The day after the midterm elections, Nov. 7, politics professor and author Matthew Crenson was ready to address a packed meeting room at the Pikesville library as part of the Friends of the Pikesville Library’s speaker series.
“At the local, state and national level, America delivered mixed results that created as many questions as answers,” said Friends president Ruth Goldstein, in her introduction for Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University. “And we are so glad to have this opportunity to reflect and share with each other and have the benefit of Mr. Crenson’s perspective.”
Crenson said he had prepared to discuss the election in a historical context, going back to James Madison, the framing of the Constitution and the Puritans of the 1630s. Instead, informed that folks were eager to talk about the midterm elections, he focused on the growth of the country’s partisan divide, with plenty of time for questions from the 100 or so attendees who were concerned about issues ranging from that polarization to immigrants to the NRA.
“The midterm Congressional elections were almost universally regarded as a referendum on President Trump,” Crenson said. “In fact, since 2016, virtually all of American politics seems to have revolved around President Trump.”
And although Crenson said Trump is a formidable figure and “unquestionably” a polarizing one, he added that the polarization in U.S. politics began “long before Trump appeared on the scene.”
“He’s undoubtedly intensified the polarization of our politics, but he’s also a product, a vehicle, of that polarization,” Crenson said. “Americans were already angry with one another, going back as early as 16, 18 years ago. And they were looking for somebody like him.”
Using a 2012 Pew Research Center study, Crenson explained the development of the major partisan differences in political values that Pew tracked, via 48 values-based questions, over a 25-year span from 1987 to 2012.
The survey showed widening gaps in political values including the social safety net, environmental laws and attitudes towards immigration and minorities, among others.
But Crenson went back even further, to the midterm elections of 1958 “when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Donald Trump was 12 years old.” When Republicans lost 10 seats in the Senate and 48 seats in the House, many of whom Crenson described as moderate to liberal Republicans, the party’s political center began to move to the right. Meanwhile, the Democrats who replaced them were more Northern and liberal.
“So, the midterms of 1958 were just the beginning of party realignment that would help to make race one of the central issues in American politics,” Crenson said. “Perhaps, the turning point, where the dam broke, was in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of that year, after which he was supposed to have said, ‘Well, there goes the South.’” After which Barry Goldwater was the first Republican to carry any Southern states since Reconstruction, and eight years later Richard Nixon courted the “Silent Majority,” white working-class voters who felt they’d been forgotten.
Crenson said the partisan rift continued with white Southerners moving more and more to the Republican Party, and then came Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, a conservative manifesto that signaled the “nationalization” of party politics.
“Today’s politics is national, not local,” Crenson said. “That’s one reason this year’s midterms are all about Trump. And now the polarized politics of resentment, over race and more recently over immigration, has become the dominant theme of our national politics. Trump didn’t invent that type of politics, but he is the current vehicle for that type of politics.”
Questions from the mostly senior audience included how world and U.S. politics intersect and the definition of a conservative today, in light of the shift to nationalism.
Crenson said one indicator of that shift is the number of traditional ideological conservatives such as George Will, Max Boot and William Kristol criticizing Trump and the GOP, some re-registering as independents.
One attendee asked about Trump’s possible reelection in 2020.
“It depends on the Democrats,” Crenson said. “The Democrats are going to have to get their act together. They have some candidates out there, they’re pretty old. One is Joe Biden. Michael Bloomberg is out there. They need someone with a coherent position on what is a top issue for many Trump voters: immigration,” including a combination of border security and a path to citizenship.
Someone else asked Crenson to explain the influence of evangelicals.
As mostly Southern whites, Crenson said evangelicals are part of the earlier party realignment, who “before the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s voted solidly Democratic, and now they are a significant part of Trump’s base,” who see his policies as possible paths to overturning Roe v. Wade and countering transgender identity and same-sex marriage.
“And they see him, in spite of his life history, as a way to achieve their own moral objectives,” Crenson said.
Another attendee asked if Crenson expects the next two years to be even more polarized.
Crenson pointed to the news that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had met and talked about working together on infrastructure problems. “I think they will try to get something done because they know that people are completely fed up with Congress, precisely because they seem to be so paralyzed.”
After the talk, Noel Levy of Pikesville, a Democratic state central committee member, said the midterms were a “different” kind of election.
“Usually, in elections, you win everything and you’re euphoric or you lose everything and you’re deeply depressed,” he said. “So, this election had a mix. We were ecstatic because we won back the House of Representatives. But then there was deep sorrow because we lost the governor’s race. We had some successes, we had some failures. So I’m trying to make sense of that, if that’s possible.”
Pikesville resident Dr. Henry Meier, 74, was pleased that most of his candidates had won the night before.
“I think that Trump eventually will go down in both popularity and political power and I think that the U.S. will again re-strengthen, become more Democratic in the future,” he said. “I run a current events group at the J and we’re split, so it’s going to be interesting when I get back to see how that group went. I am more optimistic than I would have been if the Republicans had taken the House and the Senate again.”
Crenson said the midterms might offer some momentum for the Democrats, but he doesn’t hold out much hope for reducing gridlock, unless both sides can come together on some issues.
“I think the Republicans, who so far have walked lock-step with Trump, they’re going to have to compromise with Democrats and put some daylight between themselves and Trump,” Crenson said. “This was not a big victory for him, although he tries to portray it differently. And I think the Republicans in Congress, especially, are going to have to take stock now and figure out where to go next.”
But Democrats also have a lot of work to do, Crenson said, including taking a position on much more than health care.
“They need to come up with a program that addresses immigration, that addresses the anger of white working-class voters and it’s not clear exactly what they can do if they just control the House of Representatives,” he added. “Although they may agree on something like infrastructure, there’s very little on the agenda that Democrats and Republicans are going to be able to agree on unless they become willing to compromise. In that case, that could change the calculus for 2020 in drastic ways and affect the kind of people who come up as potential presidential candidates.”
In its 17th year, the Friends of the Pikesville Library’s speaker series runs Wednesday afternoons from October through April. For more information, visit facebook.com/ pikesvillefriends.