Gary Abernathy: Democrats risk misreading the meaning of the midterms

Whether last November’s 40-seat pickup by Democrats in the House of Representatives represented a convincing win or an underperformance, it most certainly was not a repudiation of President Donald Trump — any more than Trump’s victory in 2016 represented a dramatic shift in America’s values, beliefs or principles.

In 2016, as Trump’s victory was becoming clear, CNN’s Van Jones declared: “This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.”

Two years later, dissatisfied with the early returns in the midterm elections, Jones lamented: “This is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking. The hope has been that the antibodies would kick in — that this sort of infestation of hatred and division would draw a response from the American people, really in both parties, to say ‘no’ and ‘no more.’ That does not seem to be happening tonight.”

Jones is an intelligent and passionate analyst, but his emotional reaction to the past two election cycles overestimated the mood swings of America’s electorate, which, in reality, do not vary so dramatically as to require bipolar medication. The America that elected Trump president in 2016 was not so different from the nation that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and reelected him in 2012.

The “whitelash” allegedly responsible for Trump’s victory should, by such reasoning, have occurred in 2008 to prevent Obama’s election in the first place, or it should have risen up in 2012 to derail his reelection. What people must come to grips with is that Obama’s victories did not signal a great liberal revolution, any more than Trump’s success signaled a momentous right-wing revolt or backlash.

When Trump won in 2016, many commentators from the left lamented a colossal step backward from the progressive gains they thought had been made, while observers from the right celebrated a reassertion of conservatism. Both conclusions are wrong, and misread a population that is largely pragmatic and mostly absent a hyperpartisan core, except at the fringes which, sadly, control the conversation.

New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and company would be wise to avoid the mistakes almost always made by the party that finds itself regaining power, misreading the results as a mandate for radical change. The 2018 election was little more than a typical outcome for the first midterm under a new president; with the GOP picking up Senate seats, it was arguably a disappointment for Democrats.

What the midterm election did not represent was a desire by most voters to launch endless additional investigations or impeach the president. It was, at best, a minor course correction by a nation that hasn’t budged much politically in the past 30 years. The election of Obama as the first black president was more a sign of the right candidate running against the right opponent than evidence that America wouldn’t put an African American in the Oval Office until then.

Who knows, Trump may well have triumphed in 2012 had he not merely flirted with the idea of a presidential run at the time. The same America that elected the dignified and inclusive Obama also elected the pugnacious and insular Trump, with significant numbers of former Obama supporters voting for Trump. It is this seeming contradiction that we must understand and embrace if we are ever to become a more united country.

The whole sum and substance of today’s Democratic Party seems defined by driving Trump from office, preferably before 2020, as though doing so would right all wrongs. But even if party leaders accomplish that goal — whether now or via the traditional vehicle of an election — it will not signal a vanquishing of the forces that elected Trump in the first place. They will still be here, strong and vital, as they have been for decades.

I know many moderate and conservative-leaning voters who do not care for Trump personally. But they are likely to vote for him in 2020 because they generally approve of what he has done as president. They don’t see him as a far-right conservative or a white xenophobe. Even as they detest his style, they regard him as a pragmatist and will find him preferable to the far-left candidate the Democrats will almost certainly and mistakenly nominate.

Our national political pendulum moves in small, quiet strokes like a grandfather clock, rather than swinging in wide, frightening arcs like the blade from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. Our presidential victors and losers are decided by relatively small margins in a handful of states, and both Obama and Trump were chosen without Americans collectively lurching left or right.

Those, like Van Jones, who hope for an uprising against Trump will be as constantly disappointed as those who mistakenly hoped that Trump’s ascendancy represented a repudiation of the left. We are all still here, on both sides — fighting for what we hold dear, but, in reality, separated by fewer differences than the most strident voices would have us believe.

Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, is a freelance writer based in Hillsboro, Ohio.


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