Now that the final results from the 2018 midterm elections have — mostly — been tabulated, it is a good time to reflect on the fundamental health of our democratic republic.
Most analysts and pundits have focused on individual races and their impact on the balance of power in Washington, D.C., as well as the various statehouses and legislatures. These analyses, however, fail to acknowledge the true implications of November’s results.
Rather than speculating about whether liberalism is ascending or conservatism declining, we should ask what the election results say about the state of our political system.
Distilled to its essence, a binary analysis provides snapshots of our electoral system that yield little insight into where our republic stands and where it is headed. In fact, this form of analysis is a reflection of what U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter once termed “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The fate of Western civilization appears to hinge on the outcome of every election.
This atmosphere has led us to demonize our enemies and see “compromise” as a pejorative term. The prospects for a healthy democracy are dismal when perceived in this manner.
There is, however, an altogether different approach that is far more illuminating and optimistic. This approach entails taking a perspective that is rigorously nonpartisan and divorced from political ideology. It focuses on the viability of our political philosophy.
When we use this broader analysis, we can identify key criteria that speak to what is actually important about our elections.
We must consider how the constitutional norms established in 1789 give us the resilience necessary to survive in an increasingly interconnected, yet simultaneously fractious world.
The United States must also remain a beacon of hope and our political culture a model for other nations seeking a new and freer way of governance. The U.S. political system has historically been predicated on the fundamental idea that our differences do not have to divide us.
Rather, we gain strength through our diversity of gender, race, national background and faith. That diversity is the underlying point of E Pluribus Unum, the U.S. motto. The United States can only remain a credible exponent of liberal democracy by continuing to embrace people and ideas from a variety of origins.
While drawing conclusions about the long term from a single election is difficult, I think the results of the 2018 midterms augur well.
The country’s recently exacerbated polarization may actually have done more to reinvigorate and advance U.S. democracy than any other factor in the last quarter-century.
For years, political scientists and other observers have decried falling participation rates in elections. This trend appears to have been reversed in the most recent midterm election. A greater percentage of eligible voters cast ballots in 2018 than in all midterm elections since 1966. The closeness of many races has finally exposed the lie in the sentiment that single votes do not make a difference — they can and do.
Additionally, more Americans who are women, people of color, of non-European descent and adherents to non-Christian faiths sought and attained public office than at any other time in our history. The rules and procedures of the Congress are under review; those meant for an elderly, homogenous, Christian, male body are giving way to the needs of young mothers with children.
These seemingly surface changes herald a seismic cultural change. They reflect an acknowledgement that our government’s infrastructure must adapt to a profoundly different population of leaders — one more representative of today’s Americans and more in touch with their needs.
The United States may even be experiencing the beginnings of a return to civility.
This week, D.C. is celebrating the life of our 41st president, George H.W. Bush, the embodiment of American civic virtue. That all can honor such a person and regret his passing, regardless of party affiliation, gives hope that we can move forward with more respect and civility.
Rather than despair the short-term mistakes of our politicians, we should use them as opportunities to renew our democracy so that we can have, once again, what President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently called “a new birth of freedom.”
Raymond Dillon graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. He is an opinion contributor to The Hoya.