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Narratives are simple. Elections are complicated.

It takes a while for the story of an election to emerge.

Congresswoman Jacky Rosen speaks with guests during a Hispanic Heritage Celebration Kickoff in Las Vegas, Nev. on September 15, 2018.
Rep. Jacky Rosen speaks with guests during a Hispanic Heritage Celebration Kickoff in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 15, 2018.
Mikayla Whitmore for Vox

The narrative from the 2018 midterms is that there is no narrative. We’ve known for some time that this was likely to happen: Democrats were favored to win the House and Republicans to hold the Senate.

Despite Republican victories in Florida in the Senate and governor’s race (as far as we can tell) and the defeat of incumbent Claire McCaskill in Missouri, these states approved progressive ballot measures. Some commentators have fired up takes about how the blue wave failed to materialize. Others have suggested that the national popular vote for the House, which looks like it will bear a solid margin for Democrats best measures the mood of the country.

Beneath these more obvious contradictions, there were many more complex factors. Charismatic candidates who drew national media attention, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida, lost, while quieter figures like Wisconsin’s Tony Evers and Nevada’s Jacky Rosen won.

The election was fought over lots of different issues as well as candidate personalities, and a mix of local and national factors. Perhaps most importantly, the rules about who gets to vote, where, and how, and under what conditions vary by state and even by county or city. Did you get to vote by mail, or does your town have only one voting location? Do you live in an affluent suburb or a Native American reservation? Did your county hire enough poll workers? These questions, not just campaigns and candidates, inform election outcomes.

The night also revealed, in case anyone didn’t know, that the country is deeply divided on race, ethnicity, and religion. As political scientist Cas Mudde points out, President Donald Trump’s brand of Republicanism did well at the ballot box in some places, allowing Trump-style Republicans to replace more conventional ones in some places.

Iowa Rep. Steve King, who lost support from the National Republican Congressional Committee and local media over his offensive comments about immigration and diversity, narrowly won reelection in his Iowa district.

At the same time, the House is set to become more diverse, with Muslim, Native American, black and Latina women breaking new ground for their respective states. LGBTQ representation is improving, slowly. Victories for both equality and white supremacy are part of the 2018 story, and demonstrate the complexity of a changing country. They also show the power of its legacy of exclusion.

Although American politics in 2018 may be especially pulled in multiple directions and filled with division and backlash, ambiguous election results are hardly new. In 1972, voters returned President Richard Nixon to the White House (overwhelmingly) and Democrats kept control of Congress. Four years later, Democrats kept the Congress and won the White House, but with light gains in the former and a very narrow margin in the latter. The 2000 election brought similarly narrow results.

Sometimes elections carry a mixed or unclear message, or no message at all. Beneath these seemingly equivocal results, though, were hundreds of individual political campaigns, each with their own ideas, ambitions, successes, and failures.

Even elections that delivered more decisive victories to one party or the other were not automatically translated into clear stories. As I’ve pointed out before, one of the election narratives bouncing around after Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the 1932 election was about alcohol and prohibition, not the Great Depression.

Ronald Reagan effectively persuaded people that the 1980 election was a mandate for conservative policies, but the election could just as easily have been about rejecting Jimmy Carter. (In fact, evidence suggests this latter narrative is more persuasive.)

The proliferation of different arguments about the meaning of the election results that we’re seeing this week is pretty standard for the first few days after an election.

So elections are complicated, with many individual stories and moving parts. Narratives compress these distinct pieces into a simple national story. But, paradoxically, the opposite is also true: Elections are simple. Narratives are complicated.

Despite all the factors that go into a national election, most of the time they follow established patterns. Fundamental factors like the economy and presidential approval matter. Partisanship is a big deal. The president’s party usually loses seats in a midterm.

Election narratives are as much about what we collectively need from politics as they are about anything that really happened. As I argue in my book about presidential mandate-claiming, election interpretation becomes a more popular sport when legitimacy is in question. I think that’s a pretty fair description of where we are right now.

Under normal and mundane circumstances, we can probably accept that elections are sometimes close and break certain ways because of chance or interpretations of the fundamentals or whatever. In a situation in which everything feels like a crisis, the demand for stories about what the electorate wants and how the government will respond seems to rise.

Election narratives highlight the issues that defined the election, sometimes more by what happened later than by anything said during the campaign. These narratives can also hold up a kind of mirror to the electorate, telling it what values it displayed by voting for certain candidates or parties.

Choices, for example, to highlight the diverse backgrounds of candidates like Rashida Tlaib or Jared Polis (the first Muslim-American woman elected to Congress and the first openly gay man elected governor, respectively) are ideological and political decisions, and they tell us about where we’ve fallen short in the past and who we — many of us, anyway — wish to be.

The need for narrative is understandable, but it’s not necessarily healthy. Not only does it indicate flagging legitimacy, but it also asks elections to do too much. This week’s midterms, in particular, were framed as a referendum on and a lifetime for American democracy. That’s a lot to put on a process that’s simultaneously mundane and idiosyncratic.

And elections have concrete as well as symbolic consequences. Last night will probably mark the beginning of the national career of a politician who will change the nation or define an era. But we may not know who or how for years to come.

Elections are important. But the search for narrative means that we’re looking to them not just to legitimately confer power or hold officials accountable. We’re looking to them to tell us who we are, politically.

And we don’t need them to do that. The past few years of American politics have been characterized by rallies, marches, policy fights, and political organizing — all over the political spectrum. If nothing else, this should tell us that our political stories can’t all be captured in one night’s election returns.

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