The US midterm elections will be of marginal relevance to an electorate increasingly turning their backs on the status quo as a means of delivering change writes Sean Ledwith
American voters go to the polls on 4th November for the midterm elections and the outcome will play a decisive role on how the last two years of the Obama Presidency will be remembered. Supporters of the 44th President are hoping the results will secure his legacy as the architect of Obamacare and also that they will lay the foundations for a Democrat victory in the Presidential contest of 2016.
With greater likelihood of success, Republicans are looking for the opportunity to reduce Obama to lame duck status for the twilight of his Presidency, providing them with the legislative tools to further gut what remains of the Affordable Care Act, the President’s flagship achievement.
The political right will be hoping for a repetition of 2010 when this cycle of elections induced Obama to introduce us to a new term for a pummelling at the hands of voters: "I'm not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like I did last night"
What is not in doubt is that the contests at various levels of the political system will ignore the fundamental contradictions of US capitalism in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres.
The ever-increasing social and economic gulf between an inward-looking elite and the millions of workers who serve it will be glossed over in election debates, as will the US escalation of the crisis in the Middle East that threatens to plunge the region into renewed turbulence.
The elections will also be of marginal relevance to the majority of the electorate who are increasingly turning their backs on the status quo as a means of delivering authentic change.
A wearisome sequence over recent years of bank bailouts, fiscal cliffs, bizarre filibusters and federal shutdowns have drained the political system of US capitalism of much of its residual legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Americans and reduced its legislators to a status of near universal derision.
The current Congress - the 113th - has acquired an unenviable status as the least productive in US history, last year managing to pass a paltry 55 pieces of legislation.
Inevitably, the 'Do Nothing' Congress has left US voters underwhelmed by the prospect of exercising their democratic prerogative in an increasingly farcical democracy. The turnout in 2010 was 37% and is not expected to be significantly higher this time round. The lowest turnout rates recently have been among the 18-24 year old registered voters, a clear indicator of a rotten political system that is rapidly running out of credibility with its future citizens.
The focus of the elections will be on the balance of power in Congress. All 435 seats in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, are at stake plus one third in the Senate, the upper chamber. Currently, the Democrats have a tenuous 55-45 majority in the latter, while the Republicans have a clear majority of the 435 seats available in the House.
The lower chamber is not expected to change significantly but many pundits are expecting the President's party to lose its control of the Senate. In that event, the Republicans will rub their hands in glee at the prospect of humiliating Obama in the closing phase of his Presidency.
The right-wing Tea Party faction that has increasingly come to dominate conservative politics in the US will resume its undisguised project to emasculate Obamacare and intensify the attacks on the working class that characterised the fiscal cliff and sequestration crises of 2012-13.
Some Republicans have openly discussed the possibility of impeaching Obama should they achieve a majority in both chambers. They are also aware a Republican controlled Congress would probably delay the retirement of the most liberal member of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and open up the long-term possibility of replacing her with an anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage judge in the future.
It is sobering to recall that only two years ago, Obama crushed his Republican rival, Mitt Romney in the Presidential election of 2012 with 52% versus 47% of the popular vote and appeared to have cemented his place in the pantheon of transformative, two-term Democrat Presidents alongside FDR and Clinton.
Understanding Obama’s declining popularity over the past two years can partly be achieved by examining some of the key midterm battlegrounds.
In Kentucky, the Democrat candidate for Senate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has astonishingly refused to say whether she even voted for the President in the 2012 election! This has obviously caused acute embarrassment among her own party and hilarity among Republicans.
In fact, Grimes has pointedly expressed the policy divide between herself and the nominal leader of her party:
'I’m not Barack Obama. I disagree with him on guns, coal, and the EPA.'
Obama's feeble attempts to introduce gun control have been greeted with scorn by the Democrat candidate. Grimes' campaign ads have emphasised her support for the pro-gun pressure group, the NRA, and her expertise at handling firearms, which apparently is superior to that of her opponent:
"And Mitch, that’s not how you hold a gun... KY women do it better."
With friends like these
It's a similar story in Alaska and Colorado where Democrat candidates have made it abundantly clear they do not want to be seen with the President-even when he happens to make a campaign stop in their respective states! Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, has mocked this cynical ploy on the part of Democrat politicians, accusing them of 'running frantically from Barack Obama like he was the bad guy in one of those chainsaw massacre movies.'
Apart from denouncing his limited gun control measures, Democrat candidates have also criticised Obama's foreign policy as not been hawkish enough-seemingly oblivious to the fact the President has this year initiated Iraq War III!
