By Vanessa Williamson
As the final votes are counted, political observers have begun to release their takes on what the election results mean. As usual, many of these analyses are highly self-interested. It is very appealing to find evidence that one’s pet issue has swayed the course of the nation. My question is a slightly different one: not what do I wish the parties would learn, but what lessons are they likely to take from the election?
Put bluntly, it is difficult for the contemporary parties to learn anything. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are not the coherent institutions they once were, with active local chapters that held meetings and powerful national institutions that held the purse strings. As political scientists have come to describe it, the parties today are “hollowed out”: amorphous ideological groupings populated by media organizations, consultants, issue advocates, and donors.
The hollowing of the parties is very bad for our politics, not least because it makes it hard for parties to learn from electoral experience—mistakes and successes—and shift gears to win more votes. The direction of the contemporary Republican Party is chosen to a meaningful extent by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, and those media are, in turn, driven by their bottom line. Outrage and conspiratorial thinking sell, whether or not they win elections. On the Democratic side, the preoccupation of the donor class with high-profile national races has long left down-ballot races desperately underfunded—even though a vast amount of our politics is determined in states and localities. These are obvious electoral liabilities, but because strategic decisions are not made within a robust party structure, it is very hard for the left or the right to adjust course.
So, neither party is actually well positioned to learn anything from the election, simply because neither party coalition is institutionally strong enough to act as a party. But, given this major limitation, what might the partisan coalitions learn this year?
On the Republican side, the most obvious lesson is to run higher quality candidates—but while Republicans might choose a less erratic and gaffe-prone slate, there is little reason to hope that those contenders will be committed to election integrity. Large swathes of the right have radicalized to an extent incompatible with electoral democracy; tellingly, it is now news-worthy when a prominent Republican quickly and graciously concedes an election. The year’s electoral defeats are unlikely to be enough to alter the party’s course. It could make the problem worse. Candidates unwilling to accept that they have lost an election are, if anything, more dangerous if they campaign with a moderate demeanor, a professional staff, and a stump speech that doesn’t set off alarm bells.
For Democrats, the 2022 election marks an unexpected overperformance. More important, Election Day appears to have unfolded with fewer (though some) false claims of fraud and without the lurking nightmare of violence at polling stations. A comforting but wrong lesson would be that it is time to let up on the vital work of preserving election integrity. There remains immense work to be done to shore up election administration and to protect voting rights, particularly if electoral defeat encourages Republicans to lean even harder into voter suppression in the lead-up to 2024. But success can breed apathy, and that may well be the lesson Democrats take this year.
Parties should respond to an election by considering how to be the choice of more of the voters. But lessons are hard to learn in politics, and our parties today are exceptionally weak institutions. Under these conditions, the plausible but dangerously wrong lessons of 2022 may well be, for the right, a more palatable authoritarianism, and for the left, a new complacency.