2022 mdterms

A Historical Reminder: Iron Political Trends Sometimes Turn to Dust

Vice-President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon riding high not long before both men resigned in disgrace. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

For a party that won a governing trifecta in 2020 and is on a legislative roll in Congress right now, Democrats sure seem doom struck. Many can’t seem to shake the underperformance they experienced last November, when their expected landslide over Donald Trump vanished, and the House majority faded, and it took two close January runoff wins to conquer the Senate. Most of all, there’s angst about the failure of Democrats to make the expected state legislative gains, which in turn will have a negative impact for a decade, after redistricting is completed.

Veteran columnist Al Hunt paints an even darker picture, wherein Democrats must figure out what went wrong in 2020, or they are screwed: “Republicans believe they could add a dozen U.S. House seats and control major state legislatures for the rest of the decade. For Democrats, this makes it an imperative to devise a counterstrategy to address their 2020 shortcomings.”

Like some other high-profile observers, Hunt suspects Democratic “wokeness” interfered with the natural affinity of working-class voters for the Democratic economic agenda (such observers have been saying that for years to shut up critics of racism and sexism, but whatever). But prescriptions aside, it’s worth remembering that a snail’s-eye view of political trends after a single election can be perilously wrong. Indeed, you can go back at ten-year intervals to see how the unexpected should be expected:

In 2011, Democrats were reeling after a 2010 GOP landslide. They lost 63 seats and control of the House, six Senate seats, and six governorships, along with 20 state legislative chambers, at the worst possible time, right before redistricting. A new buzzy grassroots movement aligned with the GOP, calling itself the tea party, was in ascendance. Only the size of the 2006 and 2008 Democratic landslides (another trend many erroneously thought would last for years) kept the debacle for being even worse.

In 2012, Barack Obama was reelected, Democrats (who were widely expected to lose control of the Senate) gained two net Senate seats, and made modest but very real gains in state legislatures. Then Democrats lost the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, before winning back everything last year. In the end, 2010 was no more prophetic than the two Democratic wave elections that immediately preceded it, and redistricting setbacks were real but not fatal.

Going back another decade, in 2001, the political landscape looked a lot like it does now: in partisan equipoise. Republican had a trifecta at the beginning of the year, but lost the Senate within months, when a senator switched parties. George W. Bush was not terribly popular, though he did have some early legislative wins, and redistricting was expected to help Republicans modestly.

Then 9/11 happened, Bush’s approval ratings went through the roof, and in 2002, Republicans made rare midterm gains and resolidified their control of Congress, while winning a majority of state legislative seats for the first time in 50 years. Bush won reelection in 2004, and then the aforementioned Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008 happened. Virtually none of these developments were in any significant way foreseeable in early 2001.

In 1991, Republicans had held the White House for three terms but didn’t control either congressional chamber. They developed a clever redistricting alliance with Black Democrats, who cooperated in “bleaching” (increasing the white voting population of) many districts in order to “pack” Democrats into supersafe majority-Black districts.

But in 1992, Democrats registered their first presidential win since 1976, before losing both chambers of Congress (the House for the first time since 1954), ten governorships, and 15 state legislative chambers in 1994. Yet Bill Clinton won a comfortable reelection in 1996, and in 1998, Democrats became the first White House party to gain House seats in a midterm election since 1934. The decade was a wild ride.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan stood astride American politics like a colossus, using an extremely arcane tool called budget reconciliation to enact huge batches of legislation while dividing Democrats. Republicans had won control of the Senate in 1980, for the first time since 1954. But in 1982, Republicans lost ground in both congressional chambers, and lost seven net governorships, before Reagan won 49 states in being reelected in 1984.

Then in 1986, Democrats gained eight Senate seats to retake that chamber, while losing eight governorships. Go figure.

Finally, in 1971, a Republican realignment seemed to be well under way as southern and urban white ethnic voters fled the Democratic Party. In 1972, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew won 49 states and 61 percent of the popular vote.

Less than a year later, in 1973, Agnew resigned after being caught accepting kickbacks dating back to his days as Baltimore county executive. Then in 1974, Nixon was forced to resign as well, just before a Democratic landslide gave them 60 Senate seats and more than two-thirds of House seats.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a half-century of experience shows that all sorts of powerful political trends have quickly subsided or have been reversed with little or no warning. Just when one major party seems to be putting it all together, its fortunes have gone straight to hell, sometimes by design and strategy, but often by luck and external circumstances. Today’s Democrats (and Republicans) would be wise to keep looking ahead, lest they collide with an oncoming locomotive.

Iron Political Trends Sometimes Turn to Dust