The beauty of democracy is that it tends to force politicians to govern from the center.
Critics sometimes complain that government under America’s two-party system is too difficult to move; that those two parties tend to absorb and temper the more radical elements afoot in the culture and stymie real change. But that is its chief virtue and the reason for the nation’s relative long-term stability.
This virtue was on display during Tuesday’s local elections nationwide.
The temptation is to overplay the results of governors races in Virginia and New Jersey. It’s much too early, for example, to know whether a Republican win in Virginia and a challenge that nearly unseated New Jersey’s Democratic governor will translate into the GOP taking control of both houses of Congress next fall.
That will depend on what happens in the next 12 months, and much can change.
What is clear, however, is that the Democratic majority in Washington has overreached since taking power in January, and that the American electorate, as a whole, is savvy enough to know what it wants, and to rise above partisanship to express it.
The “Build Back Better” Act, with its massive expansion of government into everything from free college tuition to universal preschool, and efforts to increase federal encroachment into public school curricula at the expense of parental input are not things average Americans want at the moment.
Talk about eliminating the filibuster in the Senate has raised fears of one-party control that Utah Sen. Mitt Romney wisely warned this week would eventually backfire on Democrats.
Taken together, these efforts raise concerns, especially about government debt and federal intrusion into everyday life. Americans today seem more worried about inflation, which hit a 5.4% annual clip in September, than anything else.
Glenn Youngkin, now Virginia’s governor-elect, showed that a skillful politician could exploit this disconnect and tap into the nation’s centrist views. Unfortunately, he also tapped into some common fears based on racial politics, no doubt alienating many Black voters. A Wall Street Journal report said only 12% of Black voters favored Youngkin. However, he won a majority of Hispanic voters and 47% of other racial minorities. Many college educated white men who voted for Biden last year chose Youngkin this year. Republicans, like Democrats, must be wary of pushing extremes, especially those that feed on fears and alienate segments of voters.
He also subtly distanced himself from former President Donald Trump, whose extreme personality traits can be off-putting. Youngkin did this by essentially not mentioning the former president and not campaigning with him, while also exhibiting a more moderate rhetorical tone.
Rather than mount a convincing response, incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe defended decisions to keep schools closed because of the pandemic, and tried to paint Youngkin as a racist. Youngkin, in turn, focused on parental choice, inflation and public safety.
We note, too, that voters in Minneapolis, the epicenter of protests over police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, soundly rejected the idea that the city should dismantle its police department and replace it with an amorphous public-health oriented public safety department.
Voters seemed to be tapping the brakes on radicalism from coast to coast.
The political lessons of Virginia and New Jersey are hard to miss. Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020. He won New Jersey by nearly 16 percentage points. History suggests the party in power tends to lose steam during the next round of local and midterm elections, but these are notable reversals, and they mirror the president’s drop in approval ratings.
Political wisdom suggests Democrats ought to now reconsider the path they are on in Washington, abandon their radical government expansion plans and address the problems with which people are struggling in America’s center.
They should govern Americans where they live, not try to push them into places they either don’t want, or can’t afford to go. As always, that is the key to victory in a democracy.