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What Could Go Right? The midterms were normal

High turnout and rejection of extremism show that American democracy lives on.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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The midterms were normal

“These are, of course, not entirely normal times,” wrote The Progress Network (TPN) Member Matthew Yglesias in Bloomberg over the weekend. “They couldn’t possibly be, given the context of Trump’s stubborn lies about the 2020 election and the horrors of January 6.” The tension was exacerbated by the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, in the days leading up to the midterms. This view of “not normal” is likely what The Washington Post editorial board had in mind when they ran an op-ed, also over the weekend, with the title “This is not a normal election. Voters should keep that in mind.”

But now the midterms have arrived, and while you may be disappointed or excited or both about the results, the midterms themselves were quite normal, the Democrats’ unexpected performance aside. As The New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote, “The nightmare scenario was that we’d be mired in election-rigging conspiracies, lots of intimidation, perhaps even violence.” That has not panned out. American democracy lives on.

Plenty election deniers won, but plenty lost, too, such as Don Bolduc in the New Hampshire Senate race as well as several in gubernatorial races, like Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, Michigan’s Tudor Dixon, and New York’s Lee Zeldin. “A significant bloc of voters,” wrote TPN Member Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic, split their ticket on Tuesday, showing a clear preference for moderate candidates. CNN anchor John Avlon put it more bluntly: “It’s the extremism, stupid.”

We should absolutely keep a watchful eye, and push back, on anyone now in government who sows distrust in the country’s elections. But there is the irony that any election deniers accepting the results of their own wins simultaneously endorse the working of the system. The “it’s only broken when my side loses” narrative can only last for so long. Indeed, according to exit polls from Edison Research, “8 in 10 voters said they were very or somewhat confident that elections in their state would be fair and accurate.”

Another sign of the nation’s democratic health is just how many voters want to participate in it. We’re waiting for final voter turnout tallies, but early signals are pointing to, once again, historic numbers. Midterm turnout reached a 40-year high in 2018 at 49 percent. This year is likely to top that. When the chips are down—perhaps especially when—Americans show up. 

And they show up with their dogs! Voters on Tuesday in Brooklyn, New York | Photo: John Minchillo, Associated Press

While large majorities of Americans agree that democracy is under threat, they also agree that it must be protected, even if that protective energy has become wildly misdirected in recent years. That may seem like pale comfort, but as Jonah Goldberg wrote in The Dispatch newsletter this week, “This is a good country full to the rafters with decent people. Are we perfect? Of course not. Have we sinned in the past? Obviously. But if you actually believe in democracy, you have to believe that Americans can correct their errors.”

As for how the House and Senate will end up, we don’t know yet, but Yglesias finishes his piece with a good reminder that despite all the rhetoric, “the basic underlying patterns of United States politics and policymaking have been extremely normal—up to and including Biden’s ability to work with Republicans on several significant pieces of bipartisan legislation.”

A night of firsts
In other midterm news, CNN compiled a list of historic firsts, including: 

  • Democrat Maxwell Frost: the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress
  • Democrat Wes Moore: the first Black governor of Maryland
  • Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders: the first woman elected governor of Arkansas
  • Democrat Maura Healey: the first out lesbian governor in US history
  • Republican Markwayne Mullin: the first Native American senator from Oklahoma in almost 100 years

It was a successful midterm, representation-wise. Here is the list for Latino firsts, and here for Asian Americans, both from Axios.

Other notables
🪴 Maryland and Missouri have legalized cannabis; Arkansas and North Dakota voted against.

🚺 Michigan voters codified abortion rights—you might remember from our Roe v. Wade coverage that Michigan was one of the states where the upcoming election would prove decisive, and it has. (Michigan also voted to expand early voting access in the state.) Kentucky voters rejected an amendment that would have added language to the state constitution that it does not protect the right to an abortion, and Montana voters rejected a measure that would criminalize health care providers for not providing “life-saving care” to infants born at any stage of development, including as the result of an abortion. Abortion remains illegal in Kentucky and legal in Montana.

⚖️ Alabama, Tennessee, Vermont, and Oregon voted to change language in their state constitutions that allows for enslavement or involuntary servitude as part of criminal punishment. The last state that had this on the ballot, Louisiana, voted against after lawmakers directed voters to reject the measure’s ambiguous language. We’ll see if a better crafted version comes back up in the future.

How come no one cares about COP27?

Google searches for COP26, last year’s international climate conclave, registered a spike that COP27 is nowhere near matching. It looks like barely anyone is looking it up. Public interest aside, some productive things have already emerged from the meeting. Forty countries will produce detailed plans to reduce worldwide methane emissions by at least 30 percent of 2020 levels by 2030. That’s nothing to sniff at: if achieved, that would prevent more than 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming, says EcoWatch

For the first time, led by Scotland, Europe has started to pledge cash for developing countries hit hard by climate change. The money, plus a United Nations early disaster warning system now in the works, could significantly help the Global South in particular save lives and prevent and recover from costly damage. And, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $1.4 billion to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which is good news for creating a food-secure future.

Before we go

Brazil avoided a coup in late October when Jair Bolsonaro, the outgoing, Trump-style president, finally greenlit the transition to winner Lula after two excruciating days of silence. “It’s a low bar to clear, but an important achievement nonetheless,” writes Francisco Toro in Persuasion. This shift in power is also positive for potential climate change action, as Lula has promised to prioritize ending deforestation of the Amazon. In Brazil as well as in the US and Europe, things are generally looking up when it comes to climate policy. 

After two years of civil war, the Ethiopian government and the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have agreed to stop fighting, with an eye toward establishing permanent peace.

Below in the links section, self-resurrecting coral, gene-edited future foods, lab-grown blood, and more.


In a November 3 survey of US adults, 65 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans said they have “some” or “a lot” of trust in the American electoral system. Both figures have improved since June, when trust among Democrats hit a low of 50 percent, and Republican trust was at 39 percent. | Credit: Morning Consult

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Democracy on the ballot, climate change, and salary transparency | S3 E8

This week on the What Could Go Right? podcast: Will the COP27 conference strengthen action against global warming? Is democracy really on the ballot? And as crime remains a concern for many Americans, what’s really going on? Join Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas as they examine what’s happening today. | Listen to the episode


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Is Thailand the new weed capital of the world?Foreign Correspondent
From zero tolerance to decriminalization, Thailand’s recent u-turn on its cannabis laws is lighting up a billion-dollar industry.

Why we picked it: It’s an interesting and balanced look at the current cannabis situation in Thailand. It also accurately reflects what I’ve seen on the ground here (including all the loveliness of the Thai spirit). Some new weed rules may be forthcoming, but as one of the dispensary owners in the video says, there’s no going back—the genie is out of the bottle, and the bottle is broken. —Brian Leli

Until Next Time

In the immortal words of Harry Caray, “Cubs win!” 🦁

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.