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The Ever-Looming Midterm Disaster

How Democrats are crippling their own agenda, and what to do about it.

By Nathan Pippenger

Long before the results started coming in Tuesday evening, the telltale signs of looming defeat were everywhere among liberal outlets. There were pieces pointing out (rightly) that Tuesday’s results would not amount to a GOP mandate; early entries in the post-blowout blame game; and expressions of open disbelief at some of the crooks, cranks, and yahoos about to enter the U.S. Congress. There were not good omens, but then again, omens were unnecessary. We’ve known for a long time what was going to happen, given that Democrats don’t show up to vote in the midterms.

The question, then, is what to do about it. Democracy editor Michael Tomasky explains, in the Daily Beast, how the midterms consistently cripple the agendas of Democratic presidents—and how the future presidency of, say, Hillary Clinton is likely to be similarly disrupted, regardless of whatever personal charisma or political skills she (or any other Democrat) brings to the job.

This problem underlies David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan’s call, in the Times, for cancelling the midterms altogether. “The main impact of the midterm election in the modern era has been to weaken the president, the only government official (other than the powerless vice president) elected by the entire nation,” writer Schanzer and Sullivan. The authors try to scrub the partisanship from their recommendation by pointing out that historically, “this is a bipartisan phenomenon.” But modern trends—the younger, more diverse presidential electorate and the whiter, older midterm electorate—make today’s midterms an unrepresentative, de facto structural check on the agenda favored by a more diverse and liberal electorate, one that’s becoming increasingly likely to produce Democratic presidents.

I don’t mean to suggest that this partisan reality means we shouldn’t take Schanzer and Sullivan’s argument seriously. (And they give plenty of other good reasons, too.) But the fact simply remains that the political dysfunction produced by midterms is a partisan issue, one that gives conservative voters disproportionate power over the agendas of Democratic presidents elected by far larger segments of the population.

That means there’s good reason to embrace E.J. Dionne’s call for the president to “reengage[e] Americans, particularly the young he once so inspired, in the business of self-government.” If only for the benefit of the next Democratic president, the party needs to undertake a massive effort to mobilize voters in midterm years. When voters are disengaged, liberal priorities lose out. (Say goodbye, for instance, to one of the best civil liberties advocates in the U.S. Senate — Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, whose party turned out in record-low numbers yesterday.) The political system, already biased towards inertia, becomes even more populated with conservatives who feel no pressure to act on issues like climate change or inequality—if they can even be persuaded that those problems exist in the first place. The new chairman of the Senate Environment committee will be Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who has compared climate science reports to Soviet trials and who wrote a book calling global warming science both a “hoax” and a “conspiracy” in the title.

Disappointed liberal activists sometimes blame failures of presidential nerve for their problems. That’s usually an insufficient explanation, at best. Sometimes they blame dark money and corporate power. That’s a better explanation, but it hardly captures the whole picture. Above all, they should look to their unreliable allies. It’s past time to bluntly place the blame where it belongs: on liberal voters whose apathy is undermining the issues they claim to care about. It has already hampered the agenda of this president, and it will continue to give a smaller, less representative, more conservative bloc of voters power to limit Democratic presidents until the situation changes.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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