Johannes Voelz, Professor of American Studies, on the midterm elections in the United States

Johannes Voelz, Professor of American Studies at Goethe University, is not very surprised at the election results that are emerging; predictions indicated that a Republican landslide victory was very unlikely. Biden will emerge stronger from this election, regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats control the House of Representatives. In his estimation, it was not just a referendum on President Biden, but also a referendum on the previous president, Donald Trump. “Anyone who claims to be the actual, legitimate president despite an election defeat must also endure the loss of the midterm elections – without officially being in office.”

Raleigh, North Carolina

The final result of the congressional elections remains unknown, but we now know that the Democrats have retained control of the Senate and that there was no “red wave” from the Trump camp. A surprising result?

The result is a relief to me, but when viewed in the cold light of day, it doesn’t actually surprise me. I’m not an election researcher; I study US political culture. So I, too, had to content myself with the publicly accessible survey results and forecasts. And they predicted that the outcome of the Senate election was completely open and that the House results would yield Republican gains, but by no means a landslide victory. Five to 20 seats won for the Republicans – that was one of the more plausible forecasts. And that could well tally with the end result – we’ll see. But it is also possible that the Democrats will ultimately retain control of the House. We’re talking about minute shifts that decide who has or loses power.

It does at least seem surprising that, as the incumbent, President Biden was not punished despite his low popularity ratings. In the midterm elections in previous electoral terms, the president’s party usually suffered heavy losses.

That’s absolutely correct. We only need to recall the 1994 midterms under Clinton, 2006 under George W. Bush, 2010 under Obama, or 2018 under Trump; each time, the president’s party took a good beating and lost power in at least one chamber. All of these midterm elections were referendums on the incumbent president. But this time it was different – and that’s what makes these elections special: this time it was not only a referendum on President Biden, but also a referendum on the previous president, Donald Trump. Trump had put himself to the fore by making the legitimacy of the 2020 election that he lost a crucial question for Republican candidates. So: Anyone who repeated Trump’s lie about the allegedly stolen 2020 election could count on his support in the election campaign. Anyone who contradicted this lie or simply sat on the fence could expect to be vilified and opposed as a “RINO” by the Trump camp – a Republican in Name Only. On top of this, shortly before the election, Trump let it be known that he would soon announce his decision on whether to run for president in 2024. With so much attention on him, the 2022 midterms became about Trump. The irony is clear to see: Anyone who claims to be the actual, legitimate president despite an election defeat must also endure the loss of the midterm elections – without officially being in office.

So why were the U.S. midterms so close?

That’s a really interesting question. The close results of the U.S. midterm elections require explanation, as do the effects these close election results are having on the political establishment in Washington and on U.S. political culture as a whole. The U.S. has settled into an extremely stable balance of political power. This can be traced back to the days of Reagan. Since then, both parties can expect to receive between 47 and 53 percent of the votes in congressional elections. There are practically no real landslide victories anymore. The result of the elections two years ago was already extremely close, at least in Congress. It’s even tighter this time. The Senate will be almost evenly divided, either 50-50 or 51-49. So this is basically another confirmation of the current 50-50 stalemate. The fact that these narrow gaps have become a pattern is surprising, given that U.S. politics is in anything but calm waters. On the contrary: The Republicans have been gradually moving in a direction that is throwing the conventions and certainties of democracy overboard, and not just since Trump. However, this does not appear to have had any effect on the election result. In the end it’s always 50-50. 

Was that ever different – or is this balance of power between Democrats and Republicans a feature of the two-party system?

From the 1930s to the 1980s, the Democrats had a very clear lead – Democrats and Republicans were just not on an equal footing. The South in particular was virtually a one-party landscape and was firmly in the hands of the Democrats. This Southern loyalty to the Democrats had historical roots going back to the days of slavery. At that time, the Democrats were the party of white Southerners, many of whom were slave owners. White Southerners remained loyal to the Democrats throughout the 20th century and made up an important part of what was known as the New Deal coalition. This broad alliance, which brought together disparate social groups and classes across the country, ensured that the Democrats held both houses of Congress firmly in their hands for almost half a century, as well as the presidency two-thirds of the time. So this was a completely different political landscape than what we take for granted today.

How did today’s situation with such narrow election results come about?

The New Deal coalition began to break up in the 1970s when the Democratic Party sided with the civil rights movement. The Southern Democrats didn’t go along with that – they migrated to the Republicans. But that didn’t happen all at once. The “great realignment” was only completed around 1980. And it wasn’t until 1994 that the Republicans won Congress.

You say the Republicans have gradually become more radical. How is it that the balance of power still remains? Is the Republican electorate radicalizing in lockstep with the party?

