During my run for Indiana’s congressional primary last year, my wife asked me: “What does your gut tell you? Are you gonna win?” I hadn’t stopped to think about it. But yeah, my gut said I was going to win. We had unbeatable momentum, lots of media attention, the biggest intern program in the history of Indiana University, hundreds of volunteers district wide and rallies that were packed to the rafters. Everything felt right. It looked right. My gut is usually right.
I didn’t win, though.
It wasn’t even close. Your gut, all logic, the data you consume, all the statistics and polls, everything you see happening on the ground with your own two eyes, everything that makes sense in your world on a visceral and cerebral level — sometimes, it’s all bullshit.
And, yet, we expect miracles out of our elections: a progressive explosion in response to American fascism, flourishing growth in land left untended for years, fecundity in a famished herd, a fountain springing forth from dry, barren earth. We forget to brace for disappointment when logic dictates victory, when the stars align perfectly, when everything feels right.
What can we make of last Tuesday?
In what was supposed to be a wave year, Indiana Democrats lost a U.S. Senate seat to eternal frat boy Mike Braun and picked up no seats in the House of Representatives. Kentucky Democrats added only two seats in the state House, lost one in the Senate and gained no federal seats. This is after years of Republicans freely violating damn near every political taboo and most of the social ones. There’s the standard fibbing, pilfering and dog-whistling, but now there’s bullying schoolteachers, open sexual predation, vocal disdain for veterans, outright hostility for anything true and whatever else you can imagine. Cartoon oligarchs piss all over us, tell us we want more, and it looks like we really do.
If we can’t win the Midwest this year, can it be won at all?
One thing we know for sure: The old world is dying. On a national level, the legislature is finally starting to reflect the demographics of a colorful, street-smart, empathetic, working-class America. The Democrats have the House, which isn’t so unusual for a midterm with any Republican president. But the 116th Congress will feature the most diverse, progressive House we’ve ever had — by a lot. As the patriarchy rages against the dying of the light, a record number of women will lead. The first two Muslim women and the first two Native-American women will take whatever oath they choose in January. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina and Democratic Socialist, will become the youngest woman in congressional history. And the total number of women in the Senate will be at least 23 — the highest ever.
It is discouraging to see the country as a whole lurch forward while the Midwest stands still. But we should remember that, until very recently, state legislature races were barely taken seriously, even by legislators themselves. During my campaign, a friend who worked in the Indiana State House for decades numbly described a bill to declare square dancing the official state dance of Indiana. It didn’t get out of committee. Then, there was the bill to declare Photuris lucicrescens the official state insect. This also did not make it out of committee because the language — whether to call it a “firefly” or a “lightning bug” could not be agreed on.
The folks engaged in these squabbles get to decide not only the rules we all live by, but the shape and composition of federal congressional districts. They get paid a little bit of money to do a little bit of work every year, and most of them don’t care about the problems of the poor, the sick, the homeless, the disenfranchised. In many places, no Democrats were even on the ballot for these seats, let alone any politician with the fortitude to push for what the people really need. The makeup of those seats, and whether the people occupying them are functionaries or fighters, are barometers of real progress.
By that measure, Midwestern Democrats are actually making gains. Youthful and charismatic JD Ford will be the first openly gay member of Indiana’s General Assembly after comfortably beating incumbent homophobe Mike Delph, an entrenched lawmaker best described as a human can of nonalcoholic beer. In Northern Indiana, Chris Chyung, a 25-year-old Asian-American, medical cannabis proponent, also picked up a seat from the GOP. And Ragen Hatcher, a black woman leading the charge for outright decriminalization of marijuana in Gary, handily won her first state House bid.
In Kentucky, while the old-school Democrats no longer have the legislature, the General Assembly’s first Indian immigrant — Nima Kulkarni, a razor-sharp immigration attorney — will be seated in January, along with workers’ rights firebrand McKenzie Cantrell, who is barely in her 30s. Attica Scott, the Commonwealth’s greatest and most badass treasure, easily won another term and will be joined by Charles Booker, the youngest black legislator in Kentucky’s recent history.
These victories demonstrate a direct rebuke of Trump’s futile agenda of ethnic cleansing. These victories reaffirm the slow, forward roll of progress in spite of wild-eyed, violent reactionary backpedaling. These victories, as much as anything, show a glimmer of hope in a never-ending news cycle broadcasting despair. The new blood in the state capitols is unlikely to settle for square dances and entomological etymology.
At any rate, we didn’t really expect all the work to be done with one big wave election, did we? The people’s work cannot really be done until good people, public servants and working-class people of all colors, orientations, genders and persuasions fill every spot on every ballot. Many of those spots were unfilled last election and will no doubt go unfilled in 2020. We aren’t where we need to be just yet. But we’re closer than we were.
The old world is dying — we have evidence of that. What we don’t know, and what we cannot predict, is how quietly it will pass. How violent the death will be. And what will replace it. My gut tells me we’re going to be OK.
My gut is usually right.