Ed Luce on America’s Future After the Midterms
Yascha Mounk and Ed Luce discuss the lessons Democrats must face to improve on Tuesday’s results.
Ed Luce is the US national editor and columnist at the Financial Times.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Ed Luce discuss the electoral toll of Trumpism; why Democrats who focus on identity politics fare poorly at the polls; and whether Ron DeSantis poses as great a threat to democratic norms and institutions as Donald Trump.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Forgetting questions about who’s going to win this or that outstanding race, what do you think are the big takeaways from the midterm elections for the state of America?
Ed Luce: The state of America—it's actually been a pretty good week. I think the angst about democracy receded a little bit, and to that degree, the angst of America's partners and allies is probably under better control after Tuesday than before. Because as you remember, this talk of a red wave that had been building up—which fed on itself and crystallized as an immediate consensus, but which wasn't really backed up by all the numbers—had spilled over into genuine worries among America’s partners, almost a sort of borderline hysteria, that “Oh, Trump is going to be reelected in 2024.”
The media only had the second worst night on Tuesday. The first worst was Donald Trump, and I think it’s going to renew some degree of hope that there might be continuity—and not just for the next two years in terms of Biden's foreign policy on Ukraine, but in terms of the American democratic model not being in as deep a state of dysfunction.
Mounk: When you look at election deniers running in the midterms, a lot of them got elected, right? When they ran in safe districts in deep red states, many of them did win elections. But when they were in purple states, they often lost. It feels like one of the lessons of this election is that Trump has superfans—he always had, and he will for a long time—but that even among traditional Republican voters, there are a lot of people who feel, “This is enough.”
Luce: Independents swung very much in that direction. They were very discriminating between the types of Republican candidates. Tim Michels, the Republican gubernatorial candidate for Wisconsin, notoriously said two weeks ago that if he won the governorship of Wisconsin, Republicans would never lose an election there again. And it was very clear what he meant by that: there will be a supermajority in the Wisconsin legislature, and he would change the election rules to such a degree that Democrats would be made into a minority party. But he lost very comprehensively. Meanwhile, Don Bolduc, a former army guy in the mold of Mike Flynn, and very Trumpian—he lost very, very convincingly to Senator Hassan in New Hampshire. Pennsylvania, where Trump invested most of his time in terms of the rallies that he attended, was a wipeout for Trumpian candidates: Dr. Oz for the Senate, Doug Mastriano for the governorship. And it's looking more likely than not that Kari Lake, the Arizona gubernatorial candidate, will probably lose for similar reasons.
Paul Pelosi, the speaker's husband, was assaulted in his own home at 2am by a deranged MAGA guy with a hammer, and ended up in the ICU with a fractured skull. And the leading Republicans like Trump not only didn't condemn the attack—they actually used the attack to mock Nancy Pelosi. Kari Lake was another example of that. She made a joke about the fact that the attack happened in the last few days before the midterms. But something we in the full-time political watching classes probably don't fully appreciate is that most voters only really pay attention in the last few days. And this was an extremely disruptive, dissonant event, that I think, regardless of your ideology, unless you are really hardcore, would create feelings of sympathy, rather than mockery. And I don't think we should underestimate the role of events like that in what happened on Tuesday night. There was a sort of decency theme to it.
Mounk: I suppose I'm trying to think of how this might be good news for democracy. One way is simply that—with these instances of split-ticket voting, and the failure of some of the most Trump-aligned candidates—the appetite simply isn't there for Trump-like candidates. Moderate, traditional, sometimes very conservative Republicans are just much stronger candidates, and that's a good sign for the future.
To me, the nightmare scenario was what happens if, during the next presidential election, Democrats win in a majority of the vote in Pennsylvania, but there’s a Republican governor who says that there was fraud, and who discounts a bunch of the Democratic votes and sends a Republican slate of electors to the electoral college. That was the only circumstance in which I could imagine actual civil war. Because under those circumstances, you could imagine different branches of the armed forces coming to different conclusions as to who is the legitimately elected commander-in-chief. I always thought there was a very small likelihood of that happening, but it was something that kept me up at night. With the victory of moderate candidates in Pennsylvania, in Wisconsin, and so on, in the gubernatorial and secretary of state elections, that danger seems to have subsided very significantly. Do you share that sense of relief?
Luce: I do. The one state that very clearly has returned a Republican governor is Georgia, with Governor Brian Kemp. Governor Kemp did the right thing last time, and didn't bend to Trump's will. He backed up his secretary of state, who also just reelected, Brad Raffensperger. The other four states, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—three of them have Democratic governors. Tony Evers was reelected in Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer reelected in Michigan, and in Pennsylvania, Shapiro beating Mastriano. Arizona too, I think, is tilting towards the Democratic candidate. So that removes at least four out of five of the states, in terms of conceivable independent state legislature theory. You highlighted Pennsylvania. It's not just that Dr. Oz and Doug Mastriano lost. It's that John Fetterman won. John Fetterman had a stroke. He was mocked for his linguistic defects following the stroke, his problems with communicating. But from what I understand from people who live in Pennsylvania, there was a great deal of admiration for his tenacity.
It's very difficult to fear or hate somebody like that, who’s clearly a decent person struggling with their own issues. Biden has very low approval ratings, but by any measure, it’s extremely hard to hate Biden, even if you have deep disapproval of him, even if you think he's got dementia, even if you think he's incompetent and completely inarticulate. You can't really hate him or fear him. Whereas, the near 60% of American who dislike Trump really dislike Trump, and they really fear him.
Mounk: It's something that polls always have trouble getting at: intensity.
I've seen in some polls, which seems interesting to me, that when you ask people about the ideology of the Republican Party and the ideology of a Democratic Party, they think that each of those is very extreme and very far away from where they are. But when you ask them about particular candidates in this election, they could perceive the Democrats as much more moderate than the Republicans. Is this a little bit about candidate selection as well? Each party actually has a very, very toxic brand—people perceive the party in general as being very extreme—but particular candidates in this election made very different choices on the Democratic than the Republican end?
Luce: I think candidate quality played a very, very big role in this election. It's always a factor, of course, particularly in senatorial and gubernatorial elections. But Trump made it a much, much bigger factor because he really made it his mission to judge people based on loyalty and nothing else, which began an ever-escalating bidding war to see who could be the most cartoonishly loyal. This has been getting worse, and therefore the candidate quality has been getting worse. It's caused immense frustration amongst the Mitch McConnells of this world and other senior Republican leaders. Trump's interests are not the same as the more conventional Republicans.
It wasn't a triumph by any objective measure for Biden, although it was really a relief of a gargantuan scale for his administration and for him personally. But the most important thing here is the damage it's done to Trump, which was not enough damage to stop him from quite possibly being the Republican nominee again. The polls show that he's still by far the favorite. He's polling about 50% amongst Republican primary voters, registered Republicans. And DeSantis is about half that—though that might change.
And if you were going to be Machiavellian about this—and the Democrats are no strangers to being Machiavellian: they funded a number of very prominent Trumpian candidates in the primaries to help them get the nomination—you would want Trump to be the nominee in 2024. It's extremely high risk Machiavellianism. But I'd say, optimally, from a very cold logical point of view, Trump being damaged, but not out, is pretty much where you would want the situation to be right now, if you were a Democrat.
Mounk: If you're talking purely in terms of the Democratic Party trying to retain the White House at whatever cost, they would be well-advised to boost Trump in any way it can. But if you're talking about the values which I think should animate people to be members of the Democratic Party, the broader public good and interests of the country, it would be a shameful mistake to help Trump win the primaries in 2024, as it was a shameful mistake to help Doug Mastriano secure the nomination of the Republican Party for governor in Pennsylvania, even though, as was perhaps likely, the gamble paid off this time. The problem is that one day the gamble is not going to pay off. And that is why I find it immoral to take that risk.
Luce: I suppose if you were going to defend the Machiavellianism—and by the way, I share your principal response to this as well as your pragmatic warnings—you would say: well, DeSantis is actually the bigger danger, not just to Biden, but to any Democratic nominee in 2024. Because he's young. He's not sort of capriciously offensive. He's not personally mean, in the way Trump is. He appears to be competent, to have plans that he then executes. He's not the kind of person who will suddenly think, “Oh, I'm gonna call Kim Jong-un. He loves me.” And he's just slightly more predictable than Trump. But he's ideologically just the same. His ambition is not to go back to the Republican party before Trump, or before Newt Gingrich (date when you will the current pathology on the right). He is auditioning to be the leader of the MAGA movement—and I don’t believe the MAGA movement is going anywhere.
So you could argue that if DeSantis is the nominee—the MAGA nominee, the Viktor Orbán-admiring nominee—the man is prepared to use the state, the offices, the tools, the arms of the state in Florida, to punish businesses that disagree with his cultural agenda and reward those that agree with it; to really mess with election rights by setting up a roving police unit that turned up here and there at different polling stations looking for fake voters, and intimidating actual ones. You could make the case that DeSantis is actually a more dreadful prospect than Trump. But I entirely agree with the premise of your question and the principal point that you just made. I think it's right on principle, and on pragmatic grounds.
Mounk: A number of people have observed quite rightly that DeSantis was the biggest winner of this election. And I have to say that I'm a little bit torn on this question of who is worse. There are certainly many things about Ron DeSantis I dislike, certainly many policies he has taken that break the kind of norms that I think governors of large states should observe.
But I'm also a little bit concerned about the inevitable rush to say, “Not only is Trump absolutely terrible, but any successor to him is going to be terrible too, and in the end, DeSantis is an even bigger threat than Trump”—I have to say that I've read a number of articles making this case which I found to be sloppy, unconvincing, and quite dangerous, because the argument about the stability of democracy needs to be deployed genuinely and with care. If you start to say that anybody whose policies you deeply dislike is an enemy of democracy, people will rightly start to tune out the rhetoric of people like me who really are concerned about the stability of democracy.
With a level head, talk me through why we should be scared about Ron DeSantis, not in terms of the policies we dislike or the unpleasant things he’ll do, but as a potential threat to the American Republic in the kind of way that I know you and I agree Donald Trump was and remains (if he gets reelected).
Luce: I would start with the fact that any ambitious Republican has got to say, “Look, Trump's ideas are right, the movement is right. But he himself is now too imperfect and divisive to be the standard bearer of the movement.” There's nobody more ambitious than Ron DeSantis, and there's nobody more effective at executing their ambition than him. I can think of others like Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, who are way, way cruder and openly flirted with white nationalism. Ron DeSantis hasn't done that. And it might be because he, on principle, thinks that's wrong. I don't think that's the reason. I think the reason is that he's more sophisticated as a tactician, which is something to admire, in a democracy, in your opponents.
What concerns me, I suppose, is the degree to which he has become popular because of his cultural conservatism and his use of God. I don't know whether you saw the advertisement he put out a couple of days before the election. It was unironically presenting himself as an instrument of divine will. And it's quite clear that to the Evangelical Church—and the legal and judicial sort of conservative circles, the Federalist Society types—that this is mana from heaven to them, to have a young candidate with kids (and he's always pictured with his kids) talking God in the way he talks God with a really quite terrifying sincerity, to judge by that ad. That concerns me.
I am less concerned about the weird foreign policy implications of a DeSantis presidency. DeSantis seems to be a more even-keeled, strategic-minded person than Trump. But he also doesn't seem to have much charisma. He seems to be a very effective governor, but he doesn't have the retail skills. And so three or four years from now, we might be talking about him in the same way that we talked about Rubio after he flunked out.
I cannot agree with you more that this sort of Pavlovian tendency to say that any Republican is just as bad as Trump is a horribly polarizing instinct amongst Democrats. It's also to some degree self-fulfilling, because it pushes the Republican Party further into the cynical mindset of, “Well, if they think that about us, we're gonna give you that.”
