Social Volatility, Meet Political Volatility

We’ve been buffeted in recent months by the coronavirus pandemic, widespread protests over police violence that often turned into outright civil unrest, and of course, the rampage through the Capitol on Jan. 6. This is truly a unique and unfortunate moment in our nation’s history.

But too few seem to realize or fully appreciate the uniqueness of our politics heading into next year’s midterm elections. For the third cycle running, the House and Senate will be unusually competitive. And given the historically tight margins in each chamber, there will be far-reaching consequences coming from the outcome of the elections, just over 500 days from now.

Until this year, only one other time since voters first began to directly elect senators in 1914 has the Senate been evenly divided at the beginning of a Congress. Fittingly, that was at the onset of the 107th Congress, immediately following the 2000 campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which ended up with Bush prevailing by 537 votes in Florida to win the Electoral College. That same photo-finish election in 2000 produced a House with 221 Republicans, 211 Democrats, two independents, and one vacant seat.

To find other such paper-thin majorities, you’ve got to go back almost to prehistoric times (to me, anyway; I was born in 1953). The 83rd Congress, elected in 1952, gave Republicans a 221-213 seat majority, with one independent. The GOP clung to a similarly slim majority in the Senate, 48 to 47, with one independent. (Thanks to membership changes during the two years, Congress would conclude with a one-seat Democratic majority.)

The other noteworthy time when a party held onto both the Senate and the House by their fingernails was the 72nd Congress, elected in 1930. Then, Republicans held 218 House seats to 216 for the Democrats, with one independent. In the Senate, Republicans held 48 seats to Democrats’ 47 seats with one independent.

In those previous Congresses with narrow party control, the majority generally played it safe. That’s not the case today. No matter how small their majority, the audacious leaders of today’s parties see themselves as having a mandate for big change.

We are now in a winner-take-all period of American politics. If you win an election, regardless of how modest the margin, it is now a license to do it all. Witness Republicans’ behavior in 2017 and 2018, and certainly the mindset of most Democrats now.

There’s another factor at play that makes this political moment unique: the tribalism in our politics today. About 90 percent of self-identified partisans vote straight tickets for the candidates of that party, and about 80 percent of independents who lean to each party do the same. Like the first rule of Fight Club, the primary rule in politics today is that you never abandon the tribe. In fact, you probably should never even criticize the tribe.

Tiny majorities in this new zero-sum game of politics create a ping-pong effect in policy. Power careens from one extreme to the other, as the tenth of the electorate that doesn’t align, or even lean toward a party, punishes the incumbents. And that is how we have had four straight presidents lose both Senate and House majorities while they were in office. This is a very unique time, with dynamics that would be unrecognizable to elected officials of a half-century or century ago.