In North Carolina, Kay Hagan, the Democrat candidate has criticised her Commander in Chief for not pushing the world to the brink of global conflict earlier:
With friends like Grimes and Hagan in his own party it is little wonder Obama has seen his popularity with the wider electorate slump to its lowest point of 40% on the eve of the midterms.
The relentless ideological war waged by Republicans - both on Capitol Hill and among their supporters in the mainstream media - over the course of Obama’s Presidency have succeeding in undermining the legitimacy of his modest attempts to ameliorate the intensity of exploitation exercised by US capitalism.
The conservative offensive has only served, however, to alienate many American citizens from the entire political superstructure, with Congress itself now being rated as an effective institution by a derisory 14% of voters.
Bush v Clinton 2?
The jaundiced perception of the political apparatus that is widespread in US society is compounded by the hollowing out of democratic transparency by corporate lobbying of both major parties.
Recently, the Center for Responsive Politics reported this will be the most expensive round of midterm elections in history, weighing in at $4 billion. Predictably most of that has been spent by pro-business pressure groups, aimed at undermining Democrat candidates and displacing them with Republicans.
The pro-Tea Party Koch brothers have funded a series of scurrilous attack ads focused on unseating Kay Hagan in North Carolina. One of the advisors behind this legalised smear campaign has smugly noted its effectiveness:
'After several months of ads that you helped to fund to remind citizens about her record in support of big spending and support of Obamacare, her disapproval rating climbed from 34 per cent to where it stands today at 54 per cent…Now, that’s not a good place for her to be running for re-election as an incumbent.'
Any attempt by the Democrats to cry foul over this nefarious activity is undermined, however, by Obama’s willingness to go cap in hand himself to sympathetic members of the super rich in his pursuit of election funding. In the run-up to these elections he staged fundraisers organised by real estate tycoon Richie Richman (yes, that is his real name!) and actress Gwyneth Paltrow with tickets costing up to $15 000.
The decreasing credibility of the US political system is also highlighted by the sub-plot of these elections acting as a curtain raiser to the Presidential campaign of 2016. Currently, US voters in that year are facing the distinctly unappealing prospect of choosing between a third Bush Presidency and a second Clinton one!
Jeb Bush, son of George Snr and brother of George Jnr, is starting to emerge as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, while Hillary Clinton is regarded as a shoe-in for the Democrats if she elects to run. The latter notoriously voted in favour of the Iraq war in 2003 and as Secretary of State under Obama advocated aggressive imperial interventions in Syria and Iran. She has also spoken in favour of prosecuting Edward Snowden as a traitor for his revelations about the activities of the NSA.
United States of Austerity
The irrelevance of the institutions of the US state to many of its own people has been underlined by recent evidence of the deepening impact of the austerity policies signed off by both major parties in recent years. The week before polling, Unicef reported an incredible one third of American children live in poverty, putting the US in 36th place out of 41 nations that can be measured in this way. In stark contrast, Norway has 5% of children who come into this category.
In September of this year, the Federal Reserve noted gross income of the top 10% of US society has risen by 10% over the past three years, while in contrast every other income bracket experienced a decline in take-home pay.
The more perceptive members of the US elite have noted the increasingly visible nature of social stratification is a threat to the long-term hegemony of the capitalist system. Fed boss, Janet Yellen, commented during her report of the findings to Congress:
'I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity...'
Yellen is voicing the fears of elements of the US ruling class that the Ferguson rebellion earlier this year may not have been a flash in the pan but actually the portent of further uprisings against the gross inequality and structural racism that is now integrated into US capitalism. Whatever the outcome of the midterms, there are small but significant signs of a revival of the US left.
Kshama Sawant’s election last year as a socialist city councillor in Seattle was based on an innovative combination of community and electoral activism. Also last year, Bill De Blasio’s election as New York Mayor was interpreted as a clear rejection of the pro-Wall Street posturing of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.
The conservative campaign to defeat Kay Hagan in North Carolina with a bottomless pit of funding from billionaires has triggered an Occupy-style movement that on a weekly basis has been taking over the legislative building in the state capital of Raleigh to stage rallies and protests with a progressive agenda. One of the organisers has noted:
'It has been a really exciting and exhilarating development That many people coming together for something that had nothing to do with a candidate in a coalition calling for gay rights and reproductive rights and so many other things. It was the best of the civil rights movement but made new.'
Senator Elisabeth Warren of Massachusetts is currently being lobbied by the left of the Democratic Party to run as an anti-corporate rival to Hillary Clinton for the Presidential nomination. Neither De Blasio nor Warren are convincing as left alternatives to the status quo but the momentum each has mobilised creates a space for formulating an explicitly socialist alternative to a bankrupt status quo.