Tuesday’s midterm election had all the cinematic ingredients of American democracy in its full glory. One Minnesota district celebrated the first Somali American to make it to Congress with an outbreak of ululations. Ilhan Omar was among the first two Muslim women to make it to Capitol Hill. New York’s Bronx elected a millennial “democratic socialist” woman whose last job had been working behind a bar.
The surprise Republican victories in the Florida senate and governor races look like they could now go to a recount as attorneys from both sides begin to assemble for another bare-knuckle legal clash over confusing ballot papers.
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far away, a windswept district in the Nevada desert elected a deceased brothel owner to the state legislature. The Republican candidate died too close to polling day for a substitute to be found. Only in America, as they say.
The next Congress will certainly look different. It will have more women, and more lawmakers under 30, than any in US history. Most of them are Democrats.
But Tuesday’s real earthquake was the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. Having conducted one of the most divisive — and xenophobic — campaigns in US history, Donald Trump’s Republicans lost control of America’s lower chamber. Yet the president avoided total repudiation. Republicans actually increased their majority in the US Senate.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic majority leader, will probably now have the distinction of becoming America’s second as well as its first female Speaker. The house has been under Republican control since she last held that job in 2010, when a Republican landslide brought Barack Obama’s grand legislative ambitions to a halt. The so-called Tea Party wave nearly wiped out the Democrats in small-town, rural and predominantly white America.
The 2018 election completed that electoral revolution. The Republican party was virtually eliminated from cities and large towns. Even traditional conservative strongholds, such as Charleston, South Carolina, where the civil war began in 1861, and Richmond, Virginia, which was capital of the Confederate republic, elected Democrats.
From the suburbs of Dallas to the environs of Salt Lake City, America’s urban map is now painted almost uniformly blue. It is a mirror image of the almost entirely red small-town America. The suburbs in between are the battleground. Rarely have geography and politics so neatly overlapped. Whether it is anti-Brexit London or cosmopolitan Warsaw, the same pattern is visible across the democratic world.
“American politics is becoming cities versus the non-cities,” says Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford University. “The danger is that each will continue to retreat into their own reaffirming bubbles.”
America’s two parties look ever more visually distinct with each election. Democrats are the vehicle for America’s affluent urban elites, ethnic minorities and increasingly college-educated suburban America, particularly female graduates. Almost 60 per cent of women voted Democrat on Tuesday. Among graduates, the share was even higher. The new rule of thumb is that anyone living within 20 minutes of a Whole Foods, the upscale supermarket, is more likely to vote Democrat.
Those same metropolitan districts also include many of the immigrants and other minorities who service the elites as housekeepers, Uber drivers, nannies and food preparers. They tend to vote the same way as their employers. What was once true only of large cities such as San Francisco and Chicago is now the standard across the country. Even Kansas City and Oklahoma City have become friendly to liberals.
“The Democrats are an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ party with a large missing gap in the middle,” says Michael Lind, a visiting fellow at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. “Meanwhile Republicans are turning into a party of the white working class.”
Among Democrats the hope is that California’s recent past presages America’s future. The Golden State once offered an even-handed partisan contest. California produced Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But in the last generation, mass immigration and the Silicon Valley boom has turned the state almost wholly Democrat. The last Republican to win statewide office in California was almost a decade ago.
America as a whole is today in roughly the same position as California in 1990. By the middle of the next decade, a majority of 18-29 year-olds in America will be non-white (if you define Hispanics as non-white). By the mid-2040s, the same will be true of the US as a whole. It is no coincidence that many liberal Democrats want someone like Kamala Harris, a talented mixed race senator from California, to be their party’s nominee against Mr Trump in 2020.
In practice, however, politics is rarely that simple. Tuesday’s results offered mixed blessings for progressive Democrats. Beto O’Rourke, the party’s most recent liberal mascot, narrowly lost in the Texas senatorial race to the ultra-conservative Ted Cruz. Likewise both Andrew Gillum and Stacy Abrams appear to have lost their bids to become the first black governors of Florida and Georgia respectively, although the final votes are still being counted. Had any of these candidates won, it would have been historically dramatic. Their close-run races portend America’s rapidly changing electoral map. But they are still likely to lose.
In contrast, Sherrod Brown, the blue- collar Democratic senator from Ohio, romped home by 10 percentage points in a state Mr Trump won by double digits in 2016. Likewise, Amy Klobuchar, a moderate Democrat, won by almost 20 points in Minnesota. White House hopefuls of all persuasions can point to encouraging stories. But the party’s pragmatic wing probably has the edge. Non-college whites are still by far the largest US voting block — and will be for at least another two decades. Democrats who won in the Midwest campaigned on “meat-and-potato” issues.
“If you want to defeat Donald Trump, you have to appeal to working people of all backgrounds,” says Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago. “My view is that people in small-town America will love low prescription drug prices and affordable childcare and good health insurance just as much as working people in the cities. If we fight Trump’s darkness with light we can win. If we fight 2020 on Trump’s terms, we risk defeat.”
But the results also offered Mr Trump one or two silver linings. In a rare bifurcation of the national vote, the Republicans added to their Senate majority while losing the House. The party also retained the governorships in the two classic swing states of Ohio and Florida. Having campaigned mostly on nativist issues, such as a largely fictional “invasion” of central Americans, and a pledge to abolish birthright citizenship, Mr Trump laid his 2020 re-election strategy bare. His racial pitch triggered a sharp backlash in the cities.
Yet it also galvanised Mr Trump’s fiercely loyal blue-collar base in states such as North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana. His weapon of choice is demagoguery against minorities. It is almost as if he is goading Democrats to nominate an identity liberal in 2020. The more Mr Trump demonises non-whites, the angrier liberals become.
“If Democrats choose an ‘abolish borders’ nominee to fight Trump in the next election, then they will deserve everything they get,” says Bill Galston, who worked on domestic policy in Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s.
Mr Fukuyama, who recently wrote a book on the ascendancy of identity politics, agrees: “Democrats need to start saying they will support enforcing America’s borders. They need an immigration policy.”
Then there are the metastasising quirks of America’s electoral college. Republican nominees, including Mr Trump, have won two out of the past five White House races having lost the popular vote. As time goes on, the gap between the popular vote and America’s electoral rules will widen further. Mr Trump could pull it off again in 2020.
In theory, senators representing just 16 per cent of America’s population could hold sway over the US Senate within a generation. On present course, almost all are likely to be Republican. With 750,000 people, North Dakota has one senator per 375,000 people. With 40m, California has one representing every 20m. It would take a two-thirds majority of each chamber and three- quarters of the states to approve a constitutional amendment. The chances that Republicans will agree to alter the rules are close to zero. It would be like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.
Knowing this, Democrats are debating radical measures to overcome the gulf between the majority preference and the rigidities of a centuries-old system. They are the unstoppable demographic force confronting the immovable object of America’s constitution.
Wild card remedies include breaking California into several states with two senators apiece, securing statehood for the reliably liberal District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and voting to increase the US Supreme Court from nine justices to 15. Each of these measures is as unlikely as they are imaginative. Tuesday’s outcome underlined what is at stake. More than half of America voted Democratic. Yet Republicans still control the White House, the Supreme Court, half of Congress and most states.
“My guess is that Democrats will increasingly focus on winning the White House and then governing by executive order — call it the Bonapartist strategy,” says Mr Lind. “But they have to wrest the White House from Trump and there is no guarantee that will happen.”