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Ballots and bullets: what we learned in 2018

After a year of violence and division, some hope for 2019.

A protester is removed from a Trump rally, in October.
A protester is removed from a Trump rally, in October 2016.
David Greedy/Getty

People have been tweeting about how long 2018 seemed, but it didn’t really hit me until I listened to “2018 in sound” on the New York Times podcast The Daily. The 30-minute episode is heavy on the midterms, family separations at the US-Mexico border, and the incidents of gun violence in Parkland, Florida; Thousand Oaks, California; Pittsburgh, and Annapolis, to name a few.

So what did we learn about American politics in a year that was unsparing in its violence and unrelenting in its display of political rifts?

2018 was the year Trump finally became president

Okay, I’m just using this cliché to troll you all. What I mean is that Donald Trump’s year in office really highlighted the complex relationship between the formal and informal aspects of the presidency.

I’m not sure there’s a better illustration of this complexity than the combination of Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw US troops from Syria, and the letter that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis sent announcing his resignation. Trump has the power to change the course of American foreign policy. But he often doesn’t have the influence to keep talented people in his Cabinet, or to persuade others of his approach in this realm.

Several political scientists (including me) have already pointed out that Trump is weak in the sense that Richard Neustadt associated with the modern presidency. Neustadt called it the power to persuade; another way to think about it is influence. Many of Trump’s mistakes are straight out of the classic Neustadt text: He reverses himself, putting potential allies in a difficult position. He’s resistant to acquiring information or hiring experts, thus relinquishing another form of leverage.

But while Neustadt’s argument was that resorting to the formal powers of the presidency — what he called “cases of command” — showed weakness, those actions still have important consequences for politics and policy. (Later work on the presidency takes up this issue.)

Policy changes out of the executive branch don’t always come directly from the president, and the changes that this administration announces don’t always go into effect. But the Trump administration, directed by the president himself and by members of the administration like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has been consistent in its approach to immigration.

As a result, the enactment of the family separation and zero-tolerance policies at the border this summer forced further divisions with the GOP, helped make “abolish ICE” a fairly mainstream stance in the Democratic Party, and, most importantly, affected thousands of lives. A weak president still occupies a powerful office.

2018 was the year partisan politics became all about power

But hasn’t partisan politics always been all about power? This is kind of a trick question. After the midterm elections, Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin altered the rules to, among other things, limit the formal powers of incoming Democratic governors. This has caused serious concern about respect for fundamental democratic values: accepting the results of elections, acknowledging the legitimacy of the opposition, not changing the rules in the middle of the game.

This piece by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp illustrates the general tone of the coverage of these post-election changes, which suggests that they go beyond politicians’ normal jockeying for power. If the power-consolidating moves by state politicians are different not just in degree but in kind from the usual ebb and flow of power, then we need to start thinking about takes that go beyond outrage and into explanations.

Why now? Is this a Trump effect? Is it, as George Packer suggests in the Atlantic, the end result of decades of ideological developments in the GOP? The possibility that one of the two parties has developed a set of ideas that are incompatible with legitimate opposition is one that deserves scrutiny and possible alarm. But it isn’t the only potential explanation.

I remain open but skeptical of explanations that suggest politics are simply worse than in the eras where leaders — and I use the term loosely — took pains to preserve slavery and Jim Crow, excluded women, and used offensive stereotypes to justify imperial adventures. (Not that any of these problems have been entirely solved.)

Other explanations might include the possibility that politicians have always sought as much power as they can get away with, but when politics is aligned and sorted, the costs of consolidation go down. In other words, if you don’t share much in the way of networks, priorities, or constituencies with the other party, there’s no incentive not to screw them as hard as you can.

Many pieces about the post-election legislation pointed out that these moves seem to be a mainly Republican play, though Democrats’ power consolidation moves in New Jersey attracted some attention. There are some interesting questions here about asymmetry (also a 2017 year-end theme).

In addition to the parties’ different motivating ideologies, there’s also the hypothesis that Republicans have opted for this strategy because of their dwindling electoral numbers. But if Democrats adopt similar approaches, that kind of points to other factors. It also raises questions about whether electoral competition will diminish party asymmetry as the two parties respond to similar pressures to motivate their bases and construct narrow wins.

In 2019, we’ll see political division from a different angle

Well, who the hell knows? Don’t look to me for predictions. But we know that we’re going into the year with a GOP president and Senate and a Democratically controlled House of Representatives. We haven’t seen Trump deal with a divided government, and split control of the two chambers of Congress is relatively rare in the modern era.

What we do know is that we’re divided, and that mostly the consensus is that this isn’t ideal for governance, maybe approaching unsustainable for democracy. Since the 2016 election — and maybe even before that — a number of political takes seem to boil down to one fair question: Can democracy last when the two parties can barely acknowledge the other’s legitimacy and point of view? Can a political system divided by race, religion, lifestyle and class reasonably represent anything resembling the will of the people? Or is a system like this doomed to end in incivility, gridlock, or even violence?

At the end of 2018, the prospects seem grim. As I write this, the government partially shut down in a conflict over funding for Trump’s border wall. The 2018 elections were to some degree an exercise in further sorting the country, with red-state Democrats Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly, and Heidi Heitkamp defeated, suburban areas trending blue, and pronounced divides in gender, race, and education. This level of sorting is generally received as bad news for American democracy.

But the thing is, we don’t know for sure. Historically, the issues that have deeply divided the polity — mostly race, but also issues of political economy — have run through the parties rather than between them. As a result, those conflicts were contained up to breaking points, like the Civil War, the Great Depression, and violent civil rights clashes.

Where racial injustice was involved, the solutions often contained elements of the original problem: progress met with backlash, half-measures and implementation problems, and new hierarchies and discriminatory policies. Notably, two of the prominent issues of 2018, gun control and immigration, have until recently been the source of at least some division within each party, though this is changing as Democrats have embraced gun control as a signature issue and party positions on immigration have solidified.

It’s possible that the different structure of deeply felt conflict, between parties rather than within them, will produce something different. Solutions may be more elusive, but the eventual compromises might also be fairer and less morally, well, compromised.

It looks like there will be a wider range of voices at the table than in the past. The difficult conversations about who we are and where we’re going might actually happen; they won’t be fun, but they won’t be off the table.

I don’t know exactly how things might proceed differently with parties that are sorted to this level, and I remain concerned about party weakness in a period of strong partisanship. But after thinking a great deal about the number of complicated, difficult issues that grab headlines and divide the parties in obvious and prominent ways, I feel cautiously optimistic that our recent painful politics will not be in vain. It’s exhausting to fight about everything. The alternative is far worse.