The headlines were written early, and in a sense were foretold: Democrats take the House; Republicans hold the Senate. But the 2018 midterm elections were nonetheless both historic and fascinating in countless ways. Harvard Kennedy School experts shared their thoughts on the biggest takeaways.
Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government
“First, voter turnout was very high for a mid-term election. The New York Times estimates that 114 million people voted in the 2018 elections which is much, much higher than the 83 million that voted in the last 2014 mid-term elections. Because voting is the first, fundamental form of participation in a representative democracy, this high level of engagement is good for democracy.
Second, we will have divided government for a while. The Democrats will control the House, and Republicans will control the Senate and Presidency. Divided government makes it hard to get things done — to pass major legislation or sometimes even to keep government’s lights on. But at this moment in our history when the country is so polarized, divided government is a good thing.
Third, the biggest gains for democracy have largely escaped attention from the reporters and commentators. Voters in many states voted to strengthen their democracy through “direct democracy” ballot questions. Many of these democracy measures were approved overwhelmingly. In Florida, for example, voters approved by a two-to-one margin an amendment to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who have served their sentences.”
Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute and incoming Harvard Kennedy School professor
“Tuesday’s election followed the predictions of most analysts. The bigger story than either party picking up seats in the House and Senate is that neither party has offered a vision intended to bring the nation together. The midterms reinforce the ideological polarization we have seen building since the onset of the Great Recession, which is arguably worse than at any time since the Civil War.
This polarization is incalculably costly for our quality of life. (Consider that in the past two years, nearly one in five Americans has stopped talking to a close friend or family member because of politics.) A huge majority of Americans say they dislike the bitterness and disrespect coming out of Washington.
But in every problem, there is an opportunity. Aspiring candidates today don’t have to conform to the current political culture. The most entrepreneurial leaders should see that there is a mass movement to be built around a politics that is respectful, flexible, and dedicated to lifting up all people. That is what I hope to see developing within one or both parties in the coming two years.”
Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy
“I’m struck by how few surprises there were in the overall pattern: the results in the House and the Senate were in line with what had been predicted for many months. There were, of course, some surprises in individual races, but that will always happen when elections are close.
The election results reveal that a fairly significant proportion of the voting electorate leans, and yesterday voted, Democratic, but that national preference doesn’t translate directly into congressional seats (thanks to gerrymandering) or Senate seats (thanks to the fact that very small states like North Dakota get the same number of Senate seats as large states like California. Like all other observers, I was struck by the energetic turnout, but we still have to acknowledge that a majority of eligible voters did not vote—despite the much-discussed drama of the campaign.
Finally, I would note that the most important single outcome in this election may prove to be the passage of the proposition in Florida that will restore voting rights to ex-felons. That will affect all future elections in Florida and it was achieved through remarkable grassroots organizing.”
Mark Gearan, Director, Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School
"Whether they were on the ballot or in the voting booth, on this Election Day, the youngest generation proved they are engaged. Regardless of party, young Americans are looking for solutions to the issues most important to them, such as gun violence, the cost of college, jobs, and health care.
Candidates, including the over 700 millennials running for office across the country and student-led political movements, inspired engagement in the political process. And I am confident it will continue.”
Steve Jarding, Lecturer in Public Policy
“Anytime one party flips one of the houses of government, it is a major victory. When one party flips one of the houses of government from a party who previously controlled all three—House, Senate and White House—it is an even bigger victory and should be seen as such. Picking up the House from a party controlled by a president who is under fire for violating the law makes the win enormously significant.
By contrast, when one party holds onto the Senate when the opposition party had to defend 26 of the 35 seats, such a feat should be seen for what it is—a win, but a pretty easy win. Looking at the increased number of voters in a midterm election, and the number of women and people of color who broke barriers last night, you also see a bit of a seismic shift on the horizon.”
Cornell Brooks, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice
“America should celebrate the most diverse election in history—more women, people of color, Muslims, and younger candidates on the ballot—and now in Congress. We must, however, mourn an election in which voter suppression hung like a cloud over Native American reservations, small towns, suburbs, cities—and now over the Supreme Court.”
Pippa Norris, Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics
“Yesterday’s vote demonstrated again that the generational cleavage in American elections, which expanded in 2016, remains substantial. The only age group that the GOP won as a majority were voters over the age of 65.”
Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Lecturer in Public Policy
“With the Democrats flipping seats and gaining control of the House of Representatives, we now have the first real institutional check on Republican political domination in the age of Trump and Trumpism. This is a very welcome thing for American democracy, particularly at the federal level, as Congress now has some capacity to investigate and regulate the rampant corruption and authoritarian excesses we have witnessed in the last two years.
The midterm elections also resulted in many historic ‘firsts’—a record number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people were elected, not only to Congress, but at the state and local levels as well. And these victories came in every region of the country, not just in reliably ‘blue’ areas. This is also very good news for democracy: the always slow but nevertheless persistent expansion of political representation in an increasingly diverse, multicultural country. Moving forward, this will be an important source of encouragement to ordinary citizens who are contemplating a future run for office.”
Photo by Martha Stewart