President Joe Biden speaks at a Democratic National Committee event at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This was supposed to be an autumn of discontent for Democrats. The headwinds facing the president’s party, from inflation to crime, were as strong as a Santa Ana wind, and congressional Republicans were already measuring the drapes.

But an unusual thing happened during the summer: Both sides managed to accomplish big things. Conservatives succeeded in their decades-long effort to overturn Roe v. Wade. Shortly afterward, Democrats broke through their internal logjams to enact important policies, from climate change to rebuilding domestic manufacturing to student loan forgiveness and more. They highlighted Donald Trump’s malfeasance surrounding the January 6 insurrection and have increased the salience of the MAGA threat to democracy among much of the American public.

Interestingly, it turns out that when both Republicans and Democrats get real substantive things they want, voters are impressed by Democrats and repulsed by Republicans. Back in March, Democrats were trailing by at least four points on the generic congressional ballot, per reputable pollsters. Today, Democrats are leading by four points. While nothing is assured and much can change between now and Election Day, Democrats are increasingly confident in their ability to hold the U.S. Senate and even dare to hope that they might hold on to the House.

According to the conventional wisdom of most pundits and popularists, none of this shift in political fortunes should have happened. After all, Republicans had been signaling their determination to dismantle Roe for decades. Democrats likewise had been making domestic infrastructure, reshoring, climate protections, and student loan forgiveness central parts of their platform for years as well. None of this recent activity was supposed to affect the “fundamentals” of the economy and presidential approval ratings that supposedly govern the fates of the parties in midterm elections.

When Dobbs eviscerated Roe, many Republican strategists doubted that it would affect the balance of the electorate, since so many college-educated women were already in the blue column. Democratic strategists warned that the January 6 hearings would fail to move voters more concerned about so-called kitchen table issues like inflation and gas prices. Climate change protections and student loan forgiveness were supposed to be pet projects of the left—either without purchase in or even dangerous to winning over moderate voters in November.

And yet, everything does appear to have changed. While initially slow to recognize it, Democrats are now tacking into the favorable winds: Democratic candidates are going on offense on abortion all across the country, President Joe Biden is delivering prime-time speeches about the semi-fascism of Trump’s GOP, and the party is touting its successes in delivering on key parts of the platform. Republicans, meanwhile, are on their heels, second-guessing their choices on candidate selection and fund-raising strategies.

So, what did all the popularists and peddlers of conventional wisdom get wrong?

There is a big difference between supporting a policy in theory or on a campaign website and getting the policy passed. This would also help to explain the long-noted discrepancy between broad public support for the Democratic Party’s positions on significant issues and its comparative lack of expected success at the ballot box. Pundits usually explain this disconnect as a matter of salience: that is, most voters may lukewarmly support Democratic stances on most issues, from Social Security to education funding, but when push comes to shove, their stance on guns, race, gender, and religion trumps everything else. If that were the case, however, none of this summer’s activity would have changed the fundamentals much, and Republicans would still be on track to dominate the midterms. 

But what if something else is going on? What if voters are so jaded about the possibility of anything getting done in America on either side that they simply tune out political promises until those promises are fulfilled? What if the dominance of culture wars and personality vibes in American politics is attributable to the roadblocks in the American system, such that Republicans can get away with holding dramatically unpopular policies because no one believes they will enact most of them? And Democrats fail to gain advantage from popular policy positions for similar reasons, with many voters only perceiving Democrats as the vanguard of sometimes unpopular social changes without the hope of enacting much of their more popular agenda due to filibusters and conservative courts.

That would explain a lot. It would explain why so many voters thought they could vote Republican without losing their reproductive rights up until the very moment Samuel Alito took them away. It would explain why Democrats failed to get credit for the policies on all their campaign websites until the day they actually passed them. And it would explain why liberal protestations about the health of our democracy often rang hollow until Democratic leaders themselves put it front and center.

If this is true, it should prompt Democrats to be even bolder at the local and state levels about passing popular initiatives. It should strengthen the spines of moderates who fear backlash over enacting popular liberal policies. It should weaken the footing of centrists who argue for preserving the veto points such as the filibuster that doom so much legislation.

And it should scare Republicans that passing unpopular policy does have consequences.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.