Results and prospects from the US midterm elections: a discussion with Lance Selfa

Red Flag editor Ben Hillier speaks with Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History and editor of the essay collection US Politics in an Age of Uncertainty, about the meaning of the midterm election results and what comes next.

The most striking immediate takeaways from the congressional midterms, held on 6 November, were, first, the entrenched, though uneven, partisan and geographical polarisation of US politics and, second, the far right radicalisation reflected in and encouraged by president Trump and the Republican Party. 

For two years, House and Senate Republicans who previously repudiated the New York billionaire have walked in lock step with the president. In the month preceding the polls it was more like a goose step. Trump deployed a conspiracy theory that the Democrats and George Soros (a Jewish billionaire) were behind the refugee caravans making their way to the US from Central America, called this movement of people an “invasion” of criminal gangs and Middle Easterners, sent thousands of troops to the southern border and suggested that they should be given the power to shoot to kill. 

He said that Democratic sanctuary cities (those that hinder immigration agents from detaining and deporting undocumented migrants) were deliberately releasing from prison murderers – “animals” – who would kill good US citizens, and claimed that Democrats wanted to institute mob rule and turn the US into a failed state resembling Venezuela. This noxious, proto-fascist rhetoric was of a higher register than was reached in 2015-16, when the targets of his barbs were mostly labelled “stupid”, “bought off” or “crooked”, rather than conscious conspirators. And it was 90 percent successful, mobilising millions of extra voters and pulling the party establishment firmly behind him.

However, the third takeaway is that the backlash against the president is larger than it first appeared. In elections, 90 percent success still implies falling 10 percent short. With counting still continuing, the Democrats are projected to win the House popular vote by 8-9 percentage points. They have contained Senate losses to two and will gain at least 38 House seats. Were it not for voter suppression and gerrymandering by the GOP (Grand Old Party, a Republican moniker dating to the 19th century), it would have been more like 50. The Democrats also flipped more than 300 state legislature seats and seven governorships. 

According to an unusual but interesting economic analysis by Michael Cembalest, chairman of market and investment strategy at JP Morgan Asset Management: “Adjusted for economic conditions and asset prices, the 2018 midterm election resulted in the worst House retention by any president in 100 years”. On Cembalest’s reading, there has never been a poorer showing at a time of economic expansion and declining unemployment.

Trump’s demeanour at a White House press conference the day after the elections was perhaps testament to this. The president was hardly acting like a winner – starting flat and progressing to a defensive petulance almost as soon as the journalists began their interrogation of the results. Despite intermittent boasts about particular electoral victories and general economic conditions as evidence of his own greatness, it sounded like a loser’s briefing. He later spat the dummy and revoked one reporter’s press pass.

“As the votes are tallied, the Democratic victory grows”, says Lance Selfa via email from the United States. “They’ve now won more seats than in any midterm election since 1974, immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation. Their House vote will be larger than the GOP’s Tea Party ‘revolution’ in 2010. Trump’s gain in the Senate owes to his mobilisation of voters in conservative states, and to the historically unfavourable line-up of seats up for re-election – the most adverse to any party since the direct election of senators in 1914. The fact that Democrats have contained the losses is remarkable.” 

The fourth thing of note is the voter turnout, which is estimated to be more than 49 percent, the highest midterm rate since 1914. But in the context of Trump’s far right vulgarity, and even taking into account voter suppression, about half the electorate saw nothing in either party to motivate them to vote. 

“One thing to emphasise: the habitual pattern of midterms is that the party that doesn’t have the White House usually turns out at a higher rate, while the party of the president is more complacent”, says Selfa. “The caveat to this is that the GOP relies much more on older, white, upper-middle class voters. So it usually turns out at higher rates to begin with. 

“What was different about this election, and which underscores political polarisation, is the fact that both Democratic and GOP partisans were charged up and turned out at historically high rates. But ‘high’ in American terms is pitiful compared to just about every other major democratic country, the vast majority of abstention coming from working class people and people of colour.”

The fifth takeaway is that the Democrats got swings across the country: in urban, suburban, regional and rural areas and among older voters usually more inclined to vote for the GOP. Significantly for Trump, there seems to be blowback in some Midwestern states key to his 2016 presidential victory – places where he promised the world to ruined communities, only to turn around and attempt to destroy their health care and then pass massive tax cuts for corporations and millionaires.

