By the time you read this, I will probably have given up on my New Year’s resolution. My track record in this department is miserable, a catalog of broken promises to myself—books unread, exercises skipped, fingernails bitten. But I love the ritual anyway, along with the spirit of New Year’s Eve. There’s no such thing as a fresh start, but there can be moments when change breaks through our crusty routines.
Which might be what’s happening in American politics today. The overriding theme of our collective life since Donald Trump rode down that damned escalator in 2015 has been the toppling of guardrails, opening up the possibility of a radical break from the past—the kind that could either wipe out democracy or fulfill its grandest promises.
Now, both options are still within reach, but neither seems quite so likely, at least in the short term. The populist right has taken a beating in two successive elections—first with Trump’s loss in 2020, then with the broader rejection of MAGA in 2022. This time, failed Trumpish candidates were forced to accept defeat, flouting predictions about Republicans turning against democracy for good.
Trump, of course, has made no such accommodation with reality. But he’s limping into 2024 a diminished presence, leaving the GOP with two unpalatable options: either he takes the nomination and drags down the ticket again, or he loses and mounts a third-party bid that guarantees a Democratic victory. Neither scenario—Trump as albatross or suicide bomber—is guaranteed, but each one puts right-wing populists on the defensive.
After months of anticipating a slaughter at the polls, the Democrats escaped a massacre in the midterms. But at the national level, Republicans carried the popular vote in the House of Representatives by a cozy margin, defying conventional wisdom that gerrymandering had given the GOP a structural advantage in Congress. Democrats won their stay of execution while losing their majority by carrying whiter, more affluent suburban districts at the same time that turnout for Black and Hispanic voters cratered. That leaves the party with a coalition that is whiter, wealthier, and still not large enough to stop Republicans from taking back the House.
The underlying message of 2022, then, was the same as 2020: voters don’t much like what they see in either party. That includes an eighty-year-old president with approval ratings in the low forties and the Democratic stars of yesterday, which is why Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke have blown a combined $300 million on losing campaigns in the last four years. And, unfortunately, the distrust also extends to a democratic left that is stuck in the same deadlock as everyone else.
The chapter in American history that ran from 2015 to 2021—the years that pushed both MAGA conservatism and democratic socialism into the mainstream—has come to a close. The same remorseless churn that tore through the truisms of the late Obama years is now ripping apart the cliches of the Trump era. Once again, change is coming, whether we’re ready for it or not.
Happy New Year.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.