In general, I agree with the point you're making. We don't know enough about DeSantis to stand up the argument that he's as bad as Trump. I'm just pointing out various worrying indicators.
Mounk: Let’s focus a little bit on the Democrats. I have a theory about the election in Georgia, and I'd love to hear your response to it. Georgia was one of the states in which we saw this very big divergence in the performance of Republican candidates. Brian Kemp—who had stood up for the integrity of elections in 2020 against Trump's pressure—survived a very nasty primary challenge and won reelection against Stacey Abrams quite convincingly. Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia, did much less well, and is going to a runoff. Of course, Walker was an election denier with very deep personal scandals. But I wonder whether there's also a contrast to be drawn between the two Democratic candidates in that race. Now, to be clear, neither of those candidates is in any way comparable to Herschel Walker. But Stacey Abrams has argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs that the Democratic Party should be in the business of identity politics, and in particular, mobilizing its traditional electorate of nonwhite voters, Latinos, and African Americans, and so on. And indeed, that's what she focused on in this election, going so far as to basically dismiss, perhaps, the distance between her progressive social policies and the views of many black men in Georgia.
Raphael Warnock, another African American candidate (for Senate) took a very different stance, emphasizing his past profession as a pastor, going all around the state and speaking even in very white counties of Georgia that aren't very hospitable to Democrats traditionally, and trying to appeal to people there; recording a very funny ad in which he's on a Peanut Farm, talking about how he fought for Georgian peanut farmers by teaming up with a deeply conservative Republican senator. So, one way to look at Georgia is that Kemp is a much better candidate than Walker; but what role do you think it played that Warnock arguably had the better strategy and was a better candidate than Abrams?
Luce: It's a very good question, because it has broader implications beyond Georgia. I think the registration drives that Stacey Abrams did in Georgia over a period of many years is, of course, a very, very good thing. You need to win over people who don't vote, to enthuse them about politics. And she's, for obvious reasons, particularly good at doing that in African American communities. I think there were two big reasons why in January 2021, the two Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Warnock, won those run offs. One was Abrams’ turnout model. The registration had gone way up, and that's because of Stacey Abrams. It was incredibly effective. The other reason was that Trump just kept casting doubt on whether anything would change regardless of whether you voted. Trump was detonating Republican prospects. But there are limits to this. The notion that all these very real attempts to suppress the vote, or to make it harder to register to vote, actually changes elections is not that strongly supported by data. Other than perhaps Stacey Abrams’s own previous failed electoral bid in Georgia, it's hard to find elections that have actually been changed by voter suppression.
Mounk: Is there very clear evidence of that happening four years ago? My understanding is that a lot of the cases that brought Stacey Abrams to repeatedly deny having lost that election (in a way that I think is deeply problematic intrinsically, and also deeply problematic because she was the face of democracy efforts for a party that is rightly slamming Donald Trump for refusing to acknowledge the outcome of elections)—I think that so far as that case existed, it was a sort of “vibes” case; that it was really unfortunate that in Georgia in 2018, Brian Kemp was the Secretary of State responsible for administering the election, as well as a candidate for governor at the same time.
Now, of course, that is the exact argument that Kari Lake is starting to run in Arizona. She’s asking how it can be that Katie Hobbs is the Secretary of State responsible for administering these elections while at the same time being a candidate for governor. I think it is shameful when Kari Lake is using that to justify not conceding the election. And despite some voter suppression efforts that did exist in Georgia in 2018, and that habitually exist in American politics and are a deep problem, I think it's shameful that Stacey Abrams refused to acknowledge the outcome of an election for many years.
Luce: I think I agree with you. The only thing that gives me pause is that I didn't go into the same kind of detail about the 2018 election and Abrams’s allegations, compared with the detail I've gone into about the self-evidently fraudulent allegations around 2020. And that's my failing. I just didn't invest the time. But from what I understand from people who did invest the time, this was way overblown, and her saying it was a stolen election—and essentially that therefore, Brian Kemp was an invalid and illegitimate governor—set a very, very bad precedent. It provides an instant whatabout-ist argument for the Kari Lakes and the Trumps of this world when they try to do something similar. But again, I don't want to set off any tripwires here, because I'm not as steeped in the 2018 Georgia election.
