An historic election is behind us, yet we have settled nothing. A record turnout, all those billions of dollars, all that angry rhetoric and fear, and not a damn thing is resolved.
To the contrary, the stage has now been set for confrontations over the next 24 months that are likely to prove more bitter, divisive and dangerous than those that got us here. Such are the times in which we live, because this is not a struggle to be won or lost quickly.
I write all the above knowing nothing for certain about the outcome of Tuesday’s election, but also knowing that in this environment no single election, and certainly no midterm, can be decisive. Barack Obama won in 2008 and the Democrats controlled all of Washington; in the 2010 midterms that control vanished. One cycle merely creates the conditions for the next, and just as the day after Halloween is the unofficial beginning of the Christmas retail season, the day after the mid-terms marks the unofficial beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign.
I know, it’s a scary thought. But after this week’s election, we still have no clear way forward on health care, for instance. We still have no mandate or direction in which to head, and no leader to take us there. On immigration, Trump’s racist, wrathful and highly inflammatory rhetoric makes progress even more unlikely than on health care. There is no trust in each other in Washington because we have no trust in each other here at home.
In fact, American politics now revolves less around using government to solve problems and “forming a more perfect union” than as a battleground for culture wars that government is uniquely ill-equipped to address. We’d rather fight than fix things.
Ideally, and historically, election results would at least color the compromises that Washington would then craft by adjusting the relative degrees of power that each party commands, and thus the amount of influence it can wield. But that’s not how it works anymore. These days, it doesn’t work at all.
Through the Constitution, the Founders have given us an elaborate, ingenious machinery for producing compromise, but we treat it like an archaic technology, like a sliderule, that we’ve forgotten how to use. The give and take of legislation, the deals worked out in committee rooms and even barrooms — that’s all gone now. That’s because somehow — and personally I trace it back to Newt Gingrich — compromise has become a dirty word, a sign of partisan weakness rather than a source of national strength.
By taking compromise off the table, we’ve ensured that Congress can address the major challenges confronting us only when one party has so thoroughly crushed its opposition that it can impose its solutions unilaterally. But that’s an illusion that neither party is ever likely to achieve because the Founders also created a system that makes such stark power differentials almost impossible to sustain.
I don’t know how we resolve this. Some still hope that a leader will magically appear to break the logjam, either by restoring the confidence that we need in each other to make compromise possible again, or by so dominating at the polls and in Congress that he or she reduces the opposition to an afterthought, and thus renders compromise unnecessary. That latter approach is what Republicans had hoped Trump would achieve, but he has not.
And when two sides engage in battle with the main intent to crush each other, that’s often exactly what they do.