direction of government policy, but as existential battles. Biden and former President Barack Obama warned in recent days that the fate of democracy in the United States was on the line in this election, and Trump has warned in the past that Democrats wanted to destroy America as we know it. (Although their rhetoric is similar, only one—Trump—sought to overturn an election and incited a violent mob to attack the Capitol.) That means that voters are willing to stand by candidates who are plainly unqualified or whose health is in question rather than defect to the other party or simply stay home. Turnout this election is expected to be very high for a midterm.

“As it does in the body, calcification produces hardening and rigidity: People are more firmly in place and harder to move away from their predispositions,” the political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck write in their recent book, The Bitter End. “Growing calcification is a logical consequence of growing polarization …. New events tend to be absorbed into an axis of conflict in which identity plays the central role. And this means smaller fluctuations from year to year in election outcomes.”

In this way, the 2022 election echoes recent history. In 2018, Democrats won a huge 41-seat gain in the House—but were able to do so in part because Republicans had held such a large majority coming into the election. That result simply brought the country back to equilibrium. Two years later, voters ejected Trump from the White House, giving Biden a solid win. They also sent more Republicans to the House, narrowing Democrats’ margin, while handing Democrats tenuous control of the Senate.

This dizzying sequence is born not out of some principled preference by voters for divided government and bipartisan cooperation, but rather out of the vagaries of hard-fought races in a closely divided country coming out in different ways. In fact, support among Americans for compromising with the opposing party has dropped.

Whatever the motivations, the country will receive divided government in Washington. Elections, even very tight ones, have consequences, and the shift away from Democratic control of both Congress and the White House will have major policy consequences. Unlike the wave elections of the past, in cycles such as 1994 and 2006, however, this year’s midterm elections do not seem destined to herald a long-lasting shift in American politics. Instead, frantic partisan combat and frequent changes of power seem likely to remain. The slog is here to stay.