The mid-term elections in the US were a deeply polarising affair. But were there also signs of a new politics emerging? Marnie Holborow assesses the prospects for a progressive politics in the post-Trump era.
The results of the elections have confirmed that the US is still very sharply divided. Trump’s vilely racist comments about the ‘caravan’ of immigrants at the Mexican border set the tone. His attack on the press looks set to continue, as evidenced by his bullying outburst at CNN’s Jim Acosta over the Russia investigation. And yet Trump strengthened his majority in the Senate which will allow him to appoint more right-wing judges and push his cabinet even further to the right.
Thousands of Americans have shown their outrage at Trump’s authoritarianism, misogyny and racism –thousands of women and anti- racists have marched against him. Yet this dangerous far- right authoritarian has not been given a clear hiding in the election.
Democrats win the House
On the other hand, the Democrats won control of the House. They increased their seats from 193 to the 220’s, not insignificant but not a huge swing given that the sitting President is so deeply unpopular.
Democrats also made some gains in the Governor elections. They will have what looks like 23 Governors to the Republicans’ 27. Significantly though, Trump won the Governorships in the bellwether states of Florida (although a recount is happening), Ohio and Iowa – not a good sign for the Democrats for 2020.
The US electoral system is profoundly undemocratic. The parties in power can gerrymander voting to suit their bases. For example, for the Senate, rural Wyoming with a population of 580,000 has the same representation as California which has 39 million people. Yet both states have two seats in the Senate. This voter manipulation explains how the Democrats could win 11 million more Senate votes than Republicans and yet Republicans still come out ahead.
This boosts the divide between Republican small-town America and urban cities and large towns which are increasingly Democrat. America’s urban map is now almost uniformly blue while rural America is red and reflects the social base of the two parties. The Democrats have an affluent urban elite following along with ethnic minorities, the urban working class, college students and more women. Republican support is equally cross-class, but more white and male.
Worryingly, this election result shows that Trump has increased his control over the Republican Party. For example, Senator Ted Cruz, once a sworn enemy of Trump, this time enlisted him for his campaign in Texas. He beat the new Democrat establishment’s superstar, Beto O’Rourke, with a campaign aimed at white, conservative Trump loyalists.
There was no blue wave; only a trickle. The mainstream Democrats branded themselves as above left or right politics, avoided taking racism and border control head on, and took on some of the language of the other side.
Nancy Pelosi, likely Speaker of the House, the day after the campaign promised to work together ‘in a bipartisan way’ with Trump. The Democrat establishment consciously chose not to talk of resistance to Trump and, with talk of no tax hikes, target the more affluent republican-leaning voters.
Obama chose, lamely, to appeal to restore ‘decency in politics’, to see ‘some checks and balances on what is happening right now’. Donations from big business to the Democrat Party has begun to rise again. More than 50% in this election was from donors and PACs linked to Wall St, Big Pharma, Consultants, Hospitals. Last month Wall St. donors to the Democrats grew by 20%. Corporate influence meant that the mainstream Democrats, on the whole, did not support progressive state propositions – on fracking, rent control and working conditions in hospitals.
The election also highlighted the sharp difference between the left and right within the Democrat party. Those with a more radical, and sometimes socialist platforms did well, in some states. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib of the Democratic Socialist of America won in New York and Michigan. Bernie Sanders, as a left independent who caucuses with the Democrats, easily won re-election. This makes him likely to be the main contender against the right of the Democrats in the 2020 Presidential Primaries.
It is significant that both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders raised two thirds and three quarters, respectively, of their donations from small donors who gave less than €200.
What gives hope for the future were the gains for women, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community and the left of the Democrats. Where they won, they reflected movements on the ground against Trump’s misogynist, racist and privatising agenda.
A record number of women won seats in the House – 100 out of 435. This is still less than a quarter, which shows how stacked against women the US political system has been.
There were significant firsts in terms of gender and ethnic minority groups. Kansas Democrat Sharice Davids who is also openly LGBT and Deb Haarland from New Mexico are the first Native American women elected to Congress. In wonderful defiance of Trump’s vicious racism against immigrants of colour, Rashida Tlaib, who is a Palestinian American, and Ilhan Omar, a former refugee from Somalian, have become the first Muslim women in the US Congress.
The first openly gay man Jared Polis, and the first self- identifying bisexual, Kate Brown, have been elected governors of Colorado and Orgegan respectively. Texas sent its first Hispanic woman to congress and South Dekota elected its first woman governor.
For all of these candidates the danger will be becoming sucked into the Democrat corporate machine. Most Democrats, and even the supposedly more progressive Congressional Progressive Caucus, remain beholden to their corporate donors, professionals and managers.
Also, the democratic establishment will do everything to beat the new socialist movement. In East Bay, they drew on millions of dollars, and Obama, to defeat the left-wing candidate – Jovanka Beckles – for the state assembly race.
Already establishment democrat figures like Obama, Clinton, Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel are pushing the case to go for what is called ‘the meat and potato’ issues. This is shorthand not mentioning resistance to Trump, for toning down anti-racism and anti-sexism, what the right loves to brand as ‘identity politics’.
Yet it is striking that where radical candidates won, they won on a platform of healthcare for all, pay, rents, working conditions as well as standing up against racism and sexism. As newly elected congresswoman Rashida Tlaib put it after her election, ‘economic justice is about dismantling structural racism and the two cannot be separated’.
At the state level, some openly left-wing candidates did well. DSA members won representation in 11 state legislatures, including now Hawaii, Maryland, Montana, and Pennsylvania. Many of these stood on a clear platform of Medicare for All, Rent Control, disbanding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and tuition-free public college education. Andrew Gillum, a Bernie Sanders supporter, only narrowly lost in Florida; his last-minute switch to enlist the support of Hillary Clinton did not work out for him.
There were also state referenda that won significant victories on specific issues. In Florida 65% of voters supported restoring voting rights to people previously convicted of felon. Incredibly, this will return the vote to more than one million people. In New York City, the proposal to increase in public funding for elections was won. Idaho, Nebraska and Utah voted to expand Medicaid. Arkansas and Missouri voted to raise the minimum wage. In Arizona, where there have been widespread strikes by teachers, the proposal to shift money from public schools to private school vouchers was roundly rejected.
In a development that is music to the ears of union activists, Scott Walker of Wisconsin was finally thrown out as Governor. It was he who, in 2011, conducted a vicious campaign to strip public school teachers of their right to collectively bargain and slashed their health insurance and pension benefits. One powerful factor in ousting union-busting Walker was the Red for Ed movement—the national teacher-led push to reclaim public schools – and the mobilising of new grassroots groups around the state made education what ranked number one for many voters in Wisconsin. His Democrat victor, Evers, promised to increase funding for public schools and end the voucher programme that funnels public money into private schools.
Despite the limitations of the mid-term elections for progressives and radicals, a new socialist movement is growing in the United States. This is crucial for the development of resistance to Trump on all from fronts – from taking on the far-right, standing up for women’s rights, supporting strikes by teachers and others in the labour movement, defending migrant rights, to the fight for a universal healthcare system. Socialists need to be at the centre of building these struggles on the broadest possible basis. Many of these people voted for the radical and socialist people who stood in the elections.
Those struggles will be crucial in pushing back against Trump’s politics of hate and his policies benefiting the rich. But they will also be crucial in pressing Democrats wherever possible to oppose the policies of Trump and his supporters instead of being complicit in them. To paraphrase Howard Zinn, the crucial issue is not who is occupying the White House but who is occupying the streets, workplaces and beyond in the fight to defeat Trump and everything he stands for.
Millions of Americans have shown they are willing to join resistance whenever it is organised. The massive vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party primaries and the election of self-described socialists since shows there is a growing opportunity for the creation of an alternative to the rotten politics of both Trump and establishment Democratic Party politics. In this context, socialists in the US have the opportunity to press ahead with the building of a broad radical socialist party in the spirit of Eugene V. Debs. An alternative that can articulate the anger and hopes of tens of millions is desperately needed. The creation of such a mass party must go hand in hand with the building of the resistance to Trump and all anti-working class policies wherever they are emanating from.