Democracy and the US Midterms

Maurice reflects on the US Mid-term elections, and asks if something has changed in the ‘demosphere’.

Donald Trump, with characteristic bravado and disregard for the truth, declared it “very close to complete victory”. 

And even some of those who had been rooting for a ‘blue wave’ election in the States – with the Democrats surging back to power in a rebuke to the President – may have initially been somewhat deflated by the results this week. Though they took the House of Representatives, they failed to take the Senate, and indeed Republicans gained a couple of seats there.

To make matters worse, some promising progressive candidates like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, fell just short in the end.  An out-and-out racist, Steve King, was returned in Iowa, despite a spirited challenge from Democratic newcomer JD Scholten. And of course, the win in the House will do little to draw the sting from the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

In some instances, it appears Republican election victories involved some shady practices. Take Brian Kemp, who has claimed victory in the Georgia Governor’s race. He spent the entire period of the election as Georgia’s Secretary of State – that is, the official charged with overseeing the conduct of an election in which he was a candidate – only stepping down from that post afterwards. Not before he had purged the voter rolls of likely Democratic voters, including a disproportionately large number of people from minority communities.

But on the plus side, the Democrats now have a healthy majority in the House. That’s important because the Trump agenda can’t just be rammed through any more, and it means the Democrats get to chair committees that can investigate, subpoena witnesses, and start to unpick some of the excesses of the Trump Administration – perhaps reverse some of that voter suppression.

In fact, the results in terms of seats don’t give a clear picture of the relative popularity of the parties – something you would think significant in a democratic process.  More people voted for Democrats than Republicans at every level: by around 750,000 in elections for Governorships; around 4.5 million in the House elections; and by a whopping 12.8m in the Senate race – even though Republicans won more seats in the latter. Let’s not forget that though Donald Trump won the Presidential election of 2016, some 2.8m more Americans voted for Clinton than for him.

In another promising sign from this week’s race, there were also victories for women, LGBT candidates and members of minority ethnic groups in record numbers. The first native American women were elected, and the first Muslim women. The US now has its first openly gay man to be elected Governor. And even those progressive candidates who failed to win the seats – like O’Rourke – generated a surge in support, and helped get voters out for the other races held at the same time.  Some 372 seats in individual state legislatures switched from Republican to Democratic on Tuesday night, for example. And incidentally, at the time of writing, one or two more seats could yet go to the Democrats after a recount.

Perhaps just as significantly, many Democratic candidates, it appears, refused to take corporate donations for their campaigns, instead relying on many small donations from ordinary people. This may be a good sign for the health of American democracy.

But to win in 2020, Democrats need to be very clear not just about Trump, but about what caused Trump.

For me, it goes like this.

We’ve had three decades of growing inequality in which Republicans told working class people: “sorry your jobs have been off-shored, but you can’t buck the market, and our share prices just keep growing, which is great for the economy, right? Now don’t let those Democrats raise your taxes and give the money to Welfare Queens”.

And the Democrats said “well, the Republicans are right about the market, we’ve got to have growth; but we’ll redistribute a bit of it, if we can get our rich donors to agree. Now in the meantime, try not to act like dumb rednecks!”

That is, the whole political class, including the party that was meant to represent them, turned their faces away from workers just when they needed most attention. Hammered by the right, abandoned or condescended to by the new centre-left (which was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” in Peter Mandelson’s infamous phrase), it’s little wonder someone who appeared as champion, and gave them permission to voice their anger, appealed to many in what would traditionally have been a left-leaning constituency. No one was out there offering a more positive, constructive vision for that constituency.

But maybe, at last, some Democrats (and democrats) have begun to do so.

For me, if the Democrats want to build a winning combination in the two years before the next Presidential election, they need to move away from reliance on large corporate donations and get out among working people. Door to door from now until 2020. That’s how you build a democratic (and Democratic) movement. It’s how Bernie Sanders changed the conversation in 2016, forcing the ‘safe’ candidate (that is, the one who would not upset wealthy donors) Hillary Clinton to tack left; it’s what has propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from the Bronx to Congress; it’s what saw Beto O’Rourke pick up almost half the vote in Texas. These candidates also ran on a strong, progressive platform of raising the minimum wage, rolling out some sort of public health service – but crucially they were able to meet people and make the case in person.

Something has changed in the democratic political  atmosphere – the ‘demosphere’ you might say. New currents are beginning to flow. It is up to democrats on both sides of the Atlantic to help those currents to combine together, so that they may grow in strength.