Six socialist takeaways from the US midterm elections 2018

Alan Maass looks at some of the main themes of the 2018 US midterms and what they tell us. This article first appeared on socialistworker.org

Photo: Mark Gunn (flickr)

No. 1: This is what polarization (not democracy) looks like

Coulda been, shoulda been.

The 2018 midterm elections should have been a ringing repudiation of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

And if not for the dismal state of U.S. “democracy” and the two-party system, it would have been.

Overall, a lot more people 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 in Election 2018.

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

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

The Democrats won a decent-sized wave of victories in U.S. House 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 — thanks in large part to a structure that gives disproportionate power to less populated rural states. In California, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein will end up with over 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, and Democrats were defending nearly three-quarters of them this year. But the Republicans kept control in the Senate thanks to victories in states like North Dakota.

Election 2018 gave us images of the most brazen kind of contempt for democracy and voting rights — like 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 U.S. 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 during his time in power (more on that below).

Another more subtle example of the lack of democracy in the U.S. 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 (more on that below).

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

His own campaign prepared a slick ad for the final weeks of the campaign emphasizing 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, Election 2018 was another illustration of the main characteristic of U.S. politics for some years now: polarization.

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.

Trump and the 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 the outrage and anger of masses of people on the other side, and some may have tried to express it on Election Day — the top trending Google search yesterday afternoon, by a hands-down margin, was “Dónde votar” (“Where to vote”). If Democrat Jackie Rosen holds on for an upset win in the Nevada Senate race, it will be because of the Latino turnout.

Plenty of analysis from the political and media establishment has bemoaned how Election 2018 revealed a polarized America, where the basics of “civility” in politics were disappearing.

Wrong.

It’s not a problem that people are infuriated by Trump and want to stop him. It’s a problem that U.S. political system doesn’t reflect the majority sentiment, as Election 2018 clearly showed — and it’s a problem that the Democratic Party doesn’t represent them either.

We don’t need Nancy Pelosi 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 mobilize the outrage of the majority and that build toward even bigger actions and bigger struggles to come.

No. 2: The Republicans’ Get-Rid-of-the-Vote Campaign, Part One

The Dark Lord of voter suppression bit the dust on Election Day.

Kansas Republican Kris Kobach failed dismally in his bid to become governor — in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a two-to-one margin.

Kobach has long tilted at the imaginary windmill of “voter fraud.” He pioneered a data collection program, Voter Registration Crosscheck, that was supposed to root out instances of people voting in multiple states, but which got it wrong 99 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post.

That didn’t stop Trump from trying to appoint Kobach to lead a presidential commission on “electoral integrity” — though the two were foiled when state governments wisely refused to provide voter data.

Back in Kansas as secretary of state, Kobach kept trying to disenfranchise voters. In Dodge City, the single polling place used by thousands of residents, including the city’s immigrant communities, was moved miles outside of townfor this year’s election.

This week, it also came to light that Kobach has a lengthy record of accepting campaign money from multiple people who are, or have ties to, white nationalists.

Unfortunately, Kobach’s disciple, Georgia’s Brian Kemp — who really rolled up his sleeves and got his hands filthy in the stealing-the-right-to-vote department — looks like he’ll get away with becoming governor.

As secretary of state, Kemp has been purging voters from the rolls since he took office. Days before the election, a federal judge put the brakes on a new state law championed by Kemp that requires all voter registration and official state identification information to match precisely.

Closer to the election, Kemp turned to a more old-fashioned form of election theft: racist lies about his opponent. Robocalls from the Kemp campaign this weekend claimed that “radical Stacey Abrams is so extreme that she wants to allow illegal immigrants [sic] to vote in this election.”

And after all that, Kemp had the gall to announce on Sunday that he was opening an election fraud investigation…into the Democratic Party!

Kemp claimed to have information that Democrats were trying to hack the state’s voter registration system — when in fact, lawyers suing Kemp on behalf of Georgia voters had notified the secretary of state’s office of a vulnerability of the state voter registration system.

No. 3: The other tides of the US Midterms 2018

The midterm elections this year 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 U.S. 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. 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 responsible for helping to inject socialism into mainstream politics after an absence for many generations. In general, the success of progressive and socialist candidates in this election shows a brewing radicalization that is a product of profound discontent — with both the Trump regime and the social and political crisis that predates him.

One sign of that on Election Day was a surge of 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 percent of those surveyed supported Donald Trump — while 39 percent supported democratic socialism!

A CNBC report quoted Daphne Frias, a New York City organizer of a Walk Out to Vote initiative on Election Day, who made it clear that the politicization 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 realizing that we are unhappy with the way our country is going. We’ve marched and we’ve rallied and that made people listen.