Mounk: Looking ahead to 2024, what lessons do you think Democrats should take from this election?
Luce: If you're going to find a positive sociological trend from Trumpism, the fact that non-whites are moving to the Republican Party is a good thing. It deracializes the divisions between the parties. The fact that Hispanics across the country are moving to the Republican Party, even one led by Trump; and that even African Americans, to some degree, have been moving more to the Republican party—I think it’s a good thing. Now, 99 out of 100 of my liberal friends would be horrified having heard that. But to the degree that there's an overlap between polarization and racialization, there is a greater risk to the stability of America. So this, to me, reduces some of the temperature.
Democrats have to understand that there's no such thing as a “Hispanic.” Hispanics are a figment of their imagination. There are lots of different groups that we, outside of that world, classify as Hispanics, but legal immigrants from the Dominican Republic, refugees from Venezuela, documented and undocumented immigrants from Mexico living on the border or living in Minnesota at the Canadian border—these people all have incredibly different backgrounds (in terms of being Spanish speakers, or not, as the case may be) but also very similar interests to most Americans, who find that a lot of them are quite naturally patriotic types. They might be feeling precarious economically, and therefore inflation might matter a lot to them. But they're quite comfortable with the flag and quite uncomfortable, I think, with a number of signals they’re getting from the more left elements of the Democratic Party. Signals such as: A) they are some special group that needs to be catered to, and that we're obsessed with the border; B) that they’re Latinx, and that C), somehow that means that all the other stuff doesn't matter that much, but also that American patriotism isn't a good thing, and we should sign up to the worldview that this is a structurally irredeemable nation. That doesn't really appeal to most—
Mounk: —it’s not a very appealing thing to say to people who have chosen to immigrate to a country. Now, obviously, many Latinos have been in the country for a very long time. Many Latinos literally stayed on the same land while the nationality of that land changed. But for many of them, they have immigrated, or they have parents who have immigrated, and to tell them, “Why on earth have you chosen to immigrate to the worst country on Earth?” is actually quite tone deaf.
The other point that I want to add is that Latin American societies have very complicated and often quite nasty racial politics, depending on whether people are predominantly descended from European immigrants or whether they are predominantly indigenous. The taped conversation of the president of the Los Angeles City Council was an indication of that. One of the most offensive things she said was a very traditional expression of racial prejudice from more white Latinos towards less white Latinos. And here's another area where this attempt to pretend that they’re all the same, and therefore will naturally become a version of the “people of color,” is simply naive about what those political cleavages look like.
Luce: Yes, it is. And I very much hope that lesson gets taken on board. I suspect it won't be, because Tuesday night wasn't a disaster for the Democrats—although it was in Florida, for sure. But there were huge mistakes there on the Republican side, too. DeSantis luring a bunch of refugees from Texas to Florida in order to pull off this stunt of sending them to Martha's Vineyard—the obvious thing Democrats should have said is, “These are refugees from socialism. These are refugees from Venezuela. And you call yourself an anti-socialist? You're making them victims, double victims!” But I don't think there is the mindset in the Democratic Party to make that kind of differentiation. They are just refugees and Hispanics.
But because the Democrats did pretty well this week, I suspect that they're not going to revisit first principles on that. I would say, though, that even though he lost, Tim Ryan's campaign in Ohio was a model campaign in a state that, like Florida, is now written off as a red state. He came within seven points of JD Vance in a state where, in the gubernatorial race, the Republican Mike DeWine won by 26 percentage points. That was a close race, because Ryan very, very clearly eschewed identity politics and spoke to what blue collar people and ordinary, hard working Americans have in common. And that resonated. The fact that he lost should not, I think, lessen the force of that campaign as an example that would work in many parts of the country.
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