I’ve seen a troubling amount of celebration among progressives following last week’s midterm elections and the Democrats’ control of the House of Representatives.
The midterms were not a victory for Democrats; rather, they were a sleeping dart shot into a raging beast that should not have happened in the first place.
My pessimistic view was not a product of the Democrats’ Senate loss (and the losses of rising political stars like Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke). Simply put, there is no such thing as victory while President Donald Trump remains in office. There is no victory until his unreasonable, immoral impact on American politics has been erased and disavowed by a new moral consensus.
Don’t get me wrong — the midterms weren’t a defeat for the Democrats, but the absence of defeat is not a true victory. A blue House will certainly put a much-needed check on a brazenly nationalist White House: New House committee chairs will be appointed, which means Democrats will be able to act on and potentially subpoena Trump’s tax returns. But even if the president’s tax returns are revealed, and even if they demonstrate some form of illegal activity, I have extremely little faith that the GOP-dominated Senate would follow through, even if the House moved to impeach the president. If the Senate didn’t wish to hold then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh accountable for his actions as an accused sexual assaulter, why would they act differently toward Trump, the jewel of the GOP? It would take something extraordinary for this election to indicate impeachment, and even if it does, Vice President Mike Pence wouldn’t be an improvement.
The Democrats have gained the power to slow the Trump administration’s attacks on human rights — the environment or immigration — but not the power to stop them. I’ll assume that little to no progress will be made to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, increase gun control regulations or improve any other sector of progressive politics. If the president needs the House to fulfill his agenda, the House certainly needs the president to fulfill theirs, too. The Nov. 6 election served mainly as a tourniquet but by no means a cure, and progressives must focus on achieving true victory in the 2020 elections.
Among hotly contested races, Democrats won in places that Trump dominated in 2016 such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Arizona. If the Democratic party can hold all the states it won in 2016, and retain states they picked up in the midterms, the Democrats could cruise to an electoral victory in the 2020 presidential race, even if Arizona and Kansas turn red in 2020. While that may seem optimistic for progressives, the party must remember that Trump has a history of over-performing in states political pundits predicted would stay blue.
And if the midterms served as a referendum on any electoral trends, they showed that a Democratic victory in those key states is possible, but not guaranteed.
Even if Democrats do win in 2020, I still have doubts for progressive morale. Based on the predictions from one study-project that included the collaboration of multiple Washington, D.C. think tanks, voter turnout is expected to be at what could be an all-time high during the next election. According to a 2005 study by researchers at UC Davis and the University of Florida, conservatives tend to do worse when more people do vote, so, it’s reasonable to believe that will likely spell trouble for Trump.
Though there was a rage-induced increase in voter turnout, rage isn’t a sustainable model of civic engagement beyond 2020. Democrats shouldn’t be focused on just the next election, but the countless future races. Brief political satisfaction tends to foster apathy among constituents, which can lead to future low turnout and a loss of morale and identity within the party.
It’s going to take more than one term and one Congress of viable leadership to undo the damage Trump has done to the United States both legally and symbolically. Trump has already appointed 84 judges, including two justices in the Supreme Court, to lifetime positions of high power. He has rolled back regulations on healthcare and the environment and stoked a generation’s worth of racial resentment. It’s going to take decades of mass political engagement, particularly among young people who must work on Democratic campaigns and vote for progressive values in every single election possible.
The fight is not nearly over yet. Join a campaign, knock on doors, make phone calls and never stop voting. Do not become complacent after one election — especially one that wasn’t a complete catastrophe.
Nathaniel Hyman is a sophomore majoring in public policy. His column, “Social Anxieties,” runs every other Tuesday.