A Shock to the System Is Coming. Which Party Will Be Ready for It?
"There was no red wave. There wasn’t even a red splash. Against most expectations — and in the face of daunting fundamentals — the Democratic Party held its own against a hungry and aggressive Republican Party. It flipped seats and chambers in Michigan; it stood its ground in Virginia and Wisconsin; and it fought Republicans to a standstill in Arizona and a runoff in Georgia.
It’s not that Election Day was perfect for Democrats, but even with defeats in Florida, Texas and crucial House races in New York, Democrats could still say that theirs was the strongest midterm performance for a president’s party since Republicans gained seats in the 2002 elections under George W. Bush and the best one for Democrats since the party gained Senate seats under John F. Kennedy in 1962.
But for all of the drama of this election — and for all of its very real stakes — it’s also true that 2022 is yet another cycle in which the overall electoral picture changed less than you might imagine. There was no landslide, no decisive victory for one side over the other. The same was true in 2020: Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump has to be balanced against significant defeats in the House. Even 2018 — an ostensible “wave” election — saw something of a split decision, with a Democratic victory in the House of Representatives and a Republican win in the Senate.
Go back to 2016, or 2012, and you’ll see the same: an almost evenly divided country, where no advance — and no retreat — moves farther than a few feet.
That neither the Republican nor the Democratic coalition can achieve anything like hegemony over the political system is unusual in the history of American politics. Think of how we mark political time to begin with: by referring to eras of party and ideological dominance.
For example, what we typically remember as the “Era of Good Feelings,” the period stretching from the end of the War of 1812 to the 1824 presidential election, was essentially a period of one-party leadership of American government.
Remember, this was not actually an era of good feelings. There was serious disagreement and political conflict and, in particular, a burgeoning sectional divide between the (mostly) free North and the (mostly) slave South. For example, the year that James Monroe ran unopposed for re-election was the same year, 1820, that Americans nearly came to blows over the expansion of slavery into Missouri and other Western territories.
The phrase “good feelings,” then, refers less to the absence of political conflict than it does the total collapse of partisan competition among elites.
After 16 years on the sidelines, under the Democratic-Republican presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and John Jay had diminished to little more than a rump faction confined to its remaining strongholds in New England. Staunch Federalist opposition to the second Anglo-American war — the governor of Massachusetts even refused to send troops to fight the British — had pushed the party to a breaking point with the public. In 1816, the last Federalist to run for president, Rufus King of New York — who fought in the Revolution, served in the Continental Congress and signed the Constitution — lost to James Monroe (yet another Virginian) in a popular and electoral landslide.
With Federalist defeat came Democratic-Republican ascendancy. The planters, slave owners, farmers and merchants who powered the Democratic-Republican Party to victory in six consecutive elections had seized a commanding role in the political and social development of the United States.
If hegemony is the process by which one class obtains and then exercises political, intellectual and moral leadership over the whole of society — “to such a depth,” wrote the social and literary critic Raymond Williams, “that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense” — then you could say that the Democratic-Republicans had achieved something like hegemony in American society, if only for a time.
Other, more recent periods of hegemony in American politics include the New Deal order and the subsequent Reagan Revolution, which structured the terms of American politics and policymaking for nearly two decades after Ronald Reagan left office in 1989. Back in the early to mid-19th century, we see something similar in the long dominance of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren’s Democratic Party, which only collapsed on the eve of the sectional crisis.
If there’s any period similar to ours, with two evenly matched coalitions, each struggling to attain a lasting victory over the other, it is in the late 19th century, with its sharp partisan polarization, closely contested national elections and astonishingly high turnout. Then, as now, the margins were narrow; then, as now, the fights were fierce; and then, as now, the combination of the two pushed some of the strongest and most ideological partisans to try to rig the game in their favor.
What changed things, then, was essentially a shock to the system. The collapse of the Populist movement, the rise of Jim Crow in the South and the nationwide suppression of labor cemented the grasp of industrial capital — working mostly through the Republican Party — on the entire political system. It would take a catastrophe, the Great Depression, to fully loosen it.
I think we are in for another round — or two or three or four — of close, hard-fought election cycles with no decisive victory or defeat for either party. But something will come; something — whether economic or environmental or constitutional — will shock the system and give one coalition or the other the chance to expand and attempt to win hegemony over the political system.
The question in my mind is which forces in this country are best organized, either for good or for ill, to take advantage when that something eventually hits.