The success in Virginia and the close result in New Jersey share the fact that both candidates have distanced themselves from the former president and hallucinations about election fraud.
The famous historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote a masterpiece about the 20th century, “The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991.” The book takes a critical look at the 20th century and describes it as the most dreadful of all centuries. It would be a century of wars and the birth and death of knowledge utopias. At the same time, it was a century when ignorance and fear prevailed. It could easily reflect the state of 21st century American politics.
However, the night of Nov. 2, 2021 will be remembered for the advance (or return) of moderation in election contests between Democrats and Republicans. Precisely for this reason, this day provides a resounding lesson for the entire political spectrum. The narrative and strategy of 2021 will spill over into future elections. (Midterm elections will take place in 2022 and there is a presidential election in 2024.)
And what are the main messages that voters in Virginia, New Jersey, New York City, Boston and Minneapolis left at the polls?
First, Democrats need to worry. In Virginia, President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 10 points in 2020 (and Democrats won gubernatorial elections in 2013 and 2017). In New Jersey, the Democratic governor struggled this year to win in a state that Biden won by a substantial 16 percentage points.
In both elections, the central narrative of Democrats Terry McAuliffe (Virginia) and Phil Murphy (New Jersey) essentially focused on the eventual return of Trump’s ideas, but this concentration on the Trumpist past proved fragile.
Biden supporters who switched sides (voting for Republicans Glenn Youngkin in Virginia and Jack Ciattarelli in New Jersey) were concerned about the present. Youngkin and Ciattarelli extensively explored increased inflation, thought to be a direct result of Biden’s economic management and the Democrats’ inertia in developing and implementing an infrastructure package.
Moreover, in Virginia, former governor and candidate McAuliffe lost the debate over “critical race theory” in public schools — a controversial topic (to say the least), but one that pushed the Republicans forward in places Trump lost in 2020. Little or nothing was said about election fraud.
In Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was murdered in 2020, voters rejected a referendum to replace the current police department. There will be no structural changes to the police budget in the largest city of Minnesota, another city that Biden won. That is a painful defeat for the most progressive wing of the president’s party.
On the Republican side, we saw that mobilizing voters is possible without Trump. What the success in Virginia and the close result in New Jersey have in common is that both candidates distanced themselves from the former president and his hallucinations about widespread election fraud. Turning the discussion to everyday issues (such as economics, education, security and health care measures to deal with COVID-19), rather than cultivating conspiracy theories, brought voters together. I heard from a Republican campaign coordinator that this approach was critical to the state’s turnaround.
Moderation won with the Democrats as well. New York City elected Eric Adams, the second Black mayor in the city’s history, who became a police officer to fight the racism he suffered in his youth.
Interestingly, Adams surfaced in the primary election based on ranked choice voting. This process allows voters to rank their preference for up to five candidates. (The voter marks their first through fifth choices.) According to political scientists who specialize in the subject, the method of voting reduces the power of polarization and creates more space for more moderate positions. The winner of the mayoral election is a self-described pragmatic progressive.
In Boston, there was another victory for pragmatic progressivism. The capital of Massachusetts, which is governed by the Republicans, elected a Taiwanese American from Chicago. Boston is a city that, until this election, elected only white men to this position. Attorney Michelle Wu will join at least 11 women — possibly 13, depending on election results — as mayors of U.S. cities with a population of more than 400,000.
Wu claims to be a fighter for progressive causes. However, her experience as a small business entrepreneur and her track record of making deals with conservative political sectors significantly helped her win over moderate voters. She had excellent election results, even among Republicans.
Therefore, the lesson on moderation applies to both parties for the 2022 midterm elections. Democrats should rethink the process of self-sabotage underway in the debate in Washington. Without achieving results for the economy or delivering firm results in other areas, it will be impossible to maintain a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. And governing without a majority in both houses is the first step to losing the White House, as the example ofthe Democratic Party loss in 2014 during Barack Obama’s second term shows. The former president could not even fill a vacancy for the Supreme Court after that.
On the Republican side, Trump remains a bull in a china shop.
The party is filled with politicians who depend on Trumpism (and its delusions) to win their primaries. Alternatively, victory in Virginia will stir alarm based on a chaotic past of ignorance and fear, when what voters want right now is moderation.