The doomsayers weren't entirely wrong
Be grateful that the Red Wave washed out, but don't overlook the fight ahead
Doomsayers often get it wrong. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention. (Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash)
You probably don’t recall the last day of March in 1998, but that’s when some folks in Garland, Texas — people who were said by a local newspaper to dress fully in white, wear cowboy boots and drive luxury cars — expected to witness the most important event in history: the end of the world as it had been known. They were followers of Chen Tao, a sect claiming that God would descend in a space ship and appear on television screens across North America at 12:01 a.m. that day, then show up in person ten hours later in Garland — specifically, at 3513 Ridgedale Drive, the comfortable suburban home of the cult’s leader.1
But He didn’t show, as you may now note, so a lot of the disappointed cult members quit both Chen Tao and Garland, maybe seeking more reliable enlightenment elsewhere. Others, however, simply revised the expected expiration date by a year and moved to western New York — where they gave up the white attire but kept the boots, we’re told, while insisting that a “God plane” would show up to save them. That, too, didn’t happen, as far as we know. It is not clear if Chen Tao belief persists today, though if I saw somebody in cowboy boots in western New York, I’d be suspicious.2
This notion of failed prophesies came to mind this week after Election Day, when the widely predicted Red Wave of Republican victories — but Fox News promised! — instead produced what pundits have variously described as a puddle, a sputter and a spurt. Many Democrats were giddy; President Biden pronounced it “a good day, I think, for democracy,” and there was much consternation in The Commentariat about flawed expectations. Yet there is little indication that those who foresaw a wave election will repent; indeed, the accepted protocol of punditry is simply to move on to the next date on the political calendar. Have you seen the lists handicapping the likely 2024 presidential contenders?
So, in fact, the world did not end on Nov. 8, 2022, as some of us may have worried it would, sort of. But you could also argue that it did not get much better. Maybe the prophets of doom about American politics just got the date wrong. Before we move on entirely from this midterm election, then — since, after all, we don’t even know just yet which party will control Congress — let’s think a bit about what lies ahead for a divided America, in politics and beyond.
That division is nearly an even split, as the vote totals show and as polls, unreliable as they may seem, have been telling us for a long time. In fact, any changes arising from this election — what may occur if Republicans run the Congress, for example — will occur not because of a groundswell in one direction or another, but because of just a few thousand votes here and there. Because so many races were won or lost by razor-thin margins, it would be foolish to conclude that this election gave one side or the other a clear path forward.
It has always been true that tiny shifts in vote totals can yield seismic results because of the way our government is set up. In 2000, the margin of 540 Florida votes delivered the Electoral College to George W. Bush rather than to Al Gore (with the help of five votes on the Supreme Court, of course). And in 2016, a shift of 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that is, 0.06 percent of the 137 million ballots cast nationwide — would have presented the presidency to Hillary Clinton.3
Imagine that: Abortion would still be a constitutional right; progress to combat climate change would be an accepted priority, and the Voting Rights Act would have been strengthened, not gutted. Also, Ukraine would be thriving, because Vladimir Putin would have had no reason to under-estimate the unity of the NATO alliance. Yeah, a few thousand votes can have life-or-death consequences.
But this year’s voting differs from those examples, because the divide in the country is so much more distinct now than it was even six years ago, let alone 22 years back. That split is as real today as it was before Election Day, and it wouldn’t be more likely to quickly disappear if a few more of the Democrats running for the House or Senate had been elected this week.
What Joe Biden described as a good day for democracy wasn’t necessarily a very good day for Joe Biden, then, or for the policies that would improve the nation he leads. Enhanced Republican strength on Capitol Hill, which we are facing whether or not the party controls either or both houses of Congress, will further stymie efforts to reduce the carbon use that is poisoning the planet. It will extend the economic injustice that has widened the wealth gap ever since the Reagan administration, hollowing out the American middle class. It will slow economic recovery under the fake rubric of fiscal prudence, since Republicans have vowed to shut down the government by refusing to pay its debts without massive spending cuts and policy changes. It will bolster the religious right’s drive to impose a narrow and judgmental version of Christianity on our diverse nation. It will leave in place the murderous reign of the gun industry.
In fact, while many of us had imagined an even worse outcome from the midterm, there are so many ways in which the election will leave America worse off than it has been before now that it may be hard to imagine why so many of us — including me — are exhaling in relief. Why don’t we feel terrible now?
Here’s good reason to breathe just a bit easier: because our democracy worked this week. Aside from glitches here and there that are typical in any election, there were no widespread impediments to voting, and there was no violence at the polls. Most candidates who lost are accepting the voters’ decisions, although some who might charitably be described as sore losers are following the Trumpian model of whining that a lost election must be a rigged election. The normalcy of the election, a notion advanced by a president who calmly accepted his party’s losses, will surely encourage rank-and-file voters to doubt the tall tales of vote-rigging when they are raised again.