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 conservatizing 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.

No. 4: Does Pelosi have a mandate? Does she want a mandate?

Millions and millions of people voted for the Democrats in Election 2018 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.

When you read the media analysis this week about what the Democrats will do with their new House majority, remember this: We’ve been here before.

In 2006, after six long and bloody years of President George W. Bush and the “war on terror,” the Democrats won a big victory in midterm elections and regained control of Congress. The driving issue of that election was growing mass opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Yet just a few months later, the Democratic majorities in Congress handed $120 billion to George W. Bush to continue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As SW wrote a few years later:

At the time, antiwar activists met with Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) to voice their frustration with the cave-in. For years, the Democrats had said they were powerless to do anything about the unpopular war because the Republicans were in charge in Congress. Now the Democrats had the majority, the activists argued to Moran.

Moran responded: “I know that, but in all fairness, until we get a Democratic president, until we get a president who is committed to ending the war…”

Get ready to hear a lot of that from Democrats for the next two years: We can’t do anything until we get rid of Trump.

And don’t forget the end of the last story either: Moran got his Democratic president in 2008 — and still the Iraq war didn’t end under Barack Obama.

No.5 : The Republicans’ Get-Rid-of-the-Vote Operation, Part Two

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gives the Justice Department the authority to send out federal personnel to monitor local elections was a historic victory of the civil rights movement. The goal was to ensure that the defeated Jim Crow segregationists of the U.S. South couldn’t keep stealing the vote from African Americans.

So it was a particularly nauseating irony of this election that Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ Justice Department sent election monitors into the Iowa congressional district of Rep. Steve King — after the neo-Nazi sympathizer King spent his campaign spewing lies about undocumented immigrants.

Specifically, the federal monitors were sent to Buena Vista County in northwestern Iowa, which deviates from the state’s heavily white demographic because of its large Latino population — 26 percent of the county — employed in agriculture and the meatpacking industry.

The Justice Department is monitoring roughly the same number of jurisdictions as it did in the 2014 midterms during the Obama presidency. But it’s telling where the Trump regime decided to send its monitors.

No.6: How the suburbs got the Blues

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.

One of the prime examples of this trend was Illinois’ 6th congressional district, in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago — where Republican Rep. 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.

That one caught my eye because I grew up in the 6th district. I was only seven when the Beatles broke up, but I have no memory at all of my congressman being anybody other than Republican Henry Hyde, who lived one town away from me when he wasn’t in Washington.

You probably know the name Hyde because it was his amendment that bars Medicaid funding for abortions, one of the early restrictions on abortion access after the 1973 Roe v. Wade court decision. But Hyde, who served in the House for 32 years, was an all-around reactionary, whether the issue was imperialism, government spending or racial justice.

Hyde’s politics perfectly reflected the stultifying conservatism and conformity of life in the suburbs. DuPage County, where me and Henry lived, was almost all white, and it was only after I escaped that I fully comprehended the casual racism that kept it that way — not to mention the total absence of any outward sign of non-traditional gender roles or LGBT identity.

The Hyde-like 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. Head west 2,000 miles to the California 25th congressional district, north of Los Angeles — home to Simi Valley, the conservative town that Fraternal Order of Police lawyers chose to get the trial of the four white cops who beat Rodney King relocated to. A Ventura County jury, without any Blacks on it, delivered the not-guilty verdict that set off the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion.

A quarter of a century later, and whites are only 40 percent of the district’s population — and 31-year-old Katie Hill, a former administrator of a nonprofit serving the homeless, could become the first Democrat to win a House election in the 25th district since the year before Rodney King was beaten.

The social insularity I remember growing up in the suburbs came with the unquestioned assurance that everyone who lived around us was “middle class” — though the truth was probably that most were technical or white-collar workers, like my dad. That fit with the Republicans’ up-by-the-bootstraps ideology, too.

But the dynamics of the American economy in the neoliberal age that followed have opened up chasms of class inequality.

The fact that a home in the suburbs is no defense against corporate power and the mayhem it causes was brought home in the Illinois 6th district last month by an environmental scandal in Willowbrook, a dozen or so miles south of my hometown of Itasca.

An equipment sterilization 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 Gov. Bruce Rauner — who, by the way, went down to humiliating defeat last night.

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.

Issues of social and economic justice are a matter of everyday life for the majority of people in Willowbrook and Itasca in a way they weren’t a few decades ago. A political party that mobilized around these issues — with the aim of activating people, not just getting them out to vote every few years — could achieve a real change from the bad old days of the Republican suburbs.

Nicole Colson contributed to this article.

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