“Democrats [had] sweeping wins across Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota”, noted Alexander Burns, a national political correspondent for the New York Times, on 13 November. “Two years after Mr. Trump won upset victories in three of those states and came close to capturing the fourth – Minnesota – Democrats won every partisan statewide office on the ballot in all of them.”

The swings may have been everywhere, but Democratic House gains were concentrated in more affluent and highly educated suburban districts. “The best apples-to-apples comparison comes when comparing 2016 and 2018 House results contested both years”, wrote Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster, in his wrap-up of the results. 

“Here, a clear trend emerges: Democrats overperformed the 2016 results in districts with more white voters with a college degree … 2018 is the story of the House catching up to where America was in 2016 at the presidential level. This trend was especially pronounced in swing and Republican-leaning districts.” 

Beyond holding the electoral line against the GOP, Democrats have no inclination to rally the broader working class with a left wing program to lift living standards – they want to carry out a suburban realignment, win so-called moderate Republicans and become the enduring party of choice for big capital. By and large in the midterms, they succeeded in this regard. As David Montgomery, a data visualisation journalist at CityLab noted:

“Before Tuesday’s election, Republicans controlled a majority of the ‘sparse suburban’ districts, where voters tend to live in outer-ring, low-density suburbs … [and] one-third of the ‘dense suburban’ districts, which are more tightly packed suburbs often located closer to big cities.

“That’s all gone now. Democrats control nearly 60 percent of the sparse suburban districts and more than 80 percent of the dense suburban districts … The suburbs, at least for one election, are now comfortably Democratic territory.”

Perhaps the most remarkable development is in southern California’s Orange County, the spiritual home of Republican conservatism for a century. All seven of its congressional districts have fallen to the Democrats.

Yet narratives of suburban USA being the homogeneous white-picket zones depicted in films such as American Beauty are misleading, according to Selfa. “Pulling suburban moderate Republicans into their voting base has been the Democrats’ aim since the 1970s. And while their performance with the college educated – especially women – is a key factor in this midterm, the idea that ‘the suburbs’ are just home to middle class white people is really not the case”, he says. 

“In the Chicago area, for example, more Latinos live in the suburbs than in the city. This sort of demographic transformation has occurred in many metro (and beyond) areas in the last decades, including Orange County. So I think there’s more to unpack here. Not that the Democrats’ desire to become the party that joins what’s left of the labour movement with upscale professionals is at question. But ‘the suburbs’ are more diverse in 2018 than the Hollywood stereotype indicates.”

The sixth point: while this was a “blue wave” election (in the US media, the GOP is  represented by the colour red, the Democrats by blue), it was also a green wave of cash, with more than $5 billion spent on campaigning – and Wall Street donations going to Senate Democrats at a ratio of two to one. While there were many small donations, the money trail suggests that the Democratic strategy of appealing to the establishment was vindicated. 

“Democratic challengers outraised their GOP opponents in something like 60-70 of the most competitive districts, which is nearly unprecedented”, says Selfa. “And while a number of Democrats made a pledge not to take corporate PAC [Political Action Committee, organisations that pool campaign contributions] money, they took donations from ‘dark money’ super PACS, which can engage in unlimited spending and most of whose donors are the rich and corporations and, for Democrats, the unions as well.”

The seventh takeaway, but hardly breaking news, is the anti-democratic nature of the US electoral system. “The aspects of the 18th century constitutional system, which everyone in the US ritually venerates, are becoming more obviously anti-majoritarian”, says Selfa. “We continue to live under a system that empowers conservative minorities over the non-conservative (and liberal on many issues) majority.”

The federalist US Senate system (which was imported as a rough model for Australia’s upper house in 1900) is based on state, rather than voter, representation. Across the country over six years, about 20 percent of the population elect a majority 52 senators, while the other 80 percent of the population elect only 48. The Republican lock on rural, conservative states meant that, in the 34 contests this year (one-third of the Senate is elected every two years for six-year terms), Democrats could win 58 percent of votes to the Republicans’ 41 percent, but their representation nevertheless declined.

In the House, which is most reflective of nation-wide political mobilisations because all 435 members are up for re-election every two years, Democratic representation approximates their share of the ballots. But because they usually run up the vote in urban districts and because of Republican gerrymanders, the party must win the popular vote by perhaps 5 percent to break even. Contrast the 2018 win to the last midterm wave in 2010. Then, the Republicans won the popular vote by 6.8 points but gained a 49 seat majority.

