The Power of Negative Thinking

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With the 2022 midterm elections in the books, and Donald Trump back in the running for the presidency, the American commentariat is palpably longing for a return to normalcy—a moment when civility and bipartisan alliances become thinkable once more, and the ugly confrontational politics of the past six years can be mothballed. Right-wing culture trainspotter David Brooks sounded the emerging elite pundit consensus, as he reliably does, in a post-election New York Times column announcing “The Fever Is Breaking,” hailing the results as a “triumph of the normies” and a resounding repudiation of “performative populism” on the right and left alike. In short order, Yascha Mounk struck the reassuring note of antiphonal neoliberal harmony with an Atlantic column explaining “How Moderates Won the Midterms.” ”Traditional right-wing outlets such as National Review and the New York Post joined in, via high-profile efforts to throw cold water on the next Trump run with dismissive and derisive coverage.

This is a curious line of argument to adopt in characterizing a cycle where over half of the GOP’s 2022 field of national candidates were election deniers—and where Democrats, taking a page from the long-standing Republican playbook of dirty-trickery, channeled support to extreme candidates in GOP primaries. Democratic House incumbents supporting genuine economic populist measures like Medicare for All also fared better than their centrist counterparts. What’s more, left economic justice measures carried the day in a slew of state and local ballot initiatives. Instead of touching off a great status quo reset, Election 2022 seems largely to have shifted the preexisting conditions of scorched-earth political conflict onto new ground—albeit ground far less advantageous to the Trumpified Republican Party.

This outcome is in line with a school of thought known as “negative partisanship,” which holds that the traditional model of major-party rivalry—in which closely matched Republican and Democratic candidates seek to trim back ideologically driven appeals to meet swing voters in the moderate center—is a badly outdated construct. Instead, conditions of steepening polarization mean that the chief electoral challenge is to expand the base voters aligned with your party, while out-organizing the base of the opposition. This is a distasteful prospect indeed for apostles of sober Beltway centrism; it seems loutish and gauche, out of line with the strategic preferences of many big donors behind the scenes.

But what permitted Democrats to defy the recent laws of political gravity and stem the long-threatened red tide in the midterm balloting was a classic negative-partisan pitch, focused on the fallout from the US Supreme Court’s repeal of abortion rights and the rolling threat to democracy posed by the party of January 6. Rachel Bitecofer, a polling analyst who helped popularize the negative partisanship thesis, famously forecast the scale of the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms; as the 2022 cycle drew near, she was so worried about a cyclical red wave that she left her DC-based polling gig to found Strike PAC—a grassroots messaging operation dedicated to stressing the democracy threat. In every election since Trump’s 2016 presidential win up through his 2020 defeat, she explains, Democrats benefited from the enthusiasm boost that comes with the designation of an insurgent out-party. But with Biden’s election, Democrats gained the White House—and the threat of a midterm pounding at the hands of a militant and power-hungry GOP. “Democrats headed into Election Day in Virginia in 2021, and they had a significant problem: When you pulled people aside and asked them, ‘Are you excited to vote?’ that yielded a huge 10-point advantage to Republicans,” Bitecofer said. “I’ve told the party activists, ‘Look, the midterm effect is not a construct of the media. It’s an empirical thing.’ It’s why, two years ago, I quit my job just to focus on the midterms.”

Bitecofer argues that the leaking of the draft opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in May was the unmistakable inflection point reversing the GOP’s momentum. “That was the exact moment when the fundamentals were disrupted in a deep way. This was the first time you saw this kind of shift since the 2002 midterms—which were in the wake of 9/11.”

She adds that the Democrats’ stress on the Republican Party as a threat to democracy—as fundamental an appeal to negative partisan sentiment as you can draw up—found a more receptive hearing in the wake of the Dobbs leak. “If we had not focused on the threat to democracy, this doesn’t happen—the evisceration of Roe made it real to people. To me as a strategist, what it did was to give me a very clear example of how to make a small-d democratic pitch that wasn’t just abstract.”

Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at the New America Foundation and another exponent of the negative-partisanship thesis, likewise notes that the democracy pitch—widely dismissed among D.C. insiders as divisive and high-flown—exerted a pronounced appeal. “It turns out that people really care about living in a democracy,” he says. “It’s also the case that the Democrats made it a salient issue at the right time. Elections are about what is the most salient issue. If Democrats are fighting over crime, they’re fighting on Republican terrain. If they’re fighting on democracy and abortion, they’re fighting on terrain that helps them.”

That’s also Bitecofer’s on-the-ground reading. “The threat to democracy really mattered, contrary to what the authors of the Third Way prebuttal predicting a wipeout said, and contrary to what James Carvilles of the world said. They wanted candidates to defend the economic record—emphasis on the defend—and explain crime statistics. You just have to recognize the research on this is very clear: Unfortunately, we live in an environment where no one will change their minds because they’re being told the facts. We live in an environment where people are reactive, and are motivated by fears and hatred. It’s really regrettable that consultants on the Democratic side still aren’t able to recognize that.”

Indeed, centrist pundits are already clamoring to urge Democrats to tack back toward the center, claiming that the party is building its own information-averse feedback loop of left messaging in the wake of a gravity-defying midterm cycle rewarding robust partisan appeals. And mainstream political reporters are following the same line. In a recent New York Times dispatch, for example, reporters Jonathan Weissman and Katie Glueck professed to document the lackluster showing of “extreme” Democratic House candidates by inventing some of them out of whole cloth. They used the charged “progressive” descriptor for losing candidates such as Oregon House candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who explicitly disavows it, and California’s Christy Smith, a down-the-line centrist opposed to Medicare for All. The saucer-eyed account of the midterms also pointedly downplayed the extent to which the national party funding apparatus abandoned left-leaning candidates in the homestretch.

For her part, Bitecofer thinks the broader mandates of campaigning in the negative partisan mode transcend the traditional postmortem sport of ideological infighting among Democratic strategists and campaign professionals. “I don’t give a fuck if you’re ideological, though ideological candidates are harder to get to take advice,” she says. “All that matters to me is: Are you going to be a positive brand ambassador by throwing bombs at the GOP? That’s what you have to do in a market that’s set up to reward hyperbolic and polarizing communications. Remember, that was exactly what the Republicans served up for two months—nothing but fear about inflation and crime.”

There is one sense, though, in which she sees ideology as a staging ground for future Democratic battles over party messaging. “Look, there’s team reform and there’s the other people. What they were setting up to do was to blame what they saw as an inevitable loss on the reform team. Well, now we kicked ass, and they’ve got nothing to blame on us.”