Most of us will never admit it, but almost everyone who works in or covers national politics already knows what will happen in November’s midterm elections. You don’t need a crystal ball to figure it out.
A minority of Americans (and a minority of minorities) will vote on November 4. When the dust settles, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) will still be Speaker of the House, which will in truth be governed by the unpredictable whims of a rump Tea Party caucus. Harry Reid, the current majority leader, or Mitch McConnell, Reid’s Republican bête noire, will narrowly control the Senate. But whichever party is in the minority will use the filibuster to foil the majority party’s aims. Finally, Barack Obama will still be president. The two parties, which deeply and sincerely disagree about most of the important issues facing the nation, will find little room for meaningful compromise. The only legislation that will pass both houses of Congress and win the president’s signature will be of the most uncontroversial variety. Perhaps Obama will need to appoint a Supreme Court Justice before the end of his presidency—but, because of the filibuster, that will likely involve a fight no matter who wins control of the Senate in the midterms. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee for president, will be a heavy favorite in the general election. In other words, neither party will control both Congress and the White House.
In recent months, we’ve been granted a reprieve from this boredom—but only because of the sheer terribleness of the world beyond our borders. Little children swarmed across the U.S. border on their own, fleeing the poverty and deadly violence of El Salvador and Guatemala. The Israelis and Palestinians began killing each other with renewed vigor. Ukrainian separatists brought down a plane. Islamic fanatics too brutal for Al Qaeda took control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and started chopping off hands and heads. It’s no surprise that, with divided government likely for the foreseeable future, most of the real action will have to do with foreign policy, where the president has far more power to act unilaterally than he does at home.
Conservatives will no doubt argue that legislative gridlock is a positive: Congress should be doing less, not more, they’ll say. Others—including some in the White House—will note that, despite the paralysis in Congress, the domestic situation is better than it has been since the president took office: new unemployment claims are at their lowest level since 2006, well before the recession started; inflation is low; the stock market is up; Obamacare seems to be working.
But these coats of fresh paint mask a deep rot. America faces two major challenges that our leaders have done little, if anything, to confront. One is climate change. In May, two new scientific papers concluded that the collapse of most of the western Antarctic ice sheet—which contains enough water to increase sea levels by ten to thirteen feet—is now inevitable. Cable news networks barely covered the story. World governments once aimed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius; scientists now believe that at least that much warming is already inevitable. A rise of 2.5 degrees Celsius would bring us to temperatures last seen about 3 million years ago, during the Pliocene geological period, when sea levels were between sixty and a hundred feet higher than today. Yet carbon emissions continue to rise unabated.
America also faces a more immediate threat. The financial system has changed dramatically since the 2008 crash. Markets now move too fast for regulators to monitor them properly. Computer algorithms trade several times in the amount of time it takes you to blink your eye. Yet the only brakes on this system are automatic, designed in response to the previous crisis. There is no one who can hit the big red button if something goes wrong; indeed, there is no big red button. Bankers promise that they understand the systems they’ve designed, but we’ve heard that before. Can American democracy withstand the political stresses of another bailout? Can the American economy withstand the costs of letting another Lehman fail?
These problems are real and pressing. Yet our political system remains stagnant—and that’s unlikely to change even after 2014. For decades, left-of-center voters have become increasingly concentrated in cities, where Democrats run up huge margins. Republicans, meanwhile, win by smaller but still mainly safe margins in exurban and rural areas. This dynamic essentially assures Republican control of the House of Representatives, except in years when Democrats can run against an unpopular GOP incumbent (e.g., George W. Bush). It’s been made worse by gerrymandering: in 2010, Democrats were swept out of state legislatures and governorships, handing Republicans the ability to draw congressional districts in most states. Democrats are already spending millions to try to win those seats back. But even if they do, it may not be enough. The Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minorities’ right to elect representatives of their choosing, all but guarantees that Democratic votes will be inefficiently distributed, ensuring perpetual Republican control of most rural parts of the country. Without a dramatic demographic change, or an equally dramatic change in the number of Americans who care enough about politics to show up to the polls, divided government is probably the most Democrats can hope for.
With Congress gridlocked, power will naturally accrue to other parts of the government—especially the courts and the executive branch. Unelected judges will continue to make huge changes in national policy, and Congress will be unable to respond. Executive action to deal with pressing national problems will become increasingly normalized, strengthening the national-security state and getting both parties used to the idea of rule by executive fiat. The few interest groups—mainly corporate ones—that manage to win bipartisan support will gain even more influence in Washington.
America’s political system was not designed for the fierce ideological divisions that underlie the modern party system, and that’s the kind of structural flaw that can end up destroying a country. If Americans don’t want to go the way of the ancient Romans, we’ll have to find a solution. Climate activists staged a giant march on September 21 to give national and international politicians (in New York for the UN summit) a sense of urgency about the problem. Alas, a recent study by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page confirmed what you’ve always suspected: “Mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” on American government policy—only rich people and big businesses have that power. But average citizens don’t have many other good options. For my money, if you want to make change in Washington, there are only two things to do: organize—and vote.