I’ve heard some grim forebodings from friends on the political prospects for 2022. The Republican juggernaut will be overwhelming—a combination of voter suppression, gerrymandering and the typical pattern of midterm election losses for the party in the White House make it likely that the GOP will re-take control of Congress in this coming election cycle. I disagree. Yes, Republicans enjoy important structural advantages in our political system, and they are happy to strengthen those advantages at the expense of democracy. But I don’t think their prospects are as bright as they might hope or some of us might fear. I’m fairly hopeful, even optimistic, about 2022.
Let’s take voter suppression. After the 2013 Supreme Court Shelby vs. Holder decision killed key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Republican lawmakers in dozens of states pushed through measures designed to make it harder to vote. They undoubtedly had that effect, but in their ultimate objective—which was to reduce voter turnout, to the presumptive benefit of the GOP—they were largely unsuccessful. Why? Because the intended victims of voter suppression tend to react with a stiffened determination to vote, come what may. Thus, one empirical study of “ the resilience of Black turnout” found that “Despite well-founded fears to the contrary, the Shelby decision does not appear to have widened the turnout gap between Black and White voters….” Instead, “…an accumulating body of evidence… suggests that voters mobilize in response to increases in the cost of voting when those increases are perceived as threats to the franchise.” Other studies have come to similar conclusions.
Besides, voter suppression is a double-edged sword. Both Republicans and many progressives have long assumed that high turnout favors the left. That’s not at all clear. In the 2020 elections millions of new voters came out to vote for Donald Trump and his party. New voters are by definition not habitual voters. Make it harder for everybody to vote and you may a lose a lot of occasional voters who would come out to vote for you. Two important components of the Trump/GOP base—older and rural voters—are disadvantaged by voter suppression efforts.
Of course, none of this makes voter suppression efforts any the less outrageous. They need to be fought vigorously, if only to encourage the intended victims to maintain their resistance. But voter suppression isn’t the reliable path to minority rule that the Republicans would like it to be.
What about gerrymandering? Yes, the Republicans in states across the country will use the 2020 Census results to continue to gerrymander Congressional and legislative districts in their favor. But “continue” is the key word here. Republicans effectively gerrymandered after the 2010 elections and census, but that success didn’t prevent the Democrats from sweeping the 2018 midterm elections. And now it looks like the Republicans’ gerrymandering prospects for the 2020 decade are actually somewhat less auspicious than they were ten years ago. The NY Times’s Thomas Edsall cites one scholar whose provisional estimate based on the 2020 elections is that Republicans will control redistricting for 188 congressional seats this cycle, to just 73 for the Democrats. (167 will be under split partisan control.) Not pretty, but better than 2010, when the numbers favored the Republicans 213 to 44. So, there’s no reason why the 2018 midterm results couldn’t be replicated in 2022; except…
Except that in 2022 the Democrats will be the party in the White House, and the strong historical pattern is that the president’s party loses Congressional seats in the midterm elections. Strong but not invariable. The president’s party gained seats in midterms as recently as 2002 and 1998. But the most relevant counter-instance, to my mind, is 1934, when the Democrats increased their already large Congressional majorities as voters registered their enthusiastic approval of FDR’s New Deal. No, Biden is no FDR, but his program compares in scope and boldness to the early New Deal. And the current public health/economic emergency arguably approaches the Great Depression in its catastrophic effects. (Arguably because how do you compare a depression that devastated millions of lives to a public health/economic crisis, which, while not remotely as catastrophic for the economy, has killed hundreds of thousands of lives and disrupted millions ?) Biden will get a lot of credit—even more, actually, than he will deserve—for our recovery from COVID and its economic aftermath. American voters are strongly supportive of Biden’s response to the crisis, and they will almost surely be enjoying a booming economy in 2022. I expect the Democrats to enjoy a large popular advantage over their rivals on the right, and that margin of advantage should be enough to overcome the Republicans’ structural advantages and dirty tricks.
To be clear—I would never want to encourage complacency. But there is no reason for defeatism, either. We all need to do what we can to ensure that the Republican Party is routed in 2022 and after. And yes, we can.