Measured purely by votes cast, Democrats won a decisive election victory this week. In House races, Democrats beat Republicans by 7 percent of the popular vote ― about the same margin of victory as the apocalyptic 2010 Republican wave.
Democrats’ popular-vote margin netted them many victories. Democrats picked up around 30 seats in the House of Representatives, giving them about a 225-197 edge (about a dozen races remain undecided). With that comes the ability to stymie Republican legislation and investigate presidential corruption and wrongdoing. Democrats also gained at least seven governor’s offices, including a shocking upset in Kansas.
Elections aren’t just vote counts, though. They’re also narratives. Democrats won the vote count, but the narrative of 2018 is mixed. And that narrative sends an ominous message about America’s long-term ability to repudiate authoritarianism, racism and President Donald Trump.
In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote, but won the electoral college by narrow victories in key Midwestern states. The fluky nature of the win didn’t really matter. Trump was hailed as a new, unbeatable force in politics (“lol nothing matters”) and even progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders started to talk about how they needed to appeal more to Trump’s white working class base. Unfortunately, this shifted attention away from the rest of the working class, which is in fact quite racially diverse. Meanwhile, Republican politicians doubled down on the politics of divisive paranoid partisan grievance and resentment, with former supposed moderates like Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins indulging in hypercharged conspiratorial anti-left rhetoric that Trump has made his own.
Democrats won the vote count, but the narrative of 2018 is mixed. And that narrative sends an ominous message about America’s ability to repudiate authoritarianism.
Similarly, the mixed results of 2018 will be seen as only a partial repudiation of Trumpian politics. Trump’s final pitch to the American people involved disgusting fearmongering racist propaganda about a small caravan of refugees from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. That blatantly fascist effort to scapegoat and target marginalized people wasn’t a resounding success. But it wasn’t such a failure that Republicans will necessarily be afraid to use such appeals again. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about billionaire Democratic donor and Holocaust survivor George Soros, for example, have become mainstream Republican talking points under Trump, and are likely to surface in future elections.
Part of the problem is that racist conspiracy theories and hatred appeal to many white voters. But another part of the problem is structural. The Senate gives a huge advantage to rural voters, who are overwhelmingly white (in part because of a history of racist terrorism that drove black people to flee to cities). Trump’s white supremacist politics appeal strongly to white voters, whose support he won by more than 20 points in 2016.
Democratic voters ― poorer than Republicans and less likely to be white ― are also often targeted for voter suppression. This cycle, voter suppression was most egregious in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp engineered a massive effort to suppress black votes on behalf of his close friend, gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp. Kemp purged 1.4 million voters from the rolls since 2010, cutting people who had not voted in previous elections. He also used the Exact Match law to cull 53,000 people because of typos on their registrations. Upwards of 80 percent of those affected by these tactics were black.
The Georgia results still aren’t settled. Since Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams was only down by about 63,000 votes ― 0.6 percentage point ― there is a good chance that Kemp effectively stole the election. (He resigned his position as secretary of state this week after it appeared he may win without a recount.)
Trump’s blatantly fascist effort to scapegoat marginalized people wasn’t a resounding success. But it wasn’t such a failure that Republicans will be afraid to use such appeals again.
There were some promising signs that Democrats, and voters, may be able to rectify some of these structural problems through legislation and ballot initiatives. Florida approved a ballot resolution to restore felon voting rights, a major victory that affects more than 1 million voters, including almost 18 percent of the state’s black voting-age population. If the initiative had been passed in 2016, it could well have affected this year’s gubernatorial and Senate races, both of which may yet go to a recount. Michigan voters approved a ballot initiative that should end gerrymandering in the state, and other House gerrymanders that benefited Republicans in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were struck down by courts earlier this year.
Steps like these will help Democrats compete on a more level playing field. Other moves ― such as pushing for statehood for Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories, or passing federal laws ensuring voting rights to replace the gutted Voting Rights Act ― could even help redress the imbalance in the Senate.
But the fact that these measures are necessary creates a painful catch-22 situation. Democrats have trouble winning electorally because the current system is racially imbalanced and in many cases flat-out racist. But they can’t change the rules until they win electorally.
Many Democrats hoped that 2018 would provide a sweeping victory, showing that Trump’s fascist tactics were bankrupt, electorally and morally. Instead, the partial victory, for candidates and for election change, suggests that repudiating Trump and what he and the GOP stands for will require a long, slow trudge. It will mean fighting for every vote to make structural changes and every structural change to increase the vote.
Winning, even under unbalanced rules, is always seen as an electoral mandate and a moral one. Trumpism in 2018 received a check. But racism, sexism, conspiracy-mongering, lying and hatred ― in short, fascism ― remain for Republicans a viable electoral path. Defeating Trumpism means outvoting fascism, and simultaneously changing the system so that outvoting fascism actually has an effect. To do both will require fighting for many years beyond 2018.
Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.