Prospects 

The Democrats rode the initial wave of popular revulsion to Trump’s election in 2016, getting behind popular street mobilisations against the new president. But they are now in permanent electoral campaign mode. So, it seems, are the NGOs and political networks aligned to them. Micah L. Sifry, author of The Big Disconnect, noted in the New Republic on 8 November the disaffection with Trump that was channelled into the pro-capitalist Democratic electoral mobilisation: “All told … the number of volunteers mobilized over the last 18 months exceeded two million people”. 

When Trump announced troops to the border, however, there were no significant mobilisations. Establishment Democrats buried the issue. As the presidential primary season opens, the mountains of anti-Trump energy again could be channelled into the electoral sphere and the dead-end of the pro-capitalist Democrats. “This is one of the dangers for the left in the next two years – i.e. that it will get sucked into 2020 presidential sweepstakes”, says Selfa. 

This danger is related to an eighth takeaway: while millions of people have shifted to the left and identify as socialists, there is no far left radicalisation matching the intensity of that to the right. There has been much talk about the rift in the Democrats between the party’s moderate and progressive wings. Yet the overwhelming majority in both camps are united on electoralism, and the progressives are unwilling to rock the broader Democratic boat. 

“While there is a shift leftward on a number of opinions, most of the political energy has been channelled into the Democratic Party-affiliated ‘resistance’ whose main aim has always been electoral”, says Selfa. “That is not at all to downplay the significant mobilisations we have seen. The Women’s Marches were truly massive, for example – and there have been many other mobilisations around science, climate change, Trump’s refugee family separation policy and the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. But the vast majority of the mobilised were people who looked to the November elections to put a brake on Trump.” 

In US politics, that may be the average person’s understandable outlook. But the organised political forces beyond the far left wear responsibility for not arguing for a political alternative to the Democrats. Those organisations with mobilising power – think of the more than 2 million midterm volunteers – seem to have their sights set firmly on the White House and the Capitol.

It is worth comparing some of the more notable aspects of Trump’s early insurgency with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organisation that has received significant press coverage over the last two years and has reportedly grown to about 50,000 members. 

In the first GOP primary debate in August 2015, to howls of disapproval, Trump refused to rule out running an independent campaign if he didn’t win the nomination. He went on to disparage relentlessly the Republican orthodoxy and the Bush family – which is GOP royalty. The February 2016 primary debate in South Carolina was probably one of the most bruising encounters in modern presidential history, with Trump berating and yelling over his opponents – particularly Jeb Bush – and repeatedly attacking the booing Republican audience. Candidate Trump and his supporters’ attitudes seemed to be, “Fuck the GOP, we’ll tear it apart before conceding and to hell with the consequences”. 

One of the most telling engagements of the campaign came two months after South Carolina at a rally in Evansville, Indiana, at which renowned former college basketball coach Bobby Knight, in his endorsement of Trump, electrified the audience. “I’m not here to represent the Republican Party”, he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about the Republicans”. The venue erupted – in cheers. 

The early Trump rebellion’s optics and spirit seem starkly at odds with the sensibilities of New York DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is the face of the new left inside the Democrats. 

On Republican senator John McCain’s death in August, she tweeted: “John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service”. For those not familiar with US politics, picture Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, after the emperor is finally vanquished, turning earnestly to gathered Ewok masses: “While we had our differences over the question of the enslavement of the universe, the emperor’s steadfast and principled commitment to the Dark Side is truly inspiring”.

In a September CNN interview, Ocasio-Cortez urged her supporters to rally behind “all Democratic nominees” in the midterms. Again, to put this in perspective: the Democrats are a straight-out party of the ruling class, like the Liberal Party in Australia. While a small minority in its ranks would fit more readily in the ALP, the difference between the Democrats and the Liberals is that the former party sits politically to the right of the latter. Endorsing all Democrats means endorsing scores of multi-millionaires, war hawks, union-busters and so on. 

That Ocasio-Cortez has not been expelled from the DSA is telling – of that organisation’s rudder and keel, of just how right wing is the progressive ship in the US, and perhaps of the broader liberal sea in which stormy polemics upset centrist political tides. 

Selfa is not so scathing, but nevertheless is critical of the Democratic-centred approach of the DSA. “I think DSA are by and large Democrat loyalists, spanning from run-of-the-mill lesser evilists, to Communist-Party-type Popular Frontists, to the Socialist Call group, which is to the right of Corbyn”, he says. 

“The DSA’s ‘ballot line’ strategy’s main apparent vindication is in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, and the victories of other DSA candidates, which even they count as only two members of Congress, and about 11 or 12 state legislators. Numerically, it’s hardly a ripple – but with big publicity. