The Dog that Didn’t Bark

Steve Balch

What the 2018 Election Means for Higher Education

When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in. Other articles in the series are, Focus on Reining in the American Bar AssociationTime to Found a New UniversityWork on Federal Student Aid Reform and Free Speech, and Reform by Executive Order

The Dog that Didn’t Bark

The main significance of the recent midterms is not what happened but what didn’t. It’s a case of the “dog that didn’t bark.”

Many saw the 2016 election as a political turning point: America’s plebs finally slapping down its arrogant out-of-touch elites. Was that right? Was Donald Trump’s victory the beginning of a genuine political realignment? Are the flyovers really mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Or was 2016 just a speed bump on the road to a brave new world? The midterms offered something of a test.

None of these questions was dispositively answered. What happens in 2020 will be more decisive. Nevertheless the dog that might have barked didn’t. The strong 2016 showing that Trump made in Middle America didn’t repeat itself in the midterms.

The 2018 midterms did manage to mobilize the electorate. Feelings and turnout on both sides of the partisan divide were very strong. Trump is a polarizing president, besieged by negative media coverage and general establishment animus, but also possessing a devoted following that he whipped up at impressively large rallies. Not surprisingly, the total midterm turnout was higher than in any other midterm since the 1960s.

Yet the Democratic turnout was much bigger than the Republicans. Compared to the last midterm the GOP vote grew by about 25% - a notable increase. The Democratic total, however, went up by more than 70% – an enormous surge. The Democrats actually came within about 1,000,000 votes of matching their congressional total in the 2016 presidential election. The Republicans fell about 13,000,000 short of that mark. More detailed breakdowns show Republicans trailing considerably behind in their share of female, young, suburban and minority voters.

Does this put paid to the idea that a new “Make America Great Again” governing majority is aborning? Well, it’s not over till it’s over and President Trump’s term has two years left to run. Obviously, a great deal could still happen.

But one can’t help thinking that Trump’s best innings are behind him. His first two years in office saw the good times roll, which can’t be kept up forever. With Congress no longer under full Republican sway, the possibility of achieving more legislatively – court appointments aside – is next to nil. His main campaign promise, The Wall, remains unbuilt. And the lynch mob atmosphere among the best and brightest appears undiminished.

President Trump has one undoubted political skill – he knows how to attract personal attention. His fans love his spectacles especially because they simultaneously give his foes the fits. But by itself that’s not sufficient to produce a realignment. If there is going to be a MAGA majority, the midterms failed to augur it. There may be a better case that they foreshadow the reverse.

What does this mean for federal high education policy? It certainly makes it unlikely that there will be a revision of the 2008 Higher Education Act during the next Congress and, if there is, not with the strengthened protections for campus free speech or reform of accreditation that the NAS has been promoting. House Democrats will also find a variety of ways to harass Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education.

America’s higher education establishment on the other hand is emitting a loud sigh of relief. For it a “Make America Great Again” America is the ultimate nightmare. It can slumber more peacefully for the nonce.

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