Chimney Sweep

In American politics, nothing ever is over

A voter waits to cast his ballot in the 2022 US midterm elections at Considine Little Rock Recreation Center in Detroit on Nov. 8.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/Reuters

Allan Gotlieb, who during the eight years of the Reagan administration was Canada’s ambassador in Washington, emerged as perhaps the most trenchant observer of American political culture since the Scotsman James Bryce examined “the institutions and the people of America” in his classic The American Commonwealth a century earlier. Mr. Gotlieb’s great insight was that, in American politics, nothing ever is over.

The ambassador was speaking about issues at the center of the American debate (abortion) as well as those at the far fringe of broad Washington interest (tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber imports), realizing none of them ever seemed to be fully resolved. He died two years ago and thus did not live to witness his adage gain new relevance after the polls closed across the United States on Tuesday evening.

From the Golden Harvest Grange Hall in central Maine to a bowling alley in rural Wisconsin to the lobby of a ballet studio outside San Francisco – and at roughly 21,000 other polling places scattered across the country – Americans, one by one, cast their votes in one of the most important midterm elections in a generation, perhaps longer. By doing so they thought they were terminating the contention that filled the campaign. Not like that.

The new truth that comes out of Tuesday’s campaign is not only that disputes over the integrity of the vote count – these began early in the day in Arizona and Michigan – will continue for days. It is also that the discord in American civic life will continue for months.

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Since the years that Mr. Gotlieb presided over the sparkling Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the Capitol and the White House, the country has grown used to what the journalist Sidney Blumenthal, in the title of a landmark book he published in 1980, called The Permanent Campaign. But what Mr. Blumenthal, a onetime Bill Clinton aide and Hillary Clinton confidant, did not anticipate is permanent American animosity.

“The old system of political machines based on patronage was being superseded by new campaigns based on computerized technology linked to media,” he said in an interview as Americans trudged to the polls Tuesday. “That brought to the fore pollsters and media professionals. I never imagined there would be permanent contention. I didn’t foresee this kind of civic animosity.”

But new examinations of the life of Abraham Lincoln – the three volumes published so far by Mr. Blumenthal and a new biography, published only this fall, by the Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham – have shined a fresh light on how rooted current tensions are in past divisions over race, nativism, demagoguery and general hostility to the federal government.

And yet the current level of political distemper is unusual, and not likely to disperse swiftly or gracefully.

“Anger has been around a while but it is likely to persist,” said Steven Webster, an Indiana University political scientist who has studied anger in politics. “Politicians know it can be useful for their own electoral purposes. So they continue to stoke it. There is a real incentive for them to appeal to voters’ anger. That’s precisely why anger is unlikely to go away. It helps politicians win elections.”

The reporting of the permanent campaign and permanent anger is not a prescription for a peaceful kingdom – or, more precisely, a peaceful republic.

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The trajectory of American democracy often has been interrupted by discomfiting incidents on the floor of both the Senate (the 1856 caning of abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts) and the House of Representatives (the 1858 floor brawl in which more than two dozen lawmakers joined the fray) and outside the Capitol (the 2021 insurrection). The country fought a Civil War over issues related to slavery. Early this fall, the historian Adam Hochschild wrote a bracing book, American Nightmare, about the near-forgotten era of brutality and violence in the United States roughly between the end of the First World War and the onset of the decade of the Roaring Twenties.

Right now, the country faces the prospect of days, perhaps weeks, of uncertainty and anger that, if neither Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock or Republican Herschel Walker gets a majority in this round, might well spill over until Dec. 6, when the two would meet in a rematch run-off. By the first week of January, the tensions that animated the midterms will take a new form as the new Congress convenes, with new disputes over spending, abortion, aid to Ukraine, climate change and voting rights. Tuesday’s election was only a way station.

But the ultimate destination of these issues and, more broadly, of American democracy is unknown, even by the principals in American politics. Indeed, it is unknown, especially by those principals, the ones who prevailed in Tuesday’s election, the ones who did not – and the ones whose fate still is unresolved. Mr. Gotlieb’s maxim thus has a fresh application: This election’s fights will not be over when the election is over.

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