True, some of those who opportunistically backed Donald Trump’s blathering lie that the 2020 presidential race was fixed — or who are stupid enough to actually believe it — got elected to office. Of the 370 Republican candidates in major races around the country who claimed to buy Trump’s Big Lie, at least 220 won, according to The New York Times. That means that more than one-third of the members of the U.S. House next year, and 17 U.S. senators, will be skeptics of American democracy (except for their own races, which were of course surely fair). More than two dozen governors, attorneys general or secretaries of state who are election deniers also won.4
That would be a more depressing thought at this point if it weren’t for the embarrassment the results caused the Liar-in-Chief, Donald Trump. The failure of most of Trump’s radical favorites seems to have prompted the right-wing communication empire of Rupert Murdoch to turn on Trump: a Wall Street Journal editorial called him “the Republican party’s biggest loser,” a New York Post column labeled him “the most profound vote repellent in modern American history” and even Fox News commentators, his greatest cheerleaders, chided him (if ever so gently) for helping to turn voters against the Republican party.5
Trump’s star is flickering. His unparalleled braggadocio can no longer conceal his actual political malfeasance. Other likely presidential candidates in his party — notably Ron DeSantis — seem not to be backing down. The Trump endorsement can no longer be seen as a ticket to victory, so echoing him will quickly lose appeal. In the American body politic, Trump has always been the most infectious agent; if he is removed, the virus he spiked will surely abate.
If, indeed, the Republican failure to convert advantage to triumph this week proves to be the undoing of Donald Trump, the consequence will be like the scattering of Anglo-Saxon troops and their quick surrender after King Harold of England took an arrow to the eye in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 — an event that helped cement the reputation of Harold’s nemesis, William the Conqueror.6
Mind you, our incumbent president is no Joseph the Conqueror, but he gained some breathing room and strength this week, and so did the nation. Biden has been a candidate in elections for more than a half-century, and has witnessed American democracy up close through victory and defeat. An election that makes his relations with Congress harder? A narrow win for opponents of his policies? The disappointment of losing some capable colleagues? None of that is a very big deal, ultimately, if the process works — if people can know that their votes will have an impact, and that they will be able to vote again in the next election, and maybe win then.
That’s the great victory that all of America won this week. The doomsayers didn’t get it right, but they weren’t entirely wrong, either: Americans have a long way to go before we can say we’re back to stay on the path to economic and social equity and environmental protection. But we’re still standing, and we will be when Election Day comes around next time. In fact, hope lives in this.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Peoria, Ill. (Journal Star, pjstar.com)
Fall River, Mass. (The Herald News, heraldnews.com)
Rapid City, S.D. (Rapid City Journal, via argusleader.com)
Eugene, Ore. (Register-Guard, registerguard.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Uncertainty about electric school buses
Federal funds are helping school districts get rid of dirty diesel-powered buses, but there are drawbacks, or at least pushback, Leslie Renken reports in the Journal Star. Example: When children from a tiny Illinois school went on a field trip on a chilly day, the new electric bus ran low on power because the heater drained more electricity than the driver expected — and the nearest recharging station provided only a slow charge. A diesel-powered bus had to be dispatched to bring the kids back home. (Yes, electric vehicle drivers need to think about charging. Does anybody remember ever running out of gas because you didn’t fill up before you left? Just sayin’.)
School pushing students to take AP classes
Educators in Massachusetts say more high school students should be taking advanced placement courses, which give them college credit before they get a secondary school diploma. So they’re taking steps to push students in the mid-range of academic achievement to register for the advanced courses, according to reporting in The Herald News by Audrey Cooney. The effort also has led to a doubling of the number of Black students in AP courses in the past five years, and a 63 percent growth rate of Hispanic students. (The article doesn’t say so, but this seems likely to also help families worried about the cost of a traditional four-year college course.)
School weighs selling books it had intended to destroy
The board of the Rapid City Area Schools, the state’s second-largest district, ordered all copies of five books to be withdrawn from shelves in the schools and destroyed, contending they weren’t appropriate for school-aged kids, according to reporting by the Rapid City Journal. Now it appears that copies of three of the books are on the board’s agenda as “surplus property” and will be sold. Among the offending five: “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” by Alison Bechdel, which made several lists as among the top books of the decade and became a Tony-winning Broadway musical, and 174 copies of “How Beautiful We Were: A Novel” by Imbolo Mbue, which tells of African villagefx living amid the degradation caused by an American oil company. (The writer of The Upstate American is a graduate of this school district and an alumnus of the Rapid City Journal. He is also a great admirer of Alison Bechdel, and cannot imagine why a group of adults charged with educating youth would censor true views of the world around them.)
Video backlash hits donut shop
A video showing a donut shop owner throwing water toward a homeless woman outside his shop has gone viral, leading to a powerful backlash against the shop, according to reporting in the Register-Guard by Louis Krauss. The incident occurred on Oct. 22; the shop owner of Dizzy Dean’s Donuts, Dean Weaver, said he was throwing the bucket of water to extinguish a small fire that he says was behind the woman, who was on the sidewalk. “You dumped water all over me,” the woman shouts in the profanity-filled, one-minute video, before Weaver responds, “Yes.” She replied, “I don’t even have any (expletive) clothes to change into.” In an interview, Weaver said, “I wish I handled it differently."
Thank you for reading this report from our Upstates, and for joining me on *our common ground, this America.