The midterm elections are the last obstacle to Trump's consolidation of power—and the greatest obstacle to voting is the feeling that it doesn't matter.
In the haze of summer, with books still to be read, weeds pulled, kids retrieved from camp, it's a little hard to fathom that, three months from now, American democracy will be on the line. The midterm elections in November are the last remaining obstacle to President Trump's consolidation of power. None of the other forces that might have checked the rise of a corrupt homegrown oligarchy can stop or even slow it. The institutional clout that ended the Presidency of Richard Nixon no longer exists. The honest press, for all its success in exposing daily scandals, won't persuade the unpersuadable or shame the shameless, while the dishonest press is Trump's personal amplifier. The federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are rapidly becoming instruments of partisan advocacy, as reliably conservative as elected legislatures. It's impossible to imagine the Roberts Court voting unanimously against the President, as the Burger Court, including five Republican appointees, did in forcing Nixon to turn over his tapes. (Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy, has even suggested that the decision was wrong.) Congress has readily submitted to the President's will, as if legislation and oversight were burdens to be relinquished. And, when the independent counsel finally releases his report, it will have only the potency that the guardians of the law and the Constitution give it.
Behind these institutions lies public opinion, and we are quickly learning that it matters more than laws, more than the Constitution, more than the country's supposedly inviolable founding principles. "If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it," George Orwell wrote, in "Freedom of the Park." "If public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them." During 1973, the year Watergate became a national scandal, facts changed the political views of millions of Americans, Nixon's approval rating fell from sixty-seven per cent to less than thirty per cent, and his fate was sealed. In our time, large blocs of public opinion are barely movable: Trump's performance in Helsinki—declaring himself on the side of Russia, against his own intelligence agencies and the integrity of American elections—received favorable reviews from eighty per cent of Republicans. Yet public opinion still plays a central role in safeguarding democracy, and it becomes decisive through voting. Demonstrations can capture attention and build solidarity, books can provide arguments, social media can organize resistance. But if the Republicans don't suffer a serious defeat in November, Trump will go into 2020 with every structural advantage.
Democrats have a habit of forgetting to vote between Presidential elections. Republican turnout has exceeded or equalled Democratic turnout in every midterm since 1978, no matter which party held the Presidency, with an average margin of three per cent—more than enough to decide control of Congress in a closely divided election. The demographic groups that are least likely to vote—young people, Latinos, and those with a high-school education or less—tend to be Democratic constituencies. This tendency has been especially stark in the past two midterm cycles: in 2014, the turnout among eligible voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine was seventeen per cent—one in six. The disappearing Democratic voter also had an effect on the latest Presidential election, when, for example, African-American turnout dropped almost five per cent from 2012—a crucial difference in the three key states that gave Trump the Electoral College.
Republicans, for their part, don't always entrust their hold on power to democratic methods. Since 2010, nearly half of the states have passed laws that make it harder to vote—from restrictions on early voting to I.D. requirements, mandatory proof of citizenship, and purges of voting rolls. The purpose of these laws is not to fight a mythical epidemic of fraud but to depress turnout of normally Democratic constituencies. They show incremental signs of success: a government study found that new laws reduced turnout in 2012 in Kansas and Tennessee by two or three per cent, notably among young and black voters. Other states have expanded the franchise, particularly to former felons, but Republican control of two-thirds of state legislatures and the shift of courts to the right give the momentum to efforts to curtail voting.
Gerrymandering is another effective tool for staying in power. The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report on the effects of redistricting in states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. Algorithmic mapping has grown so precise that Republican legislatures have created a sixteen-seat advantage in the House of Representatives that remains impervious to standard electoral pressures. In November, just to achieve a bare majority, Democrats will have to win the national congressional vote by nearly eleven per cent. (Other studies put the number at around seven per cent.) And legislatures elected this year will redraw state and federal districts after the 2020 census. There's a thick seawall standing in the way of a blue wave.
But it's self-defeating to exaggerate the external obstacles: in 2016, Democratic turnout declined in states with and without new voter restrictions. Gerrymandering is a time-honored practice of both parties—look at Maryland's House delegation. Unfettered money in politics doesn't always favor Republicans, let alone guarantee victory—Hillary Clinton raised twice as much as Trump did. The greatest obstacle to voting is the feeling that it won't matter, and that feeling seems to be more prevalent among Democrats.
In some cases, that sense may be based on overconfidence and insularity—a presumption that the other party's outrages will automatically disqualify it in voters' eyes. More often, it comes from a belief that politics doesn't change anything in people's lives. For two generations, the Republican Party has been an expression of grassroots conservatism, most recently the fever that's ceded the Party to Trump. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has grown less connected to its voters. It's like a neglected building, perennially on the edge of collapse, which left-leaning Americans occasionally use for some purpose and then abandon.
This year, something seems to be changing. The new faces among Democratic candidates, the new energy behind them, suggest a party of members, not squatters. But, come November, they will have to vote. It's the only thing left. ♦