It’s hard to say what the future holds, but two things we know for certain about the stakes of this year’s midterms are stark. If Democrats win resoundingly on Tuesday, the power they gain will definitely serve as a counterweight to the dark forces Republicans have embraced on their descent into authoritarianism. We also know that under any other scenario Republicans will recommit to all of the corrosive behaviors and ambitions that have energized Democrats, made President Trump historically unpopular, and left American democracy threadbare.
Democrats are vying for power across the country and at all levels of government, but the main battleground—and the most frequently cited benchmark—is in the House of Representatives. Before President Trump’s election, conventional wisdom held that Democrats would be locked out of power in the House until the next round of redistricting, after the 2020 Census. Republicans gerrymandered districts in swing states so aggressively after the last redistricting that their vulnerability right now reveals something important about their performance in office, two years in to unified GOP control.
Why, in an improving economy, are Republicans in retreat? Why is Trump underwater? Why, more importantly, do the people who disapprove of Trump dislike him so intensely? There are many answers to these questions, but they all stem from the basic character of the GOP in 2018.
Trump is a singularly nasty and corrupt individual, but he also embodies something that has been clear about Republican politics for years: Advancing the conservative agenda any further—cutting taxes on the wealthy, slashing public services—requires more and more obfuscation, fewer and fewer voters, and increasingly naked white identity politics.
If Donald Trump didn’t exist, Republicans would have had to invent him. Or someone like him. The alternative would have been to moderate the conservative agenda in meaningful ways, and the party has been uncompromising in that regard.
It is hard to disentangle what it is about the Republican government that has Democrats dominating the generic ballot—whether it’s the contempt for democracy, the lies, the racism and divisiveness, the corruption, or the unflinching commitment to a plutocratic agenda. But that’s because at bottom, these are all interwoven phenomena.
Voters who are disgusted by the racism and the lying will be voting for higher values, but they’ll also be voting against the method by which Republicans have advanced their legislative objectives: Trump lies about everything, but down-ballot Republicans lie about their agenda. They claim to support protections for people with pre-existing conditions, when they have sued and voted repeatedly to eliminate those protections. Republicans cut corporate and high-income taxes, and then claimed to be hard at work on a middle-income tax cut that doesn’t exist. Trump is the king of racist incitement, but the party has united to whip up a panic about a group of impoverished, brown-skinned migrants, 1000 miles away, and they have done so in order to keep their substantive agenda off the airwaves and front pages.
Voters who are rebelling against Republican corruption and voter suppression tactics are voting to protect the democracy itself, but they are also voting against the purpose of the registration purges, restrictive ID laws, and official intimidation—which is to assure that an agenda that does not command majority support can withstand successive elections.
So if Democrats win handily enough tomorrow to retake the House, and flip a bunch of governorships, it will be a repudiation of the whole comprehensive scheme. Whether Republicans choose to interpret it that way is another matter. Where they retain power after the election, they are likely to recycle the same immoral strategy, only with greater fervor. Trump won’t cease to exist, and neither will GOP donors demanding tax cuts at any cost. But Democrats will have real beachheads from which to mount offensives beyond intermittent election days. They will be able to expand voting rights and health care coverage in states and conduct oversight and block legislation and showcase inclusive, democratic values.
If they do not retake the House, though, the crisis will accelerate dramatically. It is worth pulling back from the endless speculation about who will control Congress in January to note that the question of who voters want to control Congress next year is almost entirely uncontested. Nobody disputes that Democrats enjoy a historically large generic polling lead, and that, when all the ballots are counted, more people will have voted for Democrats.
What awaits us if the margins leave Democrats locked out of power—if despite turning out a majority of voters, Democrats remain a congressional minority—is horrific to fathom. The country will have expressed its preference for Democrats once again, but the only idea that will have been ratified is that rampant corruption, lies, racism, and plutocracy, while unpopular, can carry the day over the will of a historically engaged majority whose votes have simply been discounted.
Republicans won’t read their fading popularity as a sign that their approach to politics is expiring, but that it doesn’t require popular support so long as propaganda, racial division, and voter suppression are available tools. Democrats, in this scenario, will face a crossroads that lead to either defeatism or radicalism, because the middle-road of the Trump resistance—organizing, mobilizing, canvassing, persuasion, and the building of a majority coalition—will have dead-ended for two sequential elections.
That would be enormously destabilizing. Without a mobilized resistance, there will be no incentive against letting corporate interests loot the country, kicking millions of people off of their health insurance, firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and abandoning the rule of law more broadly. A radicalized majority that dominates the most economically productive parts of the country would create an entirely different kind of volatility. There’s a reason prominent Democrats keep saying 2018 is the most important election in recent history, and this is what they mean. The fight isn’t over if Democrats clean house on Tuesday, but the good fight might well be over if they don’t.