What the Elections Tell Us

There’s great uncertainty on Capitol Hill these days, as ambitious politicians maneuver for advantage in the newly reshaped House and the Senate reckons with the aftermath of the runoff in Georgia. But before all our attention turns to what comes next, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at the November elections and what they tell us about the American electorate.

I say this because it’s easy to forget that in our system, power ultimately rests in the hands of the voters. It’s a trite belief, I realize, and if we’ve learned anything over the last few decades, it’s that the truisms of seventh-grade civics are a bit more complicated than we were taught. Write your member of Congress and you might get back a polite letter written by a staffer. Stand up at a town meeting and your representative will hear you out, but in the end you’re competing for attention with lobbyists in Washington and the leadership on Capitol Hill—not to mention the White House and the media.

Still, when we vote, something interesting happens. All the individual backgrounds we bring into the voting booth with us—class or race or ethnicity or region, how we feel about threats to our democracy or threats to our pocketbook—become a message, a collective opinion that politicians ignore at their peril. Elections are our chance to weigh in and set priorities, even if what ultimately happens over the next two years will be the result of the dynamics on Capitol Hill and at the White House. 

The recent election was a perfect example of what I mean. There have been all sorts of post-mortems since Election Day, but the broad outline was pretty clear. Americans, as is usually their habit, voted for reasonableness and common sense. Although people who deny the validity of the 2020 election did win office, there’s no question that 2022 sent a clear message that Americans are tired of that fight and, on the whole, prefer candidates who don’t call our system into question and don’t seek to rig election mechanics for partisan advantage. The tangible threat to abortion rights posed by the Supreme Court and anti-abortion politicians proved a powerful motivator, too.

At the same time, given the narrowness of many elections—and of the balance of power both on Capitol Hill and in many state legislatures—it’s also clear that large numbers of Americans are focused on the issues many Republicans campaigned on, including inflation, the economy, and crime. These, too, are bread-and-butter issues that our elected representatives will need to confront.

None of this tells elected officials exactly what they should be doing, but it does create a broad set of signposts that they should take into account once Congress and legislatures convene. Between the lines, it’s possible to discern a key trend: On the whole, voters showed that given a chance to tack toward the center, they’ll do so. There were moderate Republicans who won in districts carried two years ago by Joe Biden, and moderate Democrats who held on in contests they were expected to lose. This was striking because, as you certainly know by now, midterm elections historically go against the president’s party. “One reason 2022 defied the pattern,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote recently, “is that the Dobbs decision made Republicans, not Democrats, the party carrying out radical change. Candidates and parties seen as safe and moderate have an advantage.”

Many years ago, I wrote a column pointing out that Americans hold certain basic values in common whatever their ideology, including respect for our constitutional system; the peaceful and democratic resolution of political disagreements; a belief that politicians should behave ethically; and a bedrock desire for a system that gives everyone equal access to what it takes to get ahead in our society. Those values have been tested severely in recent years, and will continue to be in the years ahead. But I would argue that this year’s elections demonstrated that most Americans still hew to those traditional beliefs—and they’ll be watching what happens in Washington and their state capitals with great interest.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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