Last night's results show increasing polarisation in US politics, with establishment politics the loser, argues Shabbir Lakha
In arguably the most important midterm elections in a generation, the Republicans have lost control of the House of Representatives, but maintained control, and made some gains, in the Senate. The election has seen the highest voter turnout in 50 years. Reports showed that young people, women and ethnic minorities were out in record numbers to vote.
Among the winners of the night are women. A record number of women have been elected to Congress. At the time of writing, 17 of the 26 gains made by the Democrats are women. And the first two Muslim women have been elected to Congress. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian second-generation immigrant in Detroit, and Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee in Minnesota, both won with big majorities. Sharice Davids, elected in Kansas, and Deb Haaland, elected in New Mexico, have become the first Native American representatives in Congress.
In the winners' circle is not Donald Trump, even though he has declared the night a “tremendous success” for Republicans, which it certainly hasn’t been. However, it also hasn’t been the decisive blow that many were expecting, or at least hoping for.
It is the usual case that the opposition party make gains during midterms. The Democrats have potentially made marginally bigger gains than they did under George Bush in 2006 but certainly not as much as the Republicans had gained under Obama or Clinton.
The reality is that more than a massive turn towards the Democrats, what we’re seeing is a picture of increasing polarisation in US politics. Many of the results counted so far have shown very close races; in one district in Georgia, the Republicans won by just 57 votes.
During the Presidential election in 2016, there remained a lot of bad blood between Trump and the Republican party. Trump was not the Republican establishment’s candidate, and the bitter primary elections meant that even during the Presidential election, Trump didn’t have the overt support of much of the mainstream Republican party. That has shifted significantly in the last two years. The Republican party have moved sharply rightwards, embraced Trump’s policies and rhetoric and that will have had an impact in mobilising traditional and more extreme Republican voters.
At the same time, the Democratic Socialists of America, the leftwing current within the Democrats, have had a relatively successful night. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar both won their seats for Congress and the Senate in New York, Ocasio-Cortez becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress. The DSA made record gains during the primaries, but their success was mostly limited to winning candidacies in Democrat-incumbent seats and so they haven’t really been able to challenge Republican seats.
The results have shown that mainstream Democrats haven’t been able to provide a substantial alternative for the vast majority of Americans. Over the course of the night, Donald Trump has already spoken to Nancy Pelosi, who will likely be returning as Speaker of the House of Representatives from the Democrats. In her victory speech she spoke of the new Democrat majority “restoring checks and balances on the Trump administration”, but also went to great lengths to talk about bipartisan cooperation and “unity”.
This rhetoric transpires in the results. Comparing election maps from the 2016 Presidential election and the midterm elections, they remain largely the same. Rural areas and industrial towns have tended to vote Republican while urban and suburban areas have leaned towards the Democrats, including within some Republican strongholds.
Although pundits are once again quick to point out average levels of education as a point of distinction between these areas, the trend is far more correlated with average income. What this election has confirmed is that those hardest hit by the financial crisis and deindustrialisation are sick of the status quo, of Clintonite politics, while middle class voters, even those that are conservative and traditionally Republican voters, are willing to support the Democrats as route back to so-called stability.
Exit polls showed that the biggest issue of the election by far was healthcare, followed by immigration and economic policy. Despite all of Trump’s rhetoric, it’s clear that the most important issue facing Americans in their daily life is the fact that they have to spend exorbitant amounts on health insurance and medication. This is prime ground for socialists in the US who are campaigning for US healthcare to have made huge gains, so it remains that mainstream Democrats sticking to policies that offer mild reforms to the existing health care system failed to win as many votes as they could have.
On immigration, Trump’s constant, and vile, rhetoric has made it a prominent issue but also generated a kickback. Although his stunt of sending troops to the US border to stop the Migrant Caravan (which has only just reached Mexico City) will have been seen as a show of strength and shored up support among his core base, it’s interesting to see that the southernmost districts in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California have either remained Democrat, or the Republican incumbent has seen their majority slashed – to less than 1% in one district in New Mexico.
This election will go some way in reigning in some of Trump’s most extreme policies, but it will largely mean more of the same. Right wing Democrats don’t seem interested in confronting Trump in any serious kind of way, and if they put forward another Hilary Clinton-type candidate in 2020, Trump will have a good chance of winning a second term.
For the left, the lesson is surely that pure electioneering and being tied completely to the Democrats will not advance the left and doesn’t pose a credible challenge to the right.
Democratic Socialists will be boosted after tonight and will be eyeing up prospects to win more primaries down the line, but the Democrat party has shown that it is unwilling to break with neoliberalism and learn from its failures. The left need to be thinking a lot broader, a lot more on the streets, if it wants to have any hope of benefiting from the growing politicisation and polarisation.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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