But there is another possible future, one in which 2022 is one of the exceptions, an election in which the ruling party gains rather than loses seats — and then, with their majorities, Democrats manage to make the kind of change they hope for.
What would it take to bring that future about? The answer may lie in deeply rooted, unpleasant conflict, of the kind happening now in so many states.
For some time, a national battle has been waged between Republicans who hold power at the state level and Democratic-dominated cities, which often have radically different policy visions. It is particularly acute in states such as Texas, Arizona and Georgia that are becoming more liberal as their urban populations grow, while Republicans still hold a firm grip on state power due to their dominance in more rural areas (and, often, aggressive gerrymandering).
The pandemic has taken the Republican propensity for passing “preemption” laws — in which state legislatures ban cities and counties from passing progressive rules on things such as the minimum wage or gun regulation — and cranked it up to 11.
So in state after state, far-right Republican governors are waging war on their own cities. Sometimes it’s about public health (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trying to keep school districts from requiring masks). Sometimes it’s about elections (Georgia Republicans moving to take over elections in the county that includes most of Atlanta). And sometimes it’s about GOP legislatures imposing far-right laws that even many Republicans disagree with but are especially unpopular in liberal cities (the new Texas law allowing anyone to carry a handgun with no training or license).
In every case, the message to Democrats and the places they live is the same: It doesn’t matter if you’re the majority. We have the power, and we’re going to make you live under Republican rules. Forever.
This conflict is only going to get worse, as state-level Republicans seek to tighten their grip over fast-growing liberal metro areas, creating regular state-vs.-local conflicts exacerbated by Republicans’ fear that their power is tenuous and Democrats’ anger at being ruled by a hostile minority.
Population growth in the Democratic areas is fueling the problem. Here’s one vivid example, from Ronald Brownstein:
Texas perhaps best crystallizes how much large metros are now driving growth in the Sun Belt. Just the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio metropolitan areas — all jurisdictions where officials are defying Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates — accounted for fully 87% of the new residents the state added since 2010.
As the gap between demographic reality and political reality grows, so do the state-local conflicts.
That could make the 2022 midterm elections not so much a referendum on Biden’s performance or the implementation of the infrastructure bill, but a forum in which this struggle over which America we’ll head toward in the future is played out. At least that’s what Democrats should hope for.
The opposition party so often does well in midterms because their voters are the ones who are mad: While the ruling party’s voters may feel complacent or even slightly disappointed after a president from their party is elected, every day brings what the opposition considers new horrors. That motivates them to strike back at the polls, leading to the kind of sweep we saw in 2018, 2010 and 1994.
But Democrats could get their voters to turn out next year as if they were the aggrieved ones, depending on how they see the issues at stake. To understand why, we should reexamine what drove those voters during the Trump presidency.
The motivation Donald Trump provided to Democratic voters in 2018 and 2020 was certainly about their personal distaste for him, but he represented something deeper and broader — something that Democrats may still find urgent and threatening.
Trump’s victory in 2016 snapped liberals out of a false sense of security, their belief that in its values and politics the country was moving inexorably in their direction. That election showed them that the forces of backlash were strong enough to reverse, if only for a moment, the cultural, social and political trends they thought were irresistible.
Trump’s election represented a repudiation of everything they believed in and sought for their country. So they had to mobilize in response, and they did.
And while Trump himself may not be the same daily presence he was (though by next November he could be preparing another presidential campaign and be on everyone’s mind again), Trumpism — not only as a political style but as a scorched-earth assault on liberalism — is undiminished.
History suggests that a Republican sweep in the midterms might still be the most likely outcome. But if Democrats can persuade their own voters to see the real stakes — and if extreme Republicans keep defying majority opinion and starting fights where they’re on the wrong side of public opinion — the next few years could look very different.