A Nation Divided by Its Divisions

By Mike Koetting November 20, 2022

Democracy had a pretty good election. Not an unbridled victory, but particularly when compared with our worse fears, pretty good.

The connection between real problems and real solutions, however, took its usual pummeling. In fact, I think it was little worse than historically, despite several unalloyed bright spots.

Let’s consider three important issues where governance reality took a beating.

The Economy

Republicans said they wanted to make this election about “the economy.” Fair enough. A great many people in America feel their economic position is precarious and really want government to do something about it. So what did the Republicans propose about the economy? Nothing. They said they wanted the election to be about the economy and then had not a single proposal, not a single policy that would address economic issues in a head-on way. Instead, they simply wanted attention for a protracted whine that inflation was a problem.

Inflation is a problem. And there is some possibility that some of the pandemic relief efforts made it slightly worse than it would otherwise have been. Setting aside the fact that Republicans had also voted for some of them as well, there is abundant evidence that the pandemic relief efforts were appropriate. The evidence is even stronger that the bulk of the current inflation is caused by factors beyond the control of Democrats, or, indeed, any political party, at least in the meaningful short-term. Accordingly, it was strategically reasonable of Republicans to avoid putting forth policies to curb inflation—because there is as little they could do as the current administration. So they did what they could: howl at the moon.

Here and there, a few Republicans did trot out some of their long-term proposals for the economy—mostly cutting social programs. These policies are as unpopular as they have ever been so we didn’t see any wide-spread attempt by Republicans to push these to center stage because it would shine the spotlight on how out of synch they are with the needs of their base.

Moreover, any protracted discussion of economic issues would inevitably have led back to the fact that so many of the issues causing economic pain are the result of Republican policies, particularly cutting taxes on the wealthy and reducing regulation of corporations. While there has been some Democratic complicity in some of these, these policies are overwhelmingly the result of Republican actions.

In short, no real discussion of the economy, theoretically one of the most important venues for political policy.


Republicans are demonstrably more concerned about immigration issues than Democrats, but it’s something clearly on the minds of the entire electorate. At least here the Republicans seemed to be saying something: a new commitment to securing our borders. But on second look, it offers only the vaguest of policy options, a move that one Republican strategist said was deliberate because it united Republicans without being beholden to specific policy solutions.

In some respects, about par for the course of political campaigns. But it does raise the question of what are appropriate policies around immigration. One might think that an issue that is one of the most central concerns in the minds of the party’s members would have at least a couple specific actionable proposals. But it doesn’t. And there is a reason for that. Whether it’s been a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, they have had no luck stopping immigration into the U.S. The problem is that in many places the alternative to not leaving is so bad that people will take ever escalating risks to try to get in the U.S. Our immigration activities won’t change that. And frankly, we are all better off if we keep America a place that people see as a desirable destination.

Donald Trump talked loudly about reducing immigration and that made his base feel better. But what he actually accomplished was to dramatically reduce the amount of legal immigration—while having virtually no impact on illegal immigration. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric is about illegal immigrants. And reducing the amount of legal immigration is a dubious achievement, since legal immigration has long been a source of foreign talent.

While there are deeply divergent opinions on immigration, there are also roads to compromise. But they will require a series of nuanced policies that take into account the multiple realities of what’s driving immigration to the U.S., the number of illegal immigrants who are truly settled in this country, the nation’s manpower needs in light of low fertility and an aging population, recruitment for high skill jobs, and several others.

By simply fanning the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, the Republican party made it still more difficult to actually address this issue. Starting with George Bush, there have been several bi-partisan attempts to put together realistic immigration policies and procedures over the last two decades, But they have all fallen apart on the unwillingness of far-right Republicans to even discuss the issue. Apparently, they believe their political fortunes are better served by keeping the issue roiling rather than actually recognizing reality and making sensible compromises. And that’s what they did for this election.


The big problem for environmental issues in this election is how relatively little they were involved. It is somewhat remarkable that an issue that poses such huge threats—that is already remaking the landscape of many American communities—was mentioned only in passing.

On the one hand, the fact that Republicans have stopped openly attacking environmental issues as a leftist, woke plot is progress of a sort. They are still not comfortable with these issues—consider that there was not a single Republican vote in either house for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the largest environmental bill passed in decades. They may have realized that the return from attacking environmental issues per se is dwindling. For instance, among young Republicans almost half think we are not doing enough on environmental issues.

On the other hand, it wasn’t much of a Democratic talking point either. Although the IRA was a major environmental initiative, Democrats have been relatively shy about underlining what it really involved, starting with the stupid name for the bill.

At this point, every election should be about climate change. Its relative absence was a serious mugging of reality—as the world ticks toward the breaking point on emissions and other environmental problems disrupt the country, from barges stuck on the Mississippi River, to California suffering massive drought, to longer and longer hurricane and wildfire seasons. The midterm attitude seemed to be if we can whistle loud enough, maybe we can pass the graveyard without actually having to do anything.

On Balance

While I am pleased the election went as well as it did, the overall reality score was pretty dismal. The election shows that if, on a specific issue, a party goes too far (Republicans on abortion and election denial) they will be punished. That’s good. On the other hand, it also shows there are some underlying grievances that seem to carry big weight no matter how much actual policy positions belie them. The country is locked at 50-50.

Pundits are making money saying how much better the Democrats did than expected. But that assumes there is something given about Biden’s approval rating or historic midterm trends. The truth is, Democrats have the support of only half the country. But what, realistically, can they do to change that? The election proves that they are closer to the majority on abortion than the Republicans. And that more people are worried about the machinery of democracy than Republicans thought. Maybe it is possible to work through some of the divisive issues one election at a time. But will that break the deadlock? And what happens in the meantime?

It seems to me as if the county is divided by a social media algorithm that takes a few attributes and slots voters into one camp or the other and all the other issues make a difference only at the margin. What set of policies or specific issues could convince the White working class that while Republicans and MAGA have rhetoric that makes them feel better, it doesn’t make their lives better. Conversely, how could Democrats swing far enough on cultural issues to appease current Republicans without alienating their own base, most of whose concerns are valid. Moreover, even things that Democrats don’t support—“Defund the police” for instance—will be used to make sure there is no reproachment between the parties.

Maybe the best the Democrats can do is keeping on the course they are on, trying to reach out wherever they can, being careful not to amplify the most extreme thoughts of their base, hope Trumpism alienates more voters and wait for today’s younger voters to be a bigger share of the electorate.

Not particularly satisfying. But reality is messy.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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