US midterms: This is what polarisation, not democracy, looks like

November 9, 2018
Democratic Socialist of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress.

Coulda been, shoulda been.

The November 6 midterm elections should have been a ringing repudiation of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. And if not for the dismal state of US “democracy” and the two-party system, it would have been.

In Election 2018, a lot more people overall voted for the Democrats — the only real choice against the Republicans in the “world’s greatest democracy,” which itself is a sign of the dysfunction — than Republicans.

Democrats are predicted to end up winning the nationwide popular vote by a yawning 8.5%, a bigger gap than Barack Obama got in the 2008 presidential election that’s remembered as a landslide.

But the midterm results don’t look like a landslide.

The Democrats won a decent-sized wave of victories in US House of Representative races, taking back majority control. It wasn’t the tidal wave some expected, but the Democrats at least matched their 2006 midterm victory during the final years of George W Bush.

But Republicans maintained their grip on the Senate. This is thanks in large part to a structure that gives disproportionate power to less populated rural states.

In California, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein will end up with more than 3 million votes. In North Dakota, Republican challenger Kevin Cramer won with less than 200,000.

The Democrats faced long odds in the Senate all along because only a third of Senate seats are up for election every two years. The Democrats were defending nearly three-quarters of them this year.

The Republicans kept control in the Senate thanks to victories in states like North Dakota.

Contempt for democracy

Election 2018 gave us images of the most brazen kind of contempt for democracy and voting rights. Examples included the three- and four-hour-long lines in predominantly Black precincts in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams was running to be the first African American woman governor in US history.

Reports from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlighted numerous obstacles to voting throughout the day. But Abrams’ opponent Brian Kemp didn’t wait until election day to suppress the vote. As Georgia’s current secretary of state, he used his authority over the state election system to purge as many as 1.4 million people from the voting rolls.

Another more subtle example of the lack of democracy in the US was also visible on election day: the stultifying limits of the two-party system when it comes to representing what most Americans think, and particularly the feebleness of the Democratic Party.

As the likely new House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi got to make the Democrats’ kinda-victory speech. “Tomorrow will be a new day in America,” she declared — before promising to work toward “bipartisanship” with Trump and the Republicans.

That’s exactly what millions of people who came out to vote — or try to vote — for the Democrats didn’t want.

Trump and the Republicans, on the other hand, promised exactly the opposite of bipartisanship. In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump stooped to a new reactionary low point several times a day.

His own campaign prepared a slick ad for the final weeks of the campaign emphasising the Republicans’ tax cuts and a strong economy. But the bigot-in-chief nixed it. 

According to CNN, Trump insisted on a hard-line anti-immigrant ad, and the result was a commercial so vile that even the Trump-lovers at Fox News eventually refused to air it.

Trump’s “fear and loathing and more fear” message did what the reactionaries hoped it would: rile up the Republican base to vote.

The bottom line: Both sides got out the vote.

Thus, in many ways, the elections were another illustration of the main characteristic of US politics for some years now: polarisation.

In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum narrowly lost his campaign to be the state’s first African American governor to a Trump clone who wallowed in racist filth. But Florida voters also overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which restores the right to vote to an estimated 1.5 million people — disproportionately Black and Brown — with felony convictions.

Republicans whipped up fear and hate about the migrant caravan in Mexico to motivate their base. A pre-election poll showed that nearly half of Republicans believed Trump’s absurd claim that “unknown Middle Easterners” are part of the caravan.

But the appeal to hate has also sharpened outrage on the other side, and some may have tried to express it on election day. The top trending Google search on the afternoon of the vote, by a hands-down margin, was “Dónde votar” (“Where to vote”).

Plenty of analysis from the political and media establishment has bemoaned how the elections revealed a polarised America, where the basics of “civility” in politics were disappearing.

But it is not a problem that people are infuriated by Trump and want to stop him. It’s a problem that US political system doesn’t reflect the majority sentiment. And it’s a problem that the Democratic Party doesn’t represent them either.

We don’t need to find “common ground” with Republicans. We need to make the streets our ground, in common with anybody who opposes injustice and oppression — with protests that mobilise the outrage of the majority and that build toward even bigger actions and bigger struggles to come.


The midterm elections had more than their share of firsts.

The first Muslim women and the first Native American women elected to Congress. The first openly gay male governor in Colorado. The first Black women House members elected in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

A ballot measure upholding a Massachusetts law protecting transgender rights passed by a two-to-one margin. The number of women in the US House of Representatives shot past the 100 mark.

And, of course, among those women will be two members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA): Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

The DSA is hoping to elect eight state legislators nationally.

The success of socialist candidates this year has been a big theme in mainstream news coverage. Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in June inspired people around the country, far from the New York City congressional district where she beat one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, Joe Crowley.

Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, like Bernie Sanders before them, are helping inject socialism into mainstream politics after an absence for many generations. The success of progressive and socialist candidates in this election shows a brewing radicalisation that is a product of profound discontent — with both the Trump regime and the social and political crisis that predates him.

One sign was a surge of voting participation by young people — which was predicted by a Harvard University survey before the election that found an unprecedented number of students planning to vote.

The study also found that only 26% of those surveyed supported Donald Trump — while 39 percent supported democratic socialism.

A CNBC report quoted Daphne Frias, a New York City organiser of a Walk Out to Vote initiative, who made it clear that the politicisation of a new generation isn’t limited to the ballot box: “For this generation, it has been hard not to become disillusioned with the state of our country and its politics.

“Most of us are coming of age in a time of a political sensory overload, but that does not stop us from realising that we are unhappy with the way our country is going. We’ve marched and we’ve rallied and that made people listen.”

Socialist reps

This raises another important discussion about the new DSA officeholders. As just two socialists in the House among a hundred times as many Democrats who aren’t, they will be subject to great pressure to adapt to the conservatising routines of Congress, or risk being sidelined.

But there will be important new opportunities to use their position in Congress to project the demands of social movements and struggles, along with the politics of socialism.

Those opportunities depend not just on a few individuals, but on our movements as a whole. Everyone on the left needs to be part of discussing what can be done to take advantage of the opportunity.

Millions voted for the Democrats so they would do something — do anything — to stop Trump and his regime.

The Democrats could do a lot, even with just control of the House. They could reinvestigate Brett Kavanaugh and initiate impeachment proceedings against him. They could introduce legislation guaranteeing reproductive rights. They could propose a Medicare for All system now. They could investigate Donald Trump for all his crimes, and begin impeachment proceedings against him, too.

But the likely new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t interested. “I have enough people on my back to impeach the president,” she complained last month. “It’s about unifying.”

In mid-October, Pelosi outlined her “unity” agenda, which includes changes to House rules and procedures, campaign finance and lobbying reform, and a bipartisan compromise on infrastructure spending.

Not exactly a stirring program.

A new piece of conventional wisdom has already hardened among political analysts: that the Democrats were able to take control of the House primarily through victories in suburban areas, predominantly white, better educated and more prosperous, where Republicans once reigned supreme.

That scenario — of the suburbs going from red to blue — fits with the Democratic Party establishment’s mythology that the road to success is paved with converted white moderate Republican swing voters.

But like everything else about this mythology, there’s more to the story.

Demographics and class

One of the prime examples of this trend was Illinois’ 6th congressional district, in the north-western suburbs of Chicago. Republican Representative Peter Roskam, who helped write Trump’s tax cut rip-off of 2017, was defeated by the first Democrat to win the seat since a few years after the Beatles broke up.

Roskam was defeated for a very simple reason: DuPage County became way more diverse. The number of Latino residents nearly tripled and the number of African Americans nearly doubled between 1990 and 2013.

The 6th district isn’t unique.

The dynamics of the US economy in the neoliberal age has opened up chasms of class inequality. The fact that a home in the suburbs is no defence against corporate power and the mayhem it causes was brought home in the Illinois 6th district last month by an environmental scandal in the Illinois village of Willowbrook.

An equipment sterilisation plant that was emitting a cancer-causing chemical turned out to be owned in part by the vulture-capitalist investment firm co-founded by Illinois’ billionaire Republican Govenor Bruce Rauner — who, by the way, went down to humiliating defeat on November 6.

Not only that, but the Chicago Tribune reported that Rauner’s administration knew about pollution from the plant last year — but allowed the Trump administration’s Environmental Non-Protection Agency to keep that information under wraps until a few months ago.

That’s a completely run-of-the-mill story of the intersection of corporate greed and political corruption in the Trump era. But it points to a deeper political conclusion than the Democrats’ calculations about suburban swing voters.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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