It might be comforting to believe that Tuesday’s election can be explained as a political primal scream aimed at President Trump and his dangerous excesses. Some may even conclude that a Democratic sweep of next year’s midterms will follow along with the speedy impeachment of Trump. Then, surely, reason and order will return to the business of running the United States. Unfortunately, that pipe dream ignores the more profound meaning of this week’s election results: The shellacking Republicans took proves again just how unmoored American politics has become in the 21st century.
Democrats and Republicans have held a duopoly over Washington since Franklin Pierce got elected president in 1852. For most of that time, both parties saw their governing majorities rise and fall over the course of entire generations.
The Grand Old Party more or less dominated national politics from Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 until the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic coalition dominated from 1933 until the Reagan Revolution began to reshape politics in 1980. When Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party finally gained control of Congress 14 years later, it was the first time a GOP speaker had run the House in 40 years.
Since then, though, the political alignments that once endured decades of change have begun collapsing in two-year intervals. In 2004, Karl Rove spoke of a permanent Republican majority. Just over two years later, Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House. In 2008, many hailed Barack Obama’s winning coalition as a new Democratic majority, built on a well-educated and demographically diverse coalition. Fast-forward two years and the tea party laid waste to all previous political presumptions. But their unfocused, anti-government zeal proved to be no match for Obama’s reelection campaign. At that time, Obama told Mika Brzezinski and me that his 2012 victory would finally make Republicans deal with his White House. But just two years later, Republicans again routed Democrats in local, state and national legislative races. And two years after that, Trump destroyed the Democratic establishment, but only after reducing the Republican political machine to rubble.
Now, less than a year after seizing control of all branches of government, Trumpism is in full retreat. Even before Tuesday’s drubbing, the president was weighed down by historically low approval ratings. The Republican Congress fares even worse, with a dismal 13 percent approval rating. Remarkably, the Democratic Party seemed even less united before Tuesday’s rout. The fact that Trump’s GOP was beaten so badly by the party of Donna Brazile and a Virginia gubernatorial candidate who one observer compared to a bag of mulch proves again that voters are voting against political parties instead of voting for inspiring leaders.
The last president to own majorities in both the House and Senate for two terms was Roosevelt. Since then, Republican majorities have been undone by the excesses of McCarthyism, Watergate and Iraq, while Democratic alliances have collapsed under the weight of Vietnam, a runaway welfare state, the enduring impact of the Great Recession and a brand of identity politics that some Democrats quietly suggest fed into Trump’s destructive rise.
It seems the long-term political turbulence shaking the United States’ two-party system to its knees comes from the inability of either party to explain why working-class jobs keep leaving the country and why most Americans’ wages have stagnated for decades. More importantly, no candidates have come forward with a convincing plan to turn those trends around.
Trump promised voters last year that his unique brand of economic witchcraft would magically send millions of workers back into coal mines, return automotive assembly lines to full capacity and transport U.S. workers back to a time when factories were spinning out manufactured goods and workers had a salary that supported their families. But the dreams Trump sold working-class Americans are already turning to dust. His promise of a more affordable and accessible health-care system is dead. His plan to reform the tax code now seems to be little more than a payoff to rich political patrons and billionaires like him. And instead of draining Washington’s swamp of unethical behavior, Trump has put his White House, his family and himself in the legal sights of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Even if Tuesday’s election begins the long process of removing the president from office, Americans will be left with the same corrosive system that led voters to take a chance on Trump. The only way to escape that cycle is to break apart the hyperpartisan two-party duopoly that has kept Washington too divided, too dysfunctional and too directionless for too long.