The People Does Not Know What It Wills

A lot of my recent work—and your support—has come to fruition with the launch of my new video and podcast series, Salon of the Refused. You can follow links to both the video and the audio-only podcast of the first episode here.

My first installment is an interview with Sean Trende, the main political horserace analyst at RealClearPolitics, looking at the results of the midterm election. Yes, I know it’s a little more than a week after the election, and everybody else has long ago rushed to press with their spin, but the whole spirit of Salon of the Refused is to do things in a way that is outside the mainstream. Hence the name. (More on that some other time.) So please check it out.

At any rate, this allows me to get back to some more writing after spending six weeks clambering up pretty steep learning curves when it comes to video and audio production and editing, as well as the inner workings of YouTube and podcast hosting. (A Patreon page is the last item on this list and will be up soon.) I’m not done with the learning curve, mind you, but I’m on a flatter area of the curve. I still have some refinements to make, but I have a pretty good system in place, and I already have several episodes filmed. (Next up is a long discussion with Charles C.W. Cooke on what it’s like to be an atheist on the right. It’s a conversation I never thought I’d have with an editor at National Review.) I hope you will find the early results promising and will offer your continued support.

I’ll start on my full-scale return to writing by following up on my discussion with Sean Trende. The point of talking to him was to take some of my early impressions of the election and test them against the hard numbers of the result—hard numbers being Sean’s specialty.

Did the election show that voters were turned off by the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings—or that Donald Trump has produced a backlash against Republicans? Did it show that the Democratic Party is veering to the far left—or that voters are rejecting so-called “Progressives”?

The answer to those questions, so far as I can tell, is: yes. All of these things are true, all at once, in a muddled and indecisive election result. Sean Trende and I discuss this all in a little more depth, but here is an overview.

In the Senate races, for example, there is evidence for a “Kavanaugh Effect,” in which the Kavanaugh hearings boosted voter enthusiasm among Republicans, particularly for Senate races, and pushed tight races in a few states firmly away from Democrats. It is notable that several “red state” Democratic incumbents who voted against Kavanaugh—notably Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota—were defeated, while conservative Democrat Joe Manchin, who cast a crucial vote for Kavanaugh, survived in West Virginia.

This was always going to be a tough year for Democrats in the Senate. Due to the vagaries of the rotating schedule in which only a third of Senate seats come up for election each cycle, Democrats had more seats at risk this year. But a Republican gain in the Senate, after two years of hysterical “Resistance” against Trump, and specifically after a high-profile fight over the appointment of judges, which is a key role of the Senate, has to be chalked up as a significant failure for Democrats. It will certainly be significant in its effects, allowing Donald Trump—or, really, Mitch McConnell—to further reshape the federal judiciary and hopefully stock it with more constitutionalists from the Federalist Society. This could have some big ramifications, particularly with an 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg possibly in ill health.

And yet, Democrats posted a strong gain in the House of Representatives, gaining about 36 seats, a little more than they were expected to. Sean Trende argues that a good portion of this reflects districts that split their vote in 2016, voting for Hillary Clinton but retaining their Republican congressman—until now. So in some cases, Republicans who lost were merely too far to the right for their districts.

Yet it was clearly more than that. I was personally shocked when my congressman, VA-7’s Dave Brat—the man famous for unseating Eric Cantor in the 2010 primary—lost to a Democrat. The seventh district was drawn specifically to elect and re-elect Republicans, but the South and West suburbs of Richmond turned against Brat and he lost narrowly. The same thing was happening in races across the country, and on this issue, I’m going to claim a little vindication. I warned that in pandering to a particular kind of voter with a particular kind of style, Donald Trump is alienating a lot of voters who might otherwise back small-government Republicans like Dave Brat. This is precisely what happened, and now Nancy Pelosi will be Speaker of the House again. So Republicans dismiss this factor at their peril—which probably means that this is exactly what they’re going to do.

Yet it wasn’t all a great outcome for Democrats. My old friends back in Illinois are in despair as a tax-hiking Democratic governor got voted in with a supportive state legislature, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Democrats gained about 300 seats in state legislatures, fewer than is normal in the first midterm of a new administration, when there is a natural backlash against the party in power. This is also not nearly enough to make up for the huge number of statehouse seats Democrats lost during the Obama years.

Moreover, the far left wing of the Democratic Party did not prosper on election day. Unreconstructed socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress, but in a heavily Democratic district with no Republican challenger. Most other “Progressive” candidates lost. One analyst compiled a list of eight races to watch to monitor for a turn to the left. The Progressives went 0-8 on that list. (A few of those races are still being recounted, but recounts rarely overturn the initial result, even in Broward County.) Then there is the overhyped Beto O’Rourke in Texas, an Irish guy with a Mexican nickname who blew through $70 million in donations from gullible coastal Progressives but ran too far to the left for his state.

This is significant because a lot of Democrats have spent the last two years trying to talk themselves into the notion that they would have won in 2016 if only they had nominated Bernie Sanders and gone for straight, unapologetic socialism. This election helps show what a delusion that was, and a cadre of leftists who might have established themselves as future Democratic presidential candidates were not advanced to higher office. Then again, calls for Beto O’Rourke to run for president anyway indicate that Democrats’ enthusiasm for socialism is largely undiminished by its poor electoral results.

So there is a little something for everyone in this election, which probably means there is nothing for anyone. There is no clear message of public support for Trump—or reaction against him. There is no clear impetus to lurch off to the far left, but no clear revulsion away from it.

Everyone always tries to use election results to claim the Mandate of the People in favor of their party. In this case, a lot of us were looking to claim the Mandate of the People for our faction within one of the parties. Nobody really got it. This is an election that didn’t settle anything.

That’s partly because these attempts to interpret elections are always opportunities to over-interpret elections, ignoring factors other than ideology. For example, Jon Gabriel has an excellent overview of the Arizona Senate race, where the Republican challengers narrowly lost. He attributes this to her overly cautious campaigning style and clumsy decisions that alienated both pro-Trump Republicans and moderate Republicans, while her Democratic opponent was better known to Phoenix-area voters and ran to the center. We may think of Arizona as a reliably conservative state, but the last two senators it elected were John McCain and Jeff Flake, who can hardly be described as reliable conservatives, so it was open to being won by a moderate (or seemingly moderate) Democrat.

Behind that, however, there is the fact that this election charted no clear ideological direction for the country. A 19th-Century German philosopher—I think it was Hegel—once declared that “the people does not know what it wills.” His point was that the people needed a Great Man to come along and interpret the will of the people, without necessarily asking them first. It’s an idea that the Germans would eventually try out with disastrous results. But I think we can use the phrase here in a different sense.

The people does not know what it wills because “the people” is not one entity. It is a collection of individuals with clashing philosophies or—in far too many cases—no philosophy at all. Elections are not mandates in which “the people” deliver a united will. They are contests in which different factions try to attract voters to their agenda. Sometimes, the voters clearly move in one direction. Sometimes, as in this election, it seems that they move in a lot of different directions and don’t really know what they want to do.

This might make it a bad time to launch a podcast and video series that begins with a discussion of electoral politics. But it’s an excellent time to do what most of the episodes of Salon of the Refused will be doing: talking about issues that are far deeper and more important than electoral politics, which will help people make better and clearer decisions about what they want to do.

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