Mises Wire

What the Midterms Mean

The Most Important Election of our Lifetime™ may be a referendum on Trump, Kavanaugh, #metoo, migrant caravans, or any number of manufactured outrages since the 2016 presidential election. It will not be a referendum on foreign policy, the Federal Reserve, debt, spending entitlements, spying, civil liberties, or anything important with regard to state power.

By any objective measure, the ideological and policy disagreements between the national Democrat and Republican parties are not significant. Both accept the central tenets of domestic and foreign interventionism, both accept the federal government as the chief organizing principle for American society, and both view politics simply as a fight for control of state apparatus.

Similarly, differences between policies actually enacted by Mr. Trump and the existing Congress and those likely to have been enacted by Mrs. Clinton and the same Congress are fairly small. While Mr. Trump alarms the Left with his tone and tenor, his actual views on taxes, spending, debt, trade, guns, immigration (the "Muslim ban" was neither) and war (unfortunately his good campaign rhetoric is largely abandoned) plainly comport with the general thrust of Clinton's neo-liberalism. 

Today's ugly midterm elections are about style rather than substance, party rather than principle, and power rather than ideas. Americans do not much argue about whether we are governed by DC, and only slightly over how we are governed by DC. But we argue viciously about who governs us from DC. 

Voting is a tribal exercise, and how could it be otherwise in a country of 320 million people?

It is important to understand the 2016 presidential election, which sent roughly 40% of Americans into a state of gloating or despair, was decided by a very small percentage of the US population.

Donald Trump prevailed in six swing states won by Mr. Obama in 2012: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Trump's swing votes were cast overwhelmingly by older Americans, many of whom had voted for Obama at least once. The vaunted "alt-Right," a barely-extant tiny group with a noisy social media presence, had little to do with Trump's election: he won because of economic insecurity among Rust Belt voters and Florida retirees, and because the ferocious culture wars being pushed by the Left alarmed more moderate and affluent voters. 

Still, he didn't win by much. Here are the margin numbers for those six states:

StatePercentage of VotesMargin for Trump



Fewer than 1 million voters, in a country of 320 million people, changed the narrative from: "It's Hillary's time, the progressive arc was inevitable, Americans were too smart to fall for a real estate huckster" to "Dangerous rightwing populism is on the rise, Trump and his Supreme Court are illegitimate, the Russians hacked the election." This is absurd.

In fact a mere 77,744 votes, in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, were enough to swing the difference to Trump. Why are so many Americans having collective mental breakdowns over such insignificant numbers of voters?   

Today's midterm election likewise will be decided by small margins. Assuming this Cook Political Report analysis is accurate, only about 75 "most competitive" US House races are truly in play to switch parties (the Senate appears likely to remain majority Republican).

Although US congressional districts (on average) are home to 711,000 people, even in somewhat contested or hotly contested general elections — rare due to gerrymandering — fewer than 300,000 votes usually are cast. Assuming the competitive House races in the Cook Report end up with 2% margins between the winner and loser, only 6,000 votes will make the difference in each (assuming high turnouts with fully 300,000 people voting).

6,000 difference-making votes, multiplied across 75 (predicted) close US House elections, yields only 450,000 votes. So again, fewer than 1 million people in a country of 320 million will cause one of two breathless (and false) narratives to prevail.  

This is not a prescription for peace and flourishing.

America is barely a country at this point, defined only by its federal state. It is not a nation, lacking cohesion or commonality: we fight over history, the Constitution, the Electoral College and other constitutional mechanisms, immigration and birthright citizenship, not to mention sex, race, class, and sexuality. This utter politicization of American society — a Progressive triumph — is unsustainable over time.

In this environment, democratic voting and elections become an exercise of brute force — vanquishing the other side without resorting to outright violence and warfare. Voting doesn't heal divisions or produce compromise, witness the 2016 election. Politically vanquished people don't just go away; this is precisely why Progressives were blindsided by Brexit and Trump in the first place. There are more Deplorables than imagined, and they're stubbornly hanging around longer than expected.

We should acknowledge this, sooner rather than later, to avoid a catastrophe. Federalism and subsidiarity, applied with increasing intensity, are the non-violent path forward. Insistence on universalism, decided by a slight majority and applied top-down from DC, will fail here at home in the same way — and for the same reason — nation-building fails abroad.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute