By Uditha Devapriya –
The Pink Tide happened, the Red Wave did not. The Democrats have tentatively regained a majority in the Senate. The Republican Party, as Fox News – hardly a Democratic media stronghold – affirms, is dead. Harry Enten of CNN argues that Joe Biden “defied midterm history.” “Midterms,” Enten explains, “are supposed to be the time for the opposition party to shine.” Not this time. The party in power is now the party with the seats. While Donald Trump’s dreams may not have been completely dashed, the popularity surge conservative and even liberal outlets kept parroting has failed to materialise.
Both the Left and the Right predicted a different outcome. On the Left, magazines like Jacobin emphasised the party’s alienation of working class and lower middle-class voters. Jacobin’s Neal Meyer, for instance, opined that while there’s “no natural law that says the Democrats have to lose next year’s midterm elections”, the party’s inability to address working class grievances would cost it dearly. Closer to the elections, Nick French argued that the Inflation Reduction Act would improve its prospects, but observed such measures would do little to reverse “hemorrhaging support among working-class voters.”
On the Right, conservative magazines and outlets highlighted what it saw as the Democratic Party’s abysmal economic and law enforcement policies, and its liberal stance on abortion, women’s rights, and minority rights. What it failed to note that these weaknesses actually popularised the Democratic Party and prevented a Red Wave. The National Review calls the midterms “anticlimactic”, and contends that despite its high polling Democrats received a backlash from exasperated voters. It sees the Republican loss as an opportunity to reset the party’s clock and do away with Trumpism, because for the magazine, Trump has turned into a liability to its audience, the so-called “conservative mainstream”, even if, as one American political science commentator told me, “Trump IS the mainstream.”
The exit polls paint a clear picture of who voted for what. Younger voters drifted away from the Democrats, while older voters stuck with the Republicans. White voters went all out for the Republicans, while minority communities like Latinos moved away from the Democrats. The suburbs shifted to the right, as did rural electorates. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there was a diminution of support among moderates for the Democrats, while Republicans took a sharp lead over independents and voters holding critical views of both parties. The key factor in all these cleavages, obviously, was the economy.
More crucial, however, is who voted for who. Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin was widely expected to lose. “Republicans,” Jacobin’s Krystal Ball noted, “flooded her district with millions.” Yet she won, as did John Fetterman, Marcy Kaptur, and Josh Shapiro. The Midwest did not, as some predicted, go red: it voted for the Democrats, retaining them or turning Republican representatives out. The divisions in the Republican Party were as intriguing: a number of candidates handpicked by Trump faced one shock defeat after another. “America First” and election-denying candidates, in other words, lost spectacularly, as did anti-abortion cultural conservatives. What all this means is that while the economy cost the Democrats, issues like abortion prevented the Republicans from claiming the election.
The National Review put it best. This was an anticlimactic election, undoubtedly the most anticlimactic in recent American history. Even critics of the Democratic Party on the Left, like the editors of WSWS, admit that “there is no mass popular support for Trump’s fascistic policies.” The Wall Street Journal put it all in perspective: “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.” On the other hand, according to the Washington Post and Associated Press, only 11 out of 50 states exceeded the turnout for the 2018 polls. Different communities voted differently, but fewer people went out to vote, at just over 46%. Krystal Ball, in her fine analysis, concludes that “when you promise to do even the bare minimum for people, they tend to vote for you.” This is how several left-of-centre candidates took the lead over more centrist and mainstream colleagues in the Northeast and Midwest.
Joe Biden referred to those describing him as a socialist as “idiots.” Ben Burgis of Jacobin agrees: socialists, he points out, “are committed to putting an end to the brutally unequal distribution of wealth and economic power in our society.” Biden’s record has hardly come close to that. Yet Biden’s actions – such as his salvos against corporations, his student debt relief programme, and his Build Back Better rhetoric, which caught the zeitgeist of a nation still reeling from decades of neoliberal deindustrialisation – did go a long way – certainly longer than Obamist or Clintonian policies – in providing a more moderate and less fascistic alternative to working class and lower middle-class disaffection. In doing so, they prevented the mainstream from being taken over by a right-wing fringe.
The American sociologist David Brooks argues that the “populist convulsion” has ended. It is not true, as Brooks appears to think, that “Boring wins.” Centrist mainstream candidates did not contribute to the Democratic Party’s wins, as much as their centre-left colleagues did. But it is true the midterms showed the weaknesses of both parties: the Democrats because it is seen as “the party of the educated elite”, the Republicans because of Trump. The issue, which Brooks diagnoses correctly, is that a person is easier to expunge than a perception: if the Republicans get rid of Trump, he predicts, “they could become the dominant party.” The Democrats’ elitist credentials can only bolster this.
The US, like the UK, remains a thoroughly bourgeois state. It is for this reason that it will not tolerate a Sanders or a Kucinich. On the other hand, it is possible in the US – more possible than with the parliamentary system in the UK – to incorporate the undeniably progressive ideals of a Sanders into a liberal mainstream. To do so requires a courage of convictions and a resolve to see things through. It is not entirely clear whether the Democratic Party possess these qualities, or whether, emboldened by its victories, it will flush out the Left. Brooks is by temperament a conservative, so it is understandable that he did not add to his prognosis about Trump an important caveat: if the Democrats do go ahead and expunge themselves of Left elements, Trumpism may yet prevail again – sooner than later.
*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com