In 2018, Liberalism Returns to the States

The Tea Party is over. The Editorial Board expects 26 governorships to go blue.

There’s a great debate on what’s going to happen Election Day.

Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics cast a little doubt on “blue wave” talk by comparing this year’s midterms to 2006 when George W. Bush was less popular than the current president and the economy wasn’t as good. The big-picture indicators, he said, aren’t as evident as they might be. It’s still possible for the GOP to keep the US Congress.

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein agrees to a degree, while noting that Donald Trump is still less popular than Ronald Reagan in 1982, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2010. He said the main thing, however, is that “we don't really know what to make of Trump's higher disapproval or his really high intense disapproval.”

Intensity is key to Peter Hamby’s piece Thursday in Vanity Fair. Polling isn’t flawless he said, but it’s still the most reliable method we have for measuring public opinion. That said, polling has shown a major blind-spot since Trump took office, Hamby argued. “Polls have consistently underestimated Democratic performance.”

In last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, Hamby said, Ed Gillespie campaigned as a mini-Trump, railing against immigrants. For a while, it looked like he’d win, but he ended up losing by nine. It’s not that his race-baiting was ineffective. “Gillespie won more votes than any previous statewide Republican candidate; he had enthusiasm at his back. It’s just that Democrats had more—and they blew the doors off.”

I tend to agree with Hamby’s larger point, which is that polling measures the electorate that was, not the electorate that is. Pollsters must make assumptions in order to function, and those assumptions are rooted in the past, not the future. For this reason, Hamby said, polling might be missing, as the Virginia episode illustrates, the mobilization of Democrat voters, especially young and first-time voters. This is why I’m still feeling bullish about the Democratic chances of taking both chambers of the Congress. (To be sure, I could be eating these words come Tuesday.)

I’m feeling more bullish about the states, where the decade-long Tea Party revolution, if you want to call it that, is finally unwinding. The Republicans control 33 governorships, the most since the 1920s. Whatever you think of congressional races, there is no where for the GOP to go but down in the states. And that’s coinciding with a great anti-Trump reaction. After all is said and done, the Editorial Board’s Chris Luongo anticipates 26 governorships going into the blue column, 22 in the red.

This is important beyond the view that control of states enables Democrats to redraw congressional districts after the next Census. I’m talking about the Supreme Court.

For a long time, for nearly a century, liberals turned to the federal government to put political principles in action. This is sometimes called the creation of the welfare state or “Leviathan.” Whatever you call it, the federal government, whether by statute or court precedent, was the instrument by which liberal objectives were achieved.

Conversely, conservatives turned to the states. During this time, you saw the rise of the state’s rights movement. Conservatives labored to prevent, or at least slow down, the federal government’s effort to stop state governments from violating the rights and liberties of their residents (think Jim Crow). Most of the time, this conflict was soft, a matter of policy and law, but it did come into open, as when Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Arkansas to escort black children to all-white schools.

The Supreme Court was in no way a friend to liberalism from the 1980s to the present, but liberals did get things they wanted, like marriage equality and other rulings central today’s understanding of social justice. Even after liberals were thwarted at the state level, they reasonably expected facts and justice to prevail at the top. I seriously doubt liberals can expect that from the current court. With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, the balance of power has shifted, making John Roberts the swing vote.

Now it’s the liberals’ turn to return to the states. To be sure, the states will have to do whatever the Supreme Court says they should do legally and constitutionally. But at the state level, liberals can continue to do what they should have been doing more of for nearly a century—persuading Americans from the ground up to embrace the tenets of liberals rather than forcing them to accept those tenets from on high.

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