Below is an excerpt from “Fragments,” my book of essays available at J.S. Scifo on Substack | Substack. This was written in November 2022.
For decades, political observers could rely on certain truisms, or maybe rules of thumb is the better term, to prognosticate likely political outcomes. For example, that midterm elections favor Republicans because turnout is lower and Republicans are more likely to vote. Another is that the party not in control of the White House tends to do well in midterm elections, especially when the sitting president is unpopular. One eternal assumption is that when the economy is bad or uncertain voters will punish the party in power, no matter who it is. Concurrent with that is the idea that inflation—at all times and everywhere—is a phenomenon so damaging, so intolerable, so punishing that people will rise up in rebellion against the powers that be, and not always in a democratic fashion.
All of that went out the window in 2022. Despite high inflation, economic headwinds, an unpopular president, incompetent government, various crises (Afghanistan withdrawal, border, baby formula shortages) and a widespread unease about the direction of the country, voters instead said, “more, please.” That is not quite true. The Republicans won the House (albeit by a slim margin) and there were other successes, such as Ron DeSantis’s win in Florida and picking up several seats in New York. But what would have been a historic swing in previous decades was instead so negligible as to be ignominious.
Although much of the blame has been put on Donald Trump and poor quality candidates (i.e., right-wing, election-denying crazies), that diagnosis completely misses the true import of the election. No, the real story of this election is that the country has so fundamentally changed that the old patterns no longer apply. We are witnessing a fundamental shift in American life where ideological consistency is more important than reality and social conscience overrides self-interest.
We have seen this happen already in California. A state that produced two Republican presidents in a generation, was home to the conservative populist movement, and gave rise to an anti-tax rebellion in the late 1970s that eventually went national and even global, has turned unalterably Left. Although always a liberal state at heart (the land of fruits and nuts), Republicans still managed to thrive in California, particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s. But by the 1990s, as the economy and demographics shifted and The Environment became the overriding concern, the Golden State became a lot less hospitable place for anyone of a right-leaning persuasion. Racial/ethnic politics stepped to the forefront; labor unions became all powerful; and, perhaps most importantly, the state developed a persistently large underclass dependent on (or perhaps even created by) the government. The result is that not only are the Republicans an impotent minority in the Legislature, but it is impossible for a Republican candidate—no matter how qualified or moderate or nonwhite (e.g., Lanhee Chen)—to get elected to statewide office.
Sure, there have been glimmers of hope. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected twice in the early 2000s, but that was really the last gasp of the GOP in the Golden State, and he proved to be yet further proof of the State’s ineluctable drift towards socialism. So we are left with a state of affairs where no matter how burdensome and idiotic the regulation, no matter how much living costs go up and the standard of living is diminished, despite a homeless crisis that has become the shame of the Western World the ruling party not only gets reelected by overwhelming margins but is able to resist all efforts of correction. Which, when one steps back for a little perspective, is more or less what has just happened on a national scale. Call it the Californication of America.
Of course, the commentariat, both Left and Right, views it differently. For them the outcome was about bad candidate choice, or the salvation of American democracy, or voter exhaustion with the Trump circus and a resurgence of the “normies” (again), or abortion. Conspiracy theories aside, from the perspective of the losers things look a little different. To them, America has had three elections in which: a) the victor in the presidential contest was declared an enemy of the state and the opposition sought to thwart his powers at every turn—even those historically within the purview of the president (like, say, foreign policy); b) that same victor lost a close re-election bid to an opponent who had no evident constituency and had hardly campaigned; and, c) a midterm election, which by any historical standard should have been a complete blow out, was instead a complete disappointment, in part due to widespread adoption of a voting practice (mail-in balloting) that had historically been limited to special circumstances due to its inherent weaknesses as regards ballot integrity.
Democracy in a two-party system is based on the idea that your side wins roughly 50 percent of the time. By that measure, American democracy has failed. Time and time again, conservatives have won only to see their efforts undone: Nearly 45 years ago, Reagan ran against the New Deal and the Great Society. Aside from some reforms to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the 1996 welfare reform act, which has in large part been undone by Biden’s Covid relief bill) the programs created by those misguided attempts at federal problem-solving (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and many others) survive. From 2001 to 2006 and then and then again between 2017 and 2018, Republicans gained complete control of the government, with no obvious achievement other than tax cuts, which have done little to rein in the size and scope of government.
Similarly, initial successes to stop same-sex marriage (like California’s two triumphant efforts, propositions 22 and 8, to uphold the traditional definition of marriage) were overturned by the courts. The attempt to halt the global warming diktats from unelected bureaucrats at the UN (the withdrawal from the Paris Accord) seems bound to be overturned by a succession of climate conferences where global activists determine the fate of supposedly free and sovereign Americans. In almost every instance we have seen that attempts by conservatives to play by the book have all been, or are being, reversed, unwound, and minimized. In time, we will probably see the same with abortion, especially now that a national law to protect same-sex marriage has been passed (with Republican help) and signed into law, thereby removing one last argument against a nationwide law for abortion. Conservatives (broadly defined) are never allowed to win, even when they play by the rules. Is it any wonder that they have lost faith in the system?
If the observation, which I made in a previous essay, that America has been in a stalemate—marked by profound cultural disputes—since the culmination of the social revolution of the 1960s (as others have observed and which I concur) is correct, then we have just witnessed the final act—and my side has lost. While the Democrats and their allies in the media are hailing the results of the off-year election as the redemption of American Democracy, in reality, the 2022 election makes future acts along the lines of January 6 more likely as people on the “losing” side fully embrace the idea that the system is rigged to prevent them from ever realizing their legitimate political goals. In other words, that the United States has become as irredeemably beyond correction as its most populous state.
J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics.