What do the midterm elections mean for the Madison Initiative? As a private foundation, we are legally bound not to engage in or support any electioneering activities on behalf of (or opposed to) any candidate or party. But the outcome of the election obviously has implications for our goal of creating more space for negotiation and compromise in Congress. Here is my take on the results (and to be clear these are my views and not that of the Foundation or even other members of the Madison Initiative team).
First and foremost, it is getting harder to argue that the GOP is an asymmetrically polarized party after an election in which the Republicans captured seven seats (thus far) from the Democrats to take control of the Senate; increased their House majority to at least 60 seats (their largest majority in four generations); secured 31 governor’s offices, including those of Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts; and now have majority control in 69 of the 99 state legislative bodies. That doesn’t look like a political party that’s thumbing its nose at the median voter to me.
Second, it will be interesting to see whether the GOP surge generates any doubts in the minds of those funders, observers, and advocates on the left who have been heretofore convinced that the only way for Congress to work productively again is to sweep progressive majorities into the House and Senate and sustain them over time. To my mind those holding this view are indulging in what David Brooks has aptly described as, “the No. 1 political fantasy in America today, which has inebriated both parties. It is the fantasy that the other party will not exist. It is the fantasy that you are about to win a 1932-style victory that will render your opponents powerless.”
Third, and picking up on Brooks’ theme from the other side: In their moment of triumph, Republicans would do well to remember that this outcome was more or less predictable, in direction if not entirely in scale, given the recurring tides of American politics. 2014 was, after all, the second midterm in an increasingly unpopular presidential administration with the nation confronting vexing problems at home and abroad. Just as George W. Bush had to acknowledge the “thumping” he and his party took in 2006, Barack Obama and his colleagues received one last week—whether they are prepared to admit it or not.
Fourth, I continue to be struck by the way we are sorting ourselves into a red America and a blue America. Consider the map developed by National Journal of party control of House seats in the upcoming Congress. We see a vast expanse of predominantly rural red hinterlands interspersed with blue enclaves on both coasts, post-industrial cities, and the Upper Mississippi Valley.
In sum, the midterms underscored the fact that the country remains deeply and more or less evenly divided. Both parties are in position to win significant portion of the offices in play at the federal and state level in any given election, and—lest we forget—this is not necessarily a bad thing insofar as it supports democratic responsiveness and accountability.
But these same developments underscore an urgent challenge: to figure out how our system of government can work when control of it is both shared and hotly contested by political parties of approximately equal strength that have substantially different visions for the future of our country and are pursuing them from different geographic bases.
We need to redouble efforts to support the ability of legislators in Washington to reach workable compromises—not because they are naturally inclined to, but because they need to if our system of government is going to be able to address the problems we face. I don’t see any other way forward.