Friday, November 9, 2018

MATTHEW BOOSE: The midterms were about identity

The midterm elections were not just a referendum on the Trump administration. In large part, voters went to the polls on Tuesday to vote for which America they want to live in: one defined by tradition and the rule of law, or one defined by multiculturalism and open borders.

In a remarkable moment, the sitting president and his predecessor barnstormed across the country to stump for these opposing visions for America’s future: Trump, the unabashed advocate of “America First,” versus Obama, the progressive globalist.

Neither “America First” nor globalism won in a land-slide, but the red and blue tribes both claimed smaller victories. The split verdict reflects America’s ambivalence about which way to go. The Red camp, driven by rural voters, non-college educated whites, and men, issued a rebuke to the progressive left’s multicultural agenda in major governor’s races and the Senate. But the Resistance, driven by minorities and college-educated suburban and urban whites, especially women, took back the House and elected a historically diverse lower chamber.

The midterms showed the growing importance of identity in American politics and elections as new coalitions continue to form in the electorate along geographical, cultural, and gender lines.

Divisions along these lines exploded in 2016, and they have been growing for years. But the midterms came against the backdrop of two years of rapidly deepening divisions that seemed to get starkly worse just weeks before Election Day. The run-up to the election was marked by a migrant caravan scare that heightened tensions over immigration, while Brett Kavanaugh’s brutal nomination exposed a growing gender fault-line.

While healthcare and the economy were top issues, racial and gender divisions weighed heavily on the election, particularly in the marquee races. Gubernatorial contests in Georgia and Florida where black candidates stood to make historic victories commanded the nation’s attention. These contests carried heavy racial overtones as Republicans Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp fended off accusations of discrimination and bigotry.

In Texas, Beto O’Rourke ran an energetic campaign to turn Texas into a progressive state by styling himself a white heir to Obama and a foil to Trump and his immigration agenda, courting minority voters along with both urban and suburban whites.

The importance of identity was reflected in the results as well as the composition of the electorate itself. Tuesday was an election of firsts, including the first Muslim women in Congress, the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor.

But the left’s biggest hopes faltered. The election showed both the strengths and the limits of the Resistance and its multicultural vision, and showed where it is most likely to triumph and most likely to hit a wall.

The defeat of O’Rourke and Andrew Gillum, and the likely concession of Stacey Abrams, showed the limited reach of multiculturalism in state-wide races where rural voters have a say. It’s telling that Democrats’ biggest victories, including the biggest wins for diversity, occurred in urban and suburban district races where they have power in numbers.

The Democrats made the biggest inroads in formerly Republican suburban districts where Trump’s immigration message failed to resonate. However, Republicans who had Trump’s endorsement cleaned house in the Senate and governor’s races in red states, largely on the strength of rural voters who responded with fury over Kavanaugh and the president’s relentless anti-immigration rhetoric in his closing arguments, two topics that highlight gender and racial divisions probably better than any others can.

While the Democrats won some competitive governor’s races in the Midwest, the hoped-for “Blue Wave” hit a barrier that was partly cultural and partly institutional. The Democrats were unable to reach rural America, and their performance in the upper chamber was limited by the institutional advantage that the rural minority enjoys in the Senate.

But while the “Blue Wave” didn’t exactly materialize, conservatives should not be complacent.

Even though O’Rourke lost, he came remarkably close to unseating the incumbent, closer than any Texas Democrat has in decades. Texas is just one southern state that seems to be well on its way to trending purple. A combination of immigration and urbanization could flip the state before long.

As divisions of identity and geography continue to grow, it’s likely that future elections will be defined even more closely along these lines. While this happens, squabbles between Red and Blue America will precipitate a debate over our electoral institutions as the left grows impatient with the pace of social change.

Rural voters have an advantage in the Senate and the left knows this. In what looks like a reprise of gripes about the electoral college in 2016, some progressives have called for reform in the upper chamber to better represent the majority.

Elsewhere, progressives have welcomed the news that Florida voted to enfranchise more than a million felons. These events hint at a looming institutional crisis in which Red and Blue America will fight over the rules of elections themselves.

These divisions also hint at a breakdown in democracy as a whole. An old criticism of democracy is that people generally vote for their self-interest instead of what’s good for everyone. With an electorate increasingly defined by identity groups, it wouldn’t be surprising if elections primarily become an arena in which different groups use the ballot as a cudgel to overpower one another.

In the end, America’s increasingly multicultural democracy might consume itself.

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