The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Election results should move both parties to introspection. Journalists, too.

President Biden speaks at a campaign event in Miami on Nov. 1. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)

In a pre-election flourish, President Biden bragged to Floridians that this year’s 8.7 percent increase in Social Security benefits is the largest in four decades. That is true — because of the cost-of-living adjustment. Inflation is the highest in four decades. Biden’s thank-me-for-inflation plea exemplified his autumn struggles, which called to mind the title of Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Yet even a president dramatically more disapproved than approved, and who a majority of his party wishes would not seek another term, did not provoke even a red wavelet. Could it be that the label “Republican,” from an association with something or someone, carries an aroma of putrefaction? If so, the electorate’s discernment should be celebrated. Elections are increasingly nationalized and president-centric, even ex-president-centric.

Tickling a message from Tuesday’s muddy results is risky, but here is a tentative one: The immediate future can be won by a party prudent enough to offer a “deep breath, everybody” presidential candidate. One who says that to the nation, and adds, from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Which means turning down the hysteria rheostat. The nation was not built by fragile people and is not fragile, and it is safe to suppose that Biden’s reiterated rubbish to the contrary (“democracy is on the ballot”) motivated few voters. His implicit “Democracy c’est moi” message surely seemed highfalutin’ to Americans reluctant to believe that he is the thin reed on which the institutions bequeathed by the Founding now lean.

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The nation’s immediate predicament is more banal. Republicans cannot win with former president Donald Trump defining them or inflaming their nominating electorates to select preposterous candidates. Democrats cannot win without invoking Trump’s specter to stifle debates about some of their policies (“no cash bail”; “greed” causes inflation) that stroke their base’s erogenous zones.

In this centennial of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” recognize Trump as “dry sterile thunder without rain.” When, however, he is scrubbed from the public square — an entertainer with a stale act is as perishable as vaudeville — this cleansing will be welcomed by an exhausted electorate but will be discomfiting to both parties. Republicans will be forced to articulate an agenda beyond retrospective grievances and prospective pugnacity, and Democrats will be at first speechless, then forced to defend their agenda.

For example, Biden’s election-eve promise of a “fundamental shift” on the economy was, coming from the head of the party that controls the executive and legislative branches, a repudiation of the rascals who implemented his policies.

Although culture conflicts are still at a rolling boil, they come and go, and none are forever. In 2004, President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign worked to drive conservatives to the polls by getting anti-same-sex marriage measures on the ballots in 11 states. All passed. Eighteen years and a 2015 Supreme Court decision later, calm has descended where controversy had raged, which is evidence of two encouraging facts: The source of the court’s power, its prestige, is not as attenuated as some suppose, and the American mind is more accommodating than some anger-mongers would prefer.

When Tuesday’s results are sifted, it will be interesting to see how much has changed since 2020, when the gimlet-eyed Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report noticed this: Biden won 85 percent of counties with a Whole Foods and 32 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel. Excluding counties that have both, Biden won 95 percent that have only a Whole Foods and 18 percent with only a Cracker Barrel. America’s class conflicts, arising from society’s allocation of status, also are not forever, and in this continental country, the Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel cohorts can coexist.

Tuesday’s elections should move both parties to introspection. Journalists could benefit from emulation. Many of them believe that the nation does not just have problems but has “existential” crises: Democracy is a guttering candle, dying before climate change snuffs out the remainder of life. Progressives, because of their mind meld with journalists, talk to voters a tad too much about existential this and that, and too little about voters’ existence.

Journalism, of sorts, did, however, provide comic relief, of sorts. Five days before the election, MSNBC, interviewing Mandela Barnes, the Democrats’ U.S. Senate nominee in Wisconsin, ran this banner at the bottom of the screen: “Extreme Gerrymandering Taints Wisconsin Senate Race.” If Republicans managed that — by redrawing the shape of the state? — they really are clever rapscallions.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.