US: Midterm elections weaken Republicans

How can we really defeat the right?


The midterm elections in the U.S. represented a limited “blue wave” and an overall rejection of Trump by the electorate. Republicans were relieved their losses weren’t worse while many progressive workers and youth were disappointed the outcome wasn’t more decisive. It came in the wake of an election campaign where Trump sought to mobilize his base by whipping up fear of immigrants and using overt racism while the Democrats focused on “rejecting hate” and defending Obamacare but offered little that was concrete to working class people.

At the same time a number of left and progressive candidates, almost all standing as Democrats, reflected the intense desire of millions to push back against the agenda of the right by refusing corporate money and putting forward bold pro-working class demands like Medicare-for-All, rent control, a $15 minimum wage and tuition free college. A number of self-described socialists won including Julia Salazar who is going to the New York state senate and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both heading to Congress. Tlaib is also one of the two Muslim American women elected to Congress, an historic first.

While the Democrats now control the House of Representatives, a vicious and reactionary regime is still in place in Washington and we can’t wait until 2020 and the presidential election. We urgently need to build a mass movement, centered on the social power of working people, that takes on and defeats the agenda of the right and fights to push Trump out. In the coming months, both the Democratic leadership and the new left candidates elected to Congress and state legislatures will be put to the test of rising expectations and demands to confront Trump and the ruling class.

Polarization deepens

The last few weeks saw Trump ramp up xenophobic hysteria to a new and horrific level, even for him, trying to whip up fear to drive turnout of his base. Previously he had used the Kavanaugh nomination process to the same end. He declared the migrant caravan from Central America which is winding through Mexico to be “an invasion”, possibly created by the Democrats or funded by the liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros, and including MS13 gang members and terrorists from the Middle East. He then ordered thousands of troops to the border to confront a peaceful procession of a few thousand desperate women, men and children fleeing the social chaos created by neo-liberal policies promoted by U.S. imperialism.

The Democratic leadership, on the other hand, chose very consciously to focus its attention on suburban districts and particularly on white women “with a college degree” who had previously tended to vote Republican. On healthcare, mainstream Democrats emphasized defending mandatory coverage of people with “pre-existing conditions”, a progressive element of Obamacare. But this was not combined with any bold proposal, along the lines of Medicare for All, for how to address the massive crisis in healthcare and the ongoing attacks of the Republicans. Neither did the Democratic leadership attack Trump’s corporate tax cuts or answer the collapse of family wage jobs by putting forward demands like a major green public works program. Instead, the Democrats used the unprecedented diversity of their candidates as a key selling point.

These “centrist” approaches by the Democrats were effective to differing degrees but also reveal the party leadership’s very limited message in response to the Republican onslaught and the desire of their own electoral base to defeat the agenda of the right. Showing how out of touch they are, Nancy Pelosi – who may well be Speaker of the House again – made a statement today that the Democrats will take a “bipartisan” approach and “seek common ground where we can” with the Republicans. At a meeting of donors and “strategists” on Tuesday she again reiterated that trying to impeach Trump was off the agenda. Undoubtedly this weakness helped to embolden Trump to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a move clearly aimed to undermine the Mueller investigation which is overseen by the Justice Department.

A blue wave with limitations

There was a massive turnout for a midterm election with 30 million more voting than in the last midterm in 2014. It is projected that the Democrats will have 229 seats in the incoming House of Representatives, a 36 seat gain. This is based on winning the popular vote by a 7% margin and would give them a 23 seat majority. Since the election became in many ways a referendum on Trump this shift in itself indicates that large sections of society reject his sexist and racist message. Significantly, at least 100 women were elected to House, the vast majority of them Democrats, for the first time in U.S. history (this is nearly a quarter of the whole House).

The Democrats also made modest gains at the state level where the Republicans had dominated over the past decade. They flipped seven governor positions including in some key midwestern states like Illinois and Michigan. Several particularly noxious reactionaries lost including Chris Kobach in Kansas and the infamous union basher Scott Walker in Wisconsin. But only flipping six state legislative chambers was a less impressive outcome for the Democrats, at least partly reflecting the gerrymandering of state districts.

On the other hand, Republicans expanded their Senate majority. But it must be remembered that the Senate is far less democratic in its composition given that every state has two representatives no matter how small its population.

The establishment pushes back

Despite the victory of high profile democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other progressives at federal and state levels, several outcomes were intensely disappointing to many progressive workers and youth. This included the defeat of Andrew Gillum in Florida’s gubernatorial race by the out and out racist Ron de Santis as well as the defeat of Beto O’Rourke in the Texas Senate race by the odious Ted Cruz.

Both Gillum and O’Rourke took a markedly bolder and more progressive approach than that of the Democratic leadership. Gillum would have also been the first black governor of Florida, a former Jim Crow state. In neighboring Georgia, Stacey Abrams who would be the first black woman state governor in U.S. history, is not conceding defeat. She is right to demand a recount due to the various irregularites in the Georgia election – part of a broader national Republican effort at stepped up voter suppression in states they control. These measures are particularly aimed at making it harder for African Americans to vote.

