A Blow Against the Malice Theory of American Politics

Arizona Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake and former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images.)

It is easy to overinterpret election results. Back when I was researching my last book, I spent days running down a fascinating rabbit hole. I was trying to answer a key question: Why were partisans so oblivious to the escalating tensions that were tearing America apart? Why were they so confident that the solution to American polarization was domination and not accommodation? 

The answer was clear. For decades, winners and losers alike spun virtually every American election as the sign of things to come, the harbinger of a permanent victory (or permanent defeat). You don’t even have to be that old to see the recent pattern. The thrill of Democratic victory in 1992 turned into the agony of defeat in 1994, then the thrill of victory again in 1996.

After an agonizing election loss in 2000, the Democrats were apoplectic after Bush won again in 2004. Remember the “United States of Canada” and “Jesusland” memes that swept the internet as progressives lamented the alleged rise of Christian dominionism?

Then Obama won in 2008. But for Republicans, that was an aberration—a fluke caused by the housing crash and an unpopular war. The real majority came to the polls in Tea Party 2010. But wait: Obama won again in 2012, and suddenly all the momentum was on the side of the “coalition of the ascendant.” Remember that phrase? It signaled permanent Republican doom—the alleged party of white people couldn’t possibly keep winning in a nation that was growing more diverse by the year, could it?

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