As a result of the midterm elections Republicans locked in a small-but-controlling majority in the House of Representatives, while Democrats retained a bare margin in the Senate. Why Americans were so turned-off by Democrats, but refrained from handing Republicans the overwhelming win they expected, will be a matter for self-reflection on each side of the aisle (Magic 8 Ball predicts: both will double-down on being wrong). But the election results stand as an expression of overwhelming lack of confidence in the major parties, with a resulting breather for the country resulting from the split decision’s ensuing, and quite welcome, gridlock.
“The GOP takeover of the House will give Republicans the power to block efforts by Democrats to approve new regulations or taxes on the fossil-fuel industry, private-equity funds, tobacco makers and drug manufacturers,” The Wall Street Journal‘s Brody Mullins and John D. McKinnon noted last week. “What’s more, with President Biden in the White House and Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in the Senate, Washington overall isn’t expected to do much for the next two years.”
That’s good news for Americans baffled by Democrats’ insistence on treating the U.S. economy as something between a laboratory experiment and a toy train set, with lawmakers indulging their whims through serial rounds of life-altering policy moves. “The hurdle for Democrats was high with 76 percent in ABC News exit poll results rating the economy negatively,” the news network reported of exit polls. “Just 44 percent approved of Biden’s work in office, among the lowest midterm presidential approval ratings in 40 years.” Those disappointed voters will get a respite.
“With Republicans set to take control of the House and Biden’s Democrats maintaining a razor-thin edge in the Senate, the president must now find a way to work with GOP lawmakers to get things done,” Kate Davidson commented for Politico. “Rather than driving the economic policy agenda on Capitol Hill, Biden will be along for the ride—forced to grapple with issues that Republicans care about, or else settle for gridlock.”
But as the GOP’s slim majority in the House demonstrates, Republicans didn’t exactly convince the country that they were the cavalry riding to the rescue. Their main selling point seems to have been that they weren’t Democrats, and that was just enough to gain a few congressional seats. Voters were almost as leery of the opposition party as they were of the one in power.
“Abortion was one factor,” ABC News found in the same exit polling that saw Democrats floundering on economics. The majority of Americans are broadly pro-choice, and those who strongly care about the issue voted for Democrats. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, some Republicans‘ emphasis on abortion restrictions hurt them, especially with younger voters, despite pre-election backpedaling.
Republicans’ emphasis on election denialism and former president Donald Trump also did damage. “Voters by 61-35 percent said Biden was legitimately elected,” said ABC News. They didn’t want to revisit an over-and-done election, especially on behalf of a former White House resident every bit as unpopular as the current guy. Notably, Republicans who left the past in the past and avoided ballot-box grievances to campaign on policies did well, such as Joe Lombardo, who flipped the Nevada governor’s office by focusing on the economy, crime, and school choice.
But, in many cases, voters had unpalatable options. They responded by splitting the difference and leaving the federal government divided between feuding factions so that neither can get much done.
That’s not to say that Americans held a national meeting and decided to steer a middle course between brands of incompetent craziness. Frankly, Zoom couldn’t handle the traffic. In fact, lots of Americans join in the lunacy, endorsing terrible economic fantasies, bizarre conspiracy theories, and a deep-seated and even violent loathing of those who embrace competing brands of political cultiness. Americans are nuts, but, fortunately, they balance each other out by breaking along fairly even lines in their madness. The result is an unintentional crowd-sourced moderation that prevents the worst excesses of either major political faction, at least on a national scale.
“Through the magical mechanism of mass voting, Americans express a persistent impulse toward divided government,” marvels David Von Drehle at the Washington Post. “Are we, by some wonderfully stable group-mind, protecting ourselves from politics gone wild? Knowing how closely divided we are, our atomized wisdom adds up vote by vote to a hobble for both parties—binds them in an endless three-legged race, rather than risk winner-take-all.”
The resulting gridlock isn’t intentional, and it’s certainly not coordinated. It’s also not stable—a percentage point or two in either direction, even a few redrawn congressional seats, and we’ll easily be back to dominance by one horrible faction over us all. Then its leaders will inevitably insist they’ve been handed a mandate to inflict their ideological fever dreams on the helpless public.
The gridlock also isn’t total. The increasingly autocratic nature of the presidency allows enormous room for the nation’s chief executive to act unilaterally. Through executive orders and memoranda, presidents enact policy changes that should go through Congress (if they’re permissible at all) in a manner befitting elective monarchs. The only real check on that power is the willingness of the courts to remind the country that, while rule-by-decree is a form of government, it’s not one permitted by the Constitution.
But Congress, at least, is very limited by partisan divisions in what it can do.
Interestingly, Americans claim they don’t like gridlock and want a Congress that gets things done. “A slim majority of Americans are worried that the midterm elections will result in divided government and gridlock,” Axios/Ipsos pollsters noted in October. The problem, of course, is that what Americans want done doesn’t all come off the same menu; what roughly half of them favor enrages the other half. The resulting unhappiness is a large part of why, after the recent midterms, Democrats will no longer control both houses of Congress along with the presidency.
So, gridlock, with all of its faults and instability, is what we have, and we should be thankful for that. A hobbled Congress isn’t a policy, it’s certainly not a solution, and it’s not sustainable for the long term. But gridlock can give us a bit of a national breather, and that may be the best we can hope for from a destructive political system and a divided electorate.