It seems that there are push and pull factors between parties and voters. It’s a form of mutual interaction that has increasingly polarized American society over the past few decades. Firstly, Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s were very adept at creating a socialbacklash against the changes of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the cultural and sexual revolution of 1960s counter-culture – all of this drew reactionary forces to the scene, which the Republicans systematically harnessed. It was only then that the party became competitive at the national level. Secondly, the newfound competition between the parties meant that they themselves became louder and more radical because they increasingly had to differentiate themselves from one another. And precisely because, in these situations, it is clear that the minor shifts in power that follow an election will not last, elections are ascribed an almost existential significance. There is always potential loss at the door – not just the loss of the election, but the loss of everything you’ve worked hard to achieve. This means that every election is stylized as being directional, and always with the same result: the changes in the balance of the seats are minimal, but are simultaneously of the greatest importance, because they decide – albeit only briefly – who loses power and who gains it. In other words, instead of creating social balance, party balance creates polarization and radicalization. The parties are the driving force here. But to a certain extent, the populace is embracing these divisive and radicalizing tendencies.

Does that also apply to these midterm elections? You said they were a referendum on Trump and that he is the biggest loser here.

That’s right, it does indeed appear that voters have rejected, if not penalized, many of the Trump-backed candidates – like Doug Mastriano, a contender in the race for governor of Pennsylvania who found himself with 14 percentage points less than Josh Shapiro, his Democratic rival. We now also know that in individual states the Trump camp has consistently failed in the races for the posts that oversee the electoral process. But as much as I am pleased about the stability of American democracy, it is by no means the case that the country will suddenly grow back together again, and polarization will come to an end. Because this election result fits perfectly with the polarization process described above. There are always points at which the party distances itself too far from the broader electorate because the radicalization in the party sparks a kind of momentum of its own. The Republican Party was very much driven by Trump’s MAGA movement. While this faction accounts for only about 25 percent of Republican supporters, it is a community of loyal activists. And it is involved in the primary elections, making sure that certain Trump-endorsed candidates who lacked broader consensus still got on the ballot. The New York Times pollsters have even shown that Democrats have reaped strong gains in precisely the states and constituencies that struggled to ward off radical Republicans. Especially those who indicated they would sway future Democratic elections in the Republicans’ favor. Where such radicalized Republicans did not stand for election, the Democrats suffered serious losses – in New York State, for example. To link this finding back to the greater polarization dynamics we’ve been observing in the U.S. since the 1990s, this election can be viewed as a vote for a rebalancing of the Republican camp. The Republican Party is being given a signal that they’ve gotten a little too noisy. Adjusting to this does not mean becoming a party of balance and compromise.

Does this suggest that the Republicans will bid farewell to the Trump camp and put forward more moderate candidates in the future?

That could be the case, but it’s still too early to say goodbye to Trump. Within the Republican Party, the Trump campaign still holds a lot of power, and it’s not as if this election didn’t also bring a significant number of Trump’s supporters into the House. There are plenty of MAGA Republicans raising their voices there and spreading lies about election fraud. On the other hand, since the election, a number of influential Republicans have spoken out and demanded that the party now break away from Trump. There were some well-known Trump opponents, such as Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, but also – and this is much more interesting – Trump confidants like Newt Gingrich. And don’t forget that Trump’s biggest internal competitor within the Republican Party, Ron DeSantis, has successfully defended his governorship in Florida. DeSantis is anything but moderate, but he’s not quite as radical as Trump, particularly on the two issues that led to the biggest losses for the Republicans in the election: no one need fear that he wants to systematically delegitimize and subvert democratic elections, nor does he want to abolish abortion rights altogether. So he’s perfectly placed for the present moment: a polarizing politician who gleefully stokes the culture wars but hasn’t strayed as far from the mainstream as the radical Trump team.

How should the election results be viewed by the Democrats? Do you expect Biden to seriously consider running again in the next presidential election?

Biden will certainly emerge stronger from this election, regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats control the House of Representatives. He will boast that he prevented the “red wave” predicted by the Republicans. Whether he will run in 2024 is a completely different question. That would be a hindrance for the Democrats. Not because of Biden’s policies. He has managed to implement quite a few projects. Think of the Inflation Reduction Act, which in reality is primarily a program for renewable energy and climate protection, which would see investment of almost $400 billion in this area alone. But people simply no longer trust that he has the strength to credibly fulfill the office. Whenever he appears in public, people are afraid that he will make an embarrassing blunder. This is a very bad fit with the performance-fixated culture of the United States. I think 2024 would be a good time to hand over to someone from a younger generation. But Biden cannot announce this too early, or he would bring forth what he averted with the election result: he would become a lame duck.

What might Europe have to prepare for, including for the war in Ukraine? Could the strong U.S. support for Ukraine wane?

I don’t think Biden will want to change his line. It really depends on the election result. If both chambers stay with the Democrats, then the election result will also legitimize the previous policy of support for Ukraine. If the House goes to the Republicans, it’s not yet clear what that will actually mean. Because then there is still the question of how much power the Trump camp – who are close to Putin – will have within the Republican Party. In other words: America’s future support for Ukraine is not yet entirely foreseeable, but I do not currently expect a drastic change of course.

Questions: Dirk Frank

Johannes Voelz is a Professor of American Studies, Democracy, and Aesthetics at Goethe University Frankfurt. From September 2022 to August 2023 he will be carrying out research as a Senior Research Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research at University Duisburg-Essen.

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