No matter which party triumphs in tomorrow’s midterm elections, we’re likely to learn the wrong lessons. That’s because our political polarization is so strong that we’re no longer arguing over policy differences – we’re arguing over whether the other side is even worthy of having a discussion. The answer, from both sides, seems to be no.
Let’s assume the Democrats win big tomorrow. That win will be due to a few factors: the historical pressures running against incumbent parties; the toxicity of President Trump; a media climate dedicated in extraordinary fashion to the Democratic agenda. But that’s not what Democrats are likely to believe.
They’re likely to believe that they won based on a radical political agenda – Medicare for all, free college education, and higher taxes. This will drive them to ever more extreme approaches to policy, all of which will be far outside the scope of any electoral mandate. President Obama approached his 2008 win not as a victory for his then-unifying brand of politics, but as a victory for his far-Left progressivism; Democrats will do the same.
Democrats are also likely to believe they won because they are servants of light in a fight against bigotry and oppression. This has been the main thrust of their campaign, after all: Donald Trump as overarching threat to the republic, backed by his craven minions in the Republican Party. This means Democrats will double down on their othering of Republicans and moderates – all of whom, in their viewpoint, have become untouchable worshippers of Trumpian Evil. After all, they spent the last election cycle ripping those people, and won. So othering via ugly identity politics must be a viable political strategy.
Meanwhile, if Republicans win, they’re unlikely to attribute that victory to the real factors: a historically terrific economy, as well as a historically disconnected Democratic Party.
Republicans, instead, are likely to believe first, that President Trump’s affect is deeply effective. They’ll see his approach as the only worthwhile approach to politics – they’ll believe that without Trump’s tweets, Republicans would have been relegated to the minority. In one sense, they’ll be right: Trump has the rare capacity to drive the absolute worst human behavior in his opponents. But if they truly think that Republican politicians are generally capable of Trump’s unique brew of charming colloquialism and brutal demagoguery, they’re wrong – and they’ll divide America further.
Second, Republicans are likely to believe that a victory means they have forged a lasting coalition capable of duplication across time – which means they don’t need to reach out to new demographic groups. Instead, they can double down on populist grievance politics and carry the day. That’s untrue. Grievance politics only works so long as the other side is less motivated by grievance than your own. And power tends to lend opposition more grievance over time.
If Republicans win tomorrow, they should learn that good policy combined with Democratic radicalism is a winning combination; if Democrats win, they should learn that Republican toxicity comes back around eventually. Instead, both sides will take away that more polarization is the solution to all that ails. And that means we can look forward to a worse political environment for the foreseeable future.