The dust is still settling. Some races are so close that it may be days before the winners are declared. But we can muse a bit about what yesterday’s midterm election results reveal.
In key districts, Democrats recruited centrist candidates with strong records of public service. Here in New York City, Staten Island has long been a Republican stronghold. But Democratic newcomer Max Rose defeated Republican incumbent Dan Donovan. Rose is a veteran who served in Afghanistan. During his campaign, he attacked New York’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, and promised not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
There’s a difference between electoral politics and political culture. The latter frames the former, establishing the boundaries in which the give-and-take of electoral competition takes place, as well as establishing the themes on which candidates will compete for votes. As results were being reported last night, I was struck by how many Democratic candidates who swung districts from red to blue were military veterans. This suggests that our political culture continues to emphasize patriotism.
Donald Trump does not have a monopoly on patriotism. (Last night Nancy Pelosi gave a short victory speech that hit patriotic notes very nicely.) But in 2016 his “Make America Great Again” campaign emphasized that theme, seemingly to good effect. His dustup with NFL players was about respecting the flag. I find it reassuring that the Democratic Party wants to compete on that turf. As I’ve observed on many occasions, our political upheavals stem from the erosion of our solidarity. Patriotic themes help us reconsolidate around our shared national loyalty.
Exit polling suggests that voter concerns tilt in the direction of solidarity, or what I call the “we” questions. Healthcare debates should be understood as debates over collective responsibility—over what we owe to each other as fellow citizens. Immigration raises the obvious question of who “we” are, of who can become part of our “we” and on what terms. These questions seem to have driven many voters to the polls.
Trump himself was on the ballot, at least implicitly. Many cannot abide the man. Some see him as a threat to “democratic norms.” I find that worry irrational, as it mistakes the consensus of recent decades (which Trump does attack) for our deeper democratic traditions. That said, this response to Trump suggests a solicitude for our democratic system, which is indeed a precious achievement.
Others recoil from what they see as Trump’s besetting vices. He plays fast and loose with truth, mistreats women, or stokes racist backlash. Again, I’m not sympathetic to these reactions. In my estimation, Trump exhibits an admirable political honesty, speaking bluntly and directly about his governing priorities, by and large doing what he says he’s going to do. In this regard he compares favorably with George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom pretended to be what they knew voters wanted them to be, while knowing they would govern differently.
But like the enthusiasts who pack Trump’s rallies, the anti-Trump backlash that influenced the “suburban white women” whom commentators never tired of evoking last night reflects deep concerns over what kind of country we’re going to be and become. This concern is a good thing.
On the eve of the midterms, Ross Douthat opined that Trump had squandered the advantages of a booming economy. Trump’s tweets and his undisciplined interventions in the campaign season had exacerbated the identity politics that energize the progressive base and distract voters from the economic populism that can win elections for Republicans.
I don’t disagree about the economic populism, but I am less disturbed by Trump’s rambunctious role in our public life. Barack Obama often tut-tutted that this or that was “not who we are.” I sometimes disagreed, and almost always resented the holier-than-thou tone. But Obama was pointing us in the right direction. Yes, we need good economic policies, ones that reorient our free-market system toward revitalizing the middle class. But economics is secondary. Of much greater importance is a conversation about who we are—and who we want to become.
Before Trump arrived on the scene, our liberal establishment controlled the debate about who we were. Republicans accepted that control, imagining that things would be OK as long as they controlled economic policy, especially tax policy. That’s why there has never been a conservative establishment—only a Republican one, which is purely political and has no cultural ambitions other than to get its children into Ivy League schools.
Unbeknownst to the Republican establishment, the voters who had elected them to office were increasingly unsure about what our country had become and where it was headed. They wanted to challenge the liberal establishment over the “we” questions.
Trump is a transformative figure because he is a powerful cultural symbol and knows how to use rhetoric to dramatize his role—like Obama, in his own way. Trump is forcing a debate about what kind of country we want to be. This is why he’s the focus of the media’s compulsive attention. It’s why he polarizes. It’s why voter turnout was so high yesterday.
Many of my friends, liberal and conservative, find the intensity of this political moment unsettling. I say it is long overdue, and we should be grateful to Trump for upsetting the old, one-sided liberal dictates about what could and could not be said about our country. He is making us address the most important question in any democratic polity: Who are we?
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.