A referendum on what? There are so many options.

Today’s election is obviously a referendum on Donald Trump. As the New York Times told us on Sunday: A Nation in Turmoil Prepares to Deliver a Verdict on Trump.

But it’s also a referendum on racism. “By running so overtly on racially tinged messages, the GOP is putting that explosive form of politics on the ballot,” explained the Washington Post.

Actually, it’s more than that. “Above all, it’s about something more elemental: what kind of country Americans see today and want to see in the future,” the esteemed Dan Balz wrote in the Post.

Well, it’s really all those things. “It is a competition for the soul of America — a referendum on Trump and the venomous political culture that many blame for gridlock in Congress and a recent spate of hate crimes and politically motivated attacks,” declared the Associated Press.

That’s how the national political media sees it.

But the midterm election is not one election, it is a multitude of elections, each with its own dynamic. Consider the map Bloomberg made showing the dominant issue in political ads, by media market.

Bloomberg graphic.

And the way the elections have been playing out on the ground may not fit so neatly into the national media’s narrative. The parts may not add up to a whole, or if they do, it may be a different whole than the pundits are expecting.

Here are some other ways of looking at today’s election:

It’s a referendum on the political parties.

The binary choice is not between Trump and not-Trump, it’s between Republicans and Democrats. Some Republicans have bound themselves closely to Trump, others not. Some Democrats are barely mentioning Trump at all, casting their appeals to voters on different grounds. (Another Bloomberg map showed how Democratic ads didn’t mention Trump at all in many media markets.) You have two deeply flawed political parties, both dominated by elites, both corrupted by money, both doing what they think it takes to win. One party is utterly devoid of intellectual honesty and is appealing to the worst strands of American hate, nativism and know-nothingism. But if you believe that a large majority of Americans don’t share Trumpist values, you’ve got to ask yourself: what it is about the Democratic Party that makes this a close contest in the first place?

It’s a referendum on which tribe dominates.

American politics is increasingly tribal, a function of where you live, who your friends are, where you worship, what you eat and who everyone you know is voting for. So the battle today is between two tribes; between two ways of seeing the world. Once you have picked a tribe, renouncing it is very hard, no matter what. Once you’ve experienced the feeling that white Christian America is being victimized by pluralism and the social safety net, how do you suddenly change sides?

It’s a referendum on gerrymandering.

The “generic” congressional Democratic candidate may have a nine-point lead over the Republican, but partisan gerrymandering in congressional maps drawn by Republicans is so severe that according to a Brennan Center for Justice report, Democrats would likely have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 points to attain a majority of House seats. (Check out this interactive map.) Democrats could win the popular congressional vote, but not the majority.

It’s a referendum on voter suppression.

Republicans have worked hard to make voting harder, rather than easier — a truly despicable, but effective way to play politics. Restrictions on voting include strict voter ID rules, the purge of voter rolls and other measures that disproportionately affect strongly Democratic constituencies – particularly minority voters – either forcing them to cast “provisional” ballots, disqualifying their ballots, or turning them away from the voting booth entirely. Republicans have curbed early voting and closed polling places. Enforcement of voting rights for minorities declined sharply after the Supreme Court struck down the core of the 1965 Voting Rights Act five years ago. Instead, Trump tweets scary, unfounded warnings of voter fraud, which is essentially nonexistent.

It’s a referendum on the media (part one).

The American media landscape has become so fractured that people can now exist in their media bubble of choice – and one of the biggest is a hodgepodge of right-wing fantasy, nightmares and conspiracy theories with no basis in actual fact. Fox News, right-wing websites and lunatic-fringe social media have somehow tapped into a market — and a business model — that no one in the age of Walter Cronkite could remotely have imagined, even in their most dystopian nightmares. The continued existence of this bubble is a threat to liberal democracy.

It’s referendum on the media (part two).

“Real” newsrooms have only recently and grudgingly been able to call what Trump does lying. But they still let Trump set the agenda, they still broadcast his words, and they focus on him almost to the exclusion of other Republican leaders. The main storyline today should not be about Trump, directly, it should be about the Republican Party’s abject surrender to a maniac; their hypocritical embrace of someone most of them know is unfit for office; their enthusiastic exploitation of Trumpism to achieve their swampy, pro-corporate agenda; and their complete failure to fulfill their constitutional role as a check to the executive. Senate leader Mitch McConnell lies as much as Trump (percentagewise), but has gotten a pass from real newsrooms. One story that should have been everywhere in this election cycle is the fraud that was the Republican “middle-class tax cut”. But instead of showing where the money went, compared to where Republicans said it would, the media narrative gives the GOP credit for the economic boom. Is there any limit to how far Republicans will go in abasing themselves to Trumpism? That’s the  question that should have been driving election coverage.


Today’s election could have been a referendum on truth. It could have been a referendum on fear. It could have been a referendum on the rise of authoritarianism, Trump’s attack on the rule of law, the failure of checks and balances against an overpowered executive branch, and the desperate need for a resurgent Congress that reclaims its role in governing. It could have been a referendum on corruption. But Democrats and the national media never pitched it that way, for whatever reasons.

How, then, should we read the results tomorrow? An overwhelming Democratic victory in the House, Senate and gubernatorial races would certainly signify the dawn of an American renewal, possibly even a revolution. But anything short of that, who knows?

3 thoughts on “A referendum on what? There are so many options.”

  1. Indeed, Who knows.

    Our worst result could be being stuck in a rut with Right Wing forces keeping us too divided to meaningfully engage, soon to be, existential issues.

  2. The either/or option at the very end is too simplistic. Many of the things Dan writes about -voter suppression, gerrymandering, voter purges- already exist and the nature of which corporate party has to defend more seats in otherwise hostile territory goes unaccounted. Otherwise a really good read.

  3. Democrats should campaign on two slogans. (1) “The more people help others, the more people help others,” summed up as TEMPO. (2) “Hurt people hurt people” summed up as HUP. Therefore, the Dems should argue, our society should harm the fewest people and help the most so that the most people will be able to help others. For details, see http://www.tempoandhup.com.


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