“I see a number of serious shocks on the horizon that could cause our economy’s shaky foundation to crumble,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote in an article posted to the website Medium on Monday.
We should listen to her. The senator and presidential candidate obviously has an interest in painting the man she hopes to replace as a poor steward of the economy, but she also brings an unusual amount of expertise to this topic. A former Harvard law professor and arguably the nation’s leading expert on bankruptcies, Warren spends much of her article citing news stories demonstrating that she correctly predicted the 2008 recession and many of its causes.
Warren is hardly alone in raising alarms. According to a February survey by the National Association for Business Economics, which Warren also cites in her piece, “three-fourths of the NABE Policy Survey panelists expect an economic recession by the end of 2021,” while “42% say a recession will happen in 2020.”
Which brings us to a potential nightmare scenario for Democrats. The worst case for Warren’s party in 2020 may not be a Trump victory. It’s a scenario where Warren (or some other Democratic nominee) wash President Donald Trump out of office, but some combination of House gerrymandering and Senate malapportionment gives Republicans control of at least one house of Congress.
And then, once a Democrat is in the White House and well-positioned to play the role of scapegoat, the recession hits. The likely result would be a Republican victory in 2024 — and that victory could easily go to a candidate who shares all of Trump’s racism and all of his authoritarian instincts, but none of the incompetence that’s prevented Trump from consolidating power.
Reagan’s good fortune
To understand why such a scenario could prove even worse for Democrats than a Trump victory, it’s important to understand two pathologies that infect the American political system.
The first is that, as a general rule, voters tend to blame the president for bad times, even if the president did nothing to bring about those times, and credit the present for good times, even when the president doesn’t deserve it. As President Jimmy Carter lamented, “when things go bad you get entirely too much blame. And I have to admit that when things go good, you get entirely too much credit.”
Consider, for example, President Ronald Reagan. On the day Reagan took office, U.S. inflation hovered around an astounding 12% (to put that number in perspective, inflation stood at less than 2% for most of the last decade). This high inflation rate was decidedly not Reagan’s fault. He wasn’t even in office when this runaway inflation began.
Another thing that wasn’t Reagan’s fault was the deep recession that began just a few months after he took the oath of office. Blame that one on Paul Volcker, the Carter-appointed Federal Reserve Chairman who decided that the best way to whip inflation was to drive the nation into a painful but temporary economic downturn.
Volcker drove up interest rates to 20% at their peak, choking off the money supply and strangling both inflation and the economy in the process.
Yet, while this economic chokehold was entirely Volcker’s doing, Reagan paid the price. His approval ratings steadily fell for nearly all of his first two two years in office, eventually falling below 40% in the Gallup poll. In the 1982 midterms, Democratic House candidates crushed Reagan’s Republicans in the national popular vote by nearly 12 points.
But then Volcker took the brakes off the economy. GDP growth soared to more than 7% in the election year of 1984, while inflation remained fairly low. It was morning in America again, and Reagan rode Paul Volcker’s strong economy to a landslide reelection.
The inevitability of Mitch McConnell
A corollary to the general rule that presidents get credit for good times and take the blame for bad times is that the party that does not control the presidency has a perverse incentive. If they cooperate for the good of the country, then the president will become more popular and the opposition party will become weaker. Conversely, if the opposition intentionally sabotages a presidency, the president is still likely to be blamed for their inability to govern.
Which brings us to the second pathology of the American system. It’s not just that the “out” party has every incentive to sabotage the “in” party, it’s that most of the time the “out” party isn’t really on the outs. Because the United States elects its legislature separately from its executive — an unusual arrangement in modern democracies because constitutional systems with American-style separations of power tend to fail — the opposition party doesn’t just have a motive to sabotage the president. It frequently has the means to do so.
Nor does this problem impact each party equally. Currently, the House of Representatives is gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. According to an Associated Press analysis, “Republicans won about 16 more U.S. House seats” in 2018 “than would have been expected based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country.”
Democrats currently control the House due to an electoral wave that gave them an 8.6% margin of victory in the national popular vote, but if Democrats win a commanding-but-not-crushing popular vote victory in 2020, they are likely to lose the House again.
Meanwhile, the Senate is even worse. In the current Senate, Democrats represent about 15 million more people than Republicans. Yet, thanks to malapportionment, Republicans control 53% of the seats.
The result is that, even when a Democrat controls the White House, Republicans are favored to control Congress — and Republicans often control at least one house of Congress even when they lose the popular vote. Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t just disfavored to win Congress. When they do win a wave election, Democrats still owe their majority to lawmakers from conservative districts (or states) that are likely to be sympathetic to many of the GOP’s goals.
So even if a Democrat prevails in 2020, the likelihood they will have a strong working relationship with Congress is quite low. And the likelihood that the new president will be actively sabotaged by Congress is quite high.
That’s a nightmare if a recession hits during the next Democratic presidency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could refuse to fund the government — or even threaten to default on America’s debts — unless the new president agrees to an austerity budget that will break the economy’s kneecaps. Meanwhile, McConnell’s Republicans could refuse to confirm key personnel, including Federal Reserve governors or even a chair, that could mitigate the impact of the recession.
And if the sabotaged economy remains weak into 2024, the incumbent Democratic president is likely to take the blame.
Damned if you win; damned if you lose
Lest Democrats think that they should avoid this scenario by throwing the 2024 election, there’s a third pathology in the American system of government: the Supreme Court of the United States.
If the judiciary were less powerful, or if the United States used a less partisan method of selecting judges, then the stakes in any individual election would be much smaller. Fundamental questions — including the most fundamental question, whether we will have free and fair elections — would not hinge upon the question of which presidents get to replace which justices.
In the world where the candidate who received 3 million more votes than Trump got to be president, there is likely a majority on the Supreme Court to revive the Voting Rights Act. Partisan gerrymandering is dead, as are the wave of voter suppression laws Republican state lawmakers enacted during the Obama years.
By entrenching Republican control of the Supreme Court, Trump also entrenched the Republican Party’s ability to win future elections. And the electoral landscape will only grow more hostile to Democrats if the courts move further rightward.
The nightmare of American democracy is that it is not really democracy. We hold elections and have two rival parties. But the deck is stacked so heavily in favor of one of those parties that there are few scenarios that lead to meaningful Democratic victories. And each time America holds an election that does not swing the Democrats’ way, the number of future scenarios that favor the Democratic Party grows smaller.
If you are a Democrat, your best hope is to fight for a 2020 victory that is so overwhelming that it will overcome gerrymandering, overcome the Electoral College, overcome Senate malapportionment, and then hope that this new government is able to keep the economy roaring for long enough to ward off a crippling loss.
And, along the way, hope that this new government is able to enact sweeping democratic reforms — including admitting many new states — that will allow both parties to compete in fair elections moving forward.