The Democratic leadership is now of course claiming that the outcome vindicates their “moderate” approach. As the New York Times put it, “The candidates who delivered the House majority largely hailed from the political center, running on clean government themes and promises of incremental improvement to the healthcare system rather than transformative social change.” Going further they argue that “the theory – embraced by hopeful liberals in states like Texas and Florida – that charismatic and unapologetically progressive leaders might transmute Republican bastions into purple political battlefields, proved largely fruitless.” This is plainly ridiculous. In fact, O’Rourke had an outstanding result in a state where no statewide race has been won by Democrats in a quarter century. These and a number of other races actually show that the shift to the left seen in big cities and among young people in other parts of the country has spread to the South.

Additional indications of the potential support for bold left policies in many areas of the country come from some of the results on ballot measures. Florida voters restored voting rights to 1.4 million residents convicted of a felony who served their time. Ending this utterly anti-democratic measure will disproportionately benefit African Americans. Anti-gerrymandering measures passed in Michigan and several other states. As Jacobin pointed out today, three “red” states (Idaho, Nebraska and Utah) voted to expand Medicaid. Other progressive victories included San Francisco passing a corporate tax to aid the homeless while Missouri and Arkansas raised their minimum wage. There were also significant defeats due to massive corporate pushback and disinformation campaigns including of Prop 10, the California statewide initiative to expand rent control. Measures to restrict abortion passed in Alabama and West Virginia.

In terms of centrist Democratic strategy it stands out that powerful conservative Democrat Claire McCaskill lost in the same state that just voted to raise the minimum wage and recently overwhelmingly rejected so-called “right to work” legislation.

What now?

The outcome of the midterm election will broadly encourage those who want to fight back against Trump whereas a Republican victory would clearly have been temporarily demoralizing. However, the immediate pushback of the Democratic establishment against raised expectations is a clear indication of how the debate on the way forward in the fight against the right will intensify in the coming period, especially in the context of the presidential campaign which will begin almost immediately.

But especially given the character of the campaign run by Trump, we must be clear about what exactly we are up against. There is an increasing debate among left liberals and the broad left about whether the Trump regime is “creeping fascism”. This fear is heightened by other developments internationally, particularly the election of the far right populist Jair Bolsonaro who definitely echoes fascistic themes as president of Brazil.

There is no doubt that Trump who now calls himself a “nationalist” is normalizing far right conspiracies. The dominant Trumpian wing of the Republican Party is increasingly taking on aspects of a far right party.

But is it fascism or “incipient fascism”? Fascism historically was embodied in mass movements made up particularly of middle class people left destitute by the crisis of capitalism which aimed at physically smashing the organizations of the working class and the left. They came to power when sections of the ruling class saw them as a preferable alternative to the real threat of social revolution that would lead to them losing their property and power. The context today in the U.S. is obviously quite different. However, there is a profound social crisis and loss of legitimacy of capitalist institutions. In various European countries the failure of historically left and workers’ parties to defend the working class in the face of neo-liberal attack – in fact becoming neo-liberal parties themselves – has helped open the door to the growth of far right parties.

While the Democrats were never a workers or real left party there is an analogous process here with their abandonment of their historic working class base and hard turn to the right (“centrism”) in the 80s and 90s. But beyond the outlines of a far right political force, there remain relatively few actual organized fascists. Fascist groups suffered a significant setback after the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017 and the mass response that followed. However, they are again being encouraged to come out of their holes. They pose a real but so far limited danger. The much bigger and immediate danger is the emergence of a mass far right political force that foments racial division and acts to push back attempts to unite working people in their common interests.

There is a growing understanding among hundreds of thousands that we need a political force determined to fight for ordinary people as hard as Trump is prepared to fight for the interests of billionaires. As we have consistently argued, the project of trying to reform the Democratic Party or push it decisively to the left which has engaged a large number of young activists is understandable but almost certain to fail. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 in which he raised over $200 million in small donations for a pro-working class program pointed to the massive potential for what the situation requires – a new independent left party based on the interests of working people and all the oppressed.

Such a party needs to be based on mass social struggle which is the real way the right will be defeated and serious gains won. This year pointed to the potential for constructing a true, ongoing mass movement with the enormous mobilizations of women, student walkouts against gun violence and the highest number of strikes in nearly 20 years. The teachers revolt in particular, concentrated in red states, showed the potential of the class struggle to galvanize wider sections of society. The teachers had bold demands including taxing corporate interests to fund education and reverse decades of cuts that won mass support including among people who had voted for Trump.

In 2019 we will almost certainly see another wave of struggle – this must be combined with the building of an anti-corporate left political challenge to the establishment which will be the beginning of putting Trumpism on the run for good.


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November 2018