After the Election, the Renewal Begins

The sun sets, and a rainbow rises, over the U.S. Capitol on this past election day. The imagery may seem over-obvious, but it's a real photo, and appropriate. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Back in the days before all data was stored everywhere, forever, never to disappear even if you try, writers and composers shared the experience of waking up at 3am, in cold-sweat terrors because of the “lost manuscript” nightmare.

This fear was based on hoary stories about some novelist or historian who got into a cab with a bag containing a 1,000-page manuscript representing years of work — and got out of the cab leaving the bag behind, impossible to retrieve. Or, in a variant, the only copy of the manuscript was sitting in the house, when the house burned down—or aboard a boat, when the boat sank.

Apparently real-life writers have actually suffered this misfortune. You can read an account covering authors from Milton to Hemingway to Edna St. Vincent Millay here, and others here and here.

I’ve personally seen a real-life version of this nightmare. As described here, the very first story I ever wrote for my college newspaper was about a fire that destroyed the university economics department. On the sidewalk outside, I encountered a man sobbing as he watched the blaze: the only extant copy of the book he’d been working on for years was inside, and was reduced to ashes. (As I confessed: “The moment had a career-changing effect on me. As the first question I asked, for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.”)

And I’ve recently encountered a minor-league real-world version. On a long-haul flight on the morning after this past week’s election, I ground out a “meaning of it all” dispatch for our web site. But for oddball logistics reasons, that couldn’t get posted right away — and ever-changing news headlines made what I’d originally written seem oddly framed.

So this post, kicking off a new Thread, has two points. One is to summarize the post-election wrap-up I had laid out, in lost-manuscript form. The other is to give some illustrations of what I argue is the fundamentally promising post-election theme.

First, what happened this past week? My long-form argument was that many Democrats felt emotionally gut-punched on Election Night, mainly because of three very high-profile losses in long-shot but closely run races. These involved, of course: Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida.

Whatever may eventually turn out in the Georgia and Florida recounts, as of last Tuesday night they were all heartbreaking disappointments for the Democrats. And while those (apparent) losses were offset by some emotionally important surprises and successes, principally the defeats of Kris Kobach in the governor’s race in Kansas and of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, they were accompanied by a range of other defeats, from Joe Donnelly’s and Heidi Heitkamp’s in the Senate to Amy McGrath’s and M.J. Hegar’s and Richard Ojeda’s in the House.

But — the “pivot” argument in my day-after piece — I said that the long-term fundamentals of the election would be more favorable to Democrats than the emotion of that first night suggested, in several ways.

The most obvious was simply the shift in control of the House. That the Democrats would gain at least the requisite 23 votes was clear by very late on Tuesday night. And as close races have kept being called since then — notably in California and Arizona, with their long-established pattern of early returns skewing Republican and the Democratic share edging up as the count wore on—the scale of an extremely sizable victory has begun to sink in.

As I write this update, it looks as if the Democrats will pick up 35 or more seats and carry the popular vote for the House by 7 to 8 per cent, results that would have been reported as “a wave” if they’d been foreseen or recognized on election night. It is on track to be a bigger percentage-point margin than the Republicans scored in the Tea Party elections of 2010, when gerrymandering allowed them to flip sixty-plus seats. (Here’s a fascinating Atlantic graphic categorizing the traits of districts that flipped this time.)

Beyond the intangible effects of House results that will be larger than they initially seemed, there is the hugely important practical consequence of the House being again empowered as a check on presidential excesses. With Adam Schiff as (presumptive) chairman of the Intelligence Committee — and Adam Smith at Armed Services, and John Yarmuth at Budget, and Maxine Waters at Financial Services, and Nita Lowey at Appropriations — hearings, subpoenas, and investigations will mean something very different in the next two years of Donald Trump’s term than they have in the past two.

At the state-legislature level, it appears that in this one election Democrats will have won back  well over one-third of the seats they lost during eight years under Barack Obama. The balance of the Obama years — emotional satisfaction at the top of the ticket, losses lower down — was at least partially reversed. And the anti-gerrymandering and voting-expansion initiatives passed in a large number of states, while presumably useful to the Democrats in the short term, are more important longer-term as repairs to the working mechanisms of democracy.

And so, I would have argued in my phantom piece, the 2018 elections were indeed likely to be the opposite of the Obama years. Emotionally, for Democrats November, 2018 felt much less satisfying than November, 2012 or (especially) November, 2008. But the practical advances were more sizable than initial coverage implied.

Now, for a little more on this last point: the ways in which this election might be seen as a hinge point on repairing the mechanics of democracy. This is of course a trend I’ve been talking about for a long time, and on which the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote today in the Washington Post, citing arguments Deb Fallows and I have made (emphasis added):

While many red states will continue to be tough battlegrounds for Democrats, even in growing metropolitan areas, an increasing number of Republicans in those states may move toward Cornett-style [Mick Cornett, former Republican mayor of Oklahoma City], get-it-done moderation and away from tea party conservatism.

James and Deborah Fallows, authors of the recent book “Our Towns,” traveled extensively around smaller urban areas in heartland America in the course of their research. They discovered that, in contrast to the hyper-partisanship and gridlock at the federal level, local politics retains a penchant for collaboration, reasonable compromise and long-term vision.

If there’s any hope for our collective political future, it’s that such pragmatism will percolate up from our local politics to our national politics. And the 2018 midterm results suggest that green shoots of moderation are breaking out, even in the states that many East Coast liberals think are hopelessly addicted to Trump’s brand of divisive cultural warfare.

As will come as no surprise, I agree with Kabaservice’s emphasis on engagement and practical-mindedness “percolating up” from the still-functional level of American politics. And here are a few other indications of this trend underway:

The ongoing theme in this space will be where and why practical-minded functionality is percolating up from the local level, and what circumstances might hasten and favor that process. It’s been a good beginning this past week.