Election night, folks — America decides! Except, it doesn’t. On November 8, 2022, as on November 3, 2020, the polls closed, the votes came in and, er, nobody appeared to have won. Everybody now looks nervously again to the state of Georgia, which will be decided in a runoff in four weeks’ time.
The people have spoken but once again nobody knows quite what they’ve said. Americans have spent decades arguing that Washington doesn’t work and their political system is broken. Well, they’re right. America is indeed polarized and terribly divided, as this week’s results show. It’s not just the politics, though: it’s the elections, stupid.
The most powerful and sophisticated democracy in the world can’t get the basics right. They can’t tabulate the votes very well. In Maricopa County, a vital part of the swing state of Arizona, the voting machines malfunctioned, triggering delays — and inevitable outcries from angry Republicans who think the system is rigged against them. Cock-up — or conspiracy? You decide! The only clear winner of each American election is paranoia.
One problem is that, with at least a third of Americans now posting in their votes ahead of time, there isn’t really election “night” as such. It’s more of a season. The much-hyped television debates between candidates are often silly, since large chunks of the electorate have already voted by the time they are held. Different states have different rules and processes for counting mail-ins and other votes. As a result, in some of the most decisive states, more early voting means more late counting, which means more mystery and suspicion. In a sane and functioning democracy, both sides would agree to a new set of federal rules to regulate modern voting habits. But America is a long way from democratic sanity.
What is glaringly obvious is that most media pundits don’t know what they are talking about. The polls in fact said all along that the Senate would be very close, yet a great many conservative and even progressive analysts spent the days before the election predicting with utmost confidence that a great Republican “red tsunami” was about to crash over Joe Biden’s sorry head.
They were wrong. As election night dragged on, the increasingly disgruntled right-wing heads on Fox News started talking instead about a “red mirage” or “a ripple.” In Pennsylvania, arguably the most important swing state in American politics, Republicans lost the governorship and the Senate race. It turns out that Pennsylvanians didn’t mind all that much that now Senator-elect John Fetterman, who recently had a stroke, wasn’t altogether compos mentis. For a majority, it seems, the key point was that Fetterman was not Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV quack whom Donald Trump supported.
But if right-wing partisans were too optimistic on Tuesday morning, they were too gloomy come the early hours of Wednesday. The Republican Party appears to have taken the House of Representatives, albeit by a smaller margin than expected. In New York, a state that Biden carried by more than 20 percent two years ago, they gained several House seats and very narrowly lost the gubernatorial race.
The Republicans also stormed Florida, continuing the Trump-era trend of winning ever larger numbers of Hispanic voters, which represents a long-term headache for the Democrats. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the man many want to take the Republican nomination away from Trump in 2024, enjoyed extraordinarily large swings in his favor in normally Democratic districts such as Miami-Dade.
Across the country, in fact, Republicans made gains among traditionally Democratic minority groups, although these swings were not quite as dramatic as the excitable analysts expected. In a close nationwide election, with so many races breaking in so many different ways, each side will always have disappointments and consolations.
But in the fervid political atmosphere of twenty-first-century America, any sober analysis of the results is difficult for Republicans and Democrats. These days, everything must be portrayed as triumph or disaster. Every loss at the ballot must be another descent towards authoritarianism, civil war or American Gomorrah. Every victory is a last-ditch win for freedom over tyranny. It’s not surprising that voter participation keeps going up. America’s politicians are bullying the public against apathy. Don’t you care about the end of western civilization?
Democrats bet the House — and lost, just — on lecturing everybody at every opportunity about the menace that Trump poses to their country and the world. The international media, enthralled as it is by the idea of evil right-wing Americana, lapped that up. Such talk also seemed to fire up the Democratic youth vote, as did the relentless and hugely expensive advertising drives about the threat Republicans pose to legal abortion following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Democratic pundits — and Republicans who desperately want to move on from the Age of the Donald — will point to the failure of high-profile Trump-backed candidates, notably in Pennsylvania and in Arizona, and call it a humiliation for Trumpism and the nationalist right. If only it were that simple. The truth is that Trumpy nationalists thrived elsewhere — in Ohio, for instance, the author-turned-populist J.D. Vance won easily.
Democrats tried very hard to denounce as beyond the pale the “election denier” Republican candidates — that is, those who’ve repeated or even refused to disavow Trump’s claims about the 2020 election being “stolen.” But the truth is that Democrats are also guilty of fouling up the democratic “norms” they pretend to revere. They’ve just being doing it for longer.
To drum up support in the last days before Tuesday’s vote, senior Democrats, chiefly Barack Obama, reheated their trusty “democracy is on the ballot” line. In other words, vote Democrat or you’re anti-democratic — or an enabler of fascism.
Biden has sounded even more alarmist in his rhetoric. He suggested that perfectly reasonable state reforms in Georgia to make ballots more secure amounted to “Jim Crow 2.0” — a racist attempt to suppress black voters.
It’s easy to forget that, after winning the White House, he presented himself as the “Uniter-in-Chief.” “We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” he said at his inauguration on January 20 last year. “For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
Where did that Joe go? The Biden of 2022 has spent what little energy he has suggesting that his political opponents, Trump and his Make America Great Again movement, are extremists and mortal enemies of the republic. In other words, vote Republican and you’re anti-republic.
“The Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans,” he declared in a now infamous speech in Philadelphia on September 1. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.” In his better moments, Biden insists that he doesn’t mean all Republican voters. It just sounds a lot like he does.
The Democrats’ House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn took things further last week and reached for the Reductio ad Hitlerum. “This country is on track to repeat what happened in Germany when it was the greatest democracy going, elected a chancellor who then coopted their media… and that’s what’s going on in this country,” he said. The really scary news is that such ludicrous propaganda appears to some extent to have achieved its desired effect.
And watch carefully now as the party which spent the last few months knocking Republicans for 2020 conspiracy theories start spreading half-baked stories about “voter suppression” in districts they lost. Look out for Stacey Abrams, the part-time erotic novelist and one-time contender to be vice president, who has been saying that she was unfairly robbed of the governorship of Georgia for four years. She got beaten in the same race again last night, and easily, but it’s safe to assume she’ll still be crying foul in 2048. In fact, she’s gotten her quibbles in early. When asked why she seemed to be underperforming with black voters, Abrams suggested that, actually, her black supporters are “often discounted” and that “this year black men have been a very targeted population for misinformation.” The difference between her and Trump is that the media doesn’t tend to put the word “baseless” in front of the word “claims” when reporting what she’s saying.
The muddled monster of American democracy lurches on to the next presidential cycle in 2024. Trump is expected to announce his candidacy any day now, and his party will continue to wrestle with the electoral conundrum he poses. Trump is the Republicans’ greatest asset at the ballot — with his extraordinary talent for rallying the base. He’s also their greatest weakness — with his unique ability to put off independent voters. They can’t win, with or without him. Following his success this week, Ron DeSantis will come under renewed pressure to challenge Trump for the nomination. That will be very difficult.
Meanwhile, Biden, who turns eighty this month, has emerged once more as a hapless winner, even though like Trump he just lost the House. Everybody knows the president is a bit of disaster and too old to go on. But on he goes. The Trump vs Biden contest of 2020 depressed almost everyone — two septuagenarians insulting each other in the middle of the pandemic. In the current economic climate, round two is unlikely to provide more cheer. The safest bet is that the result will be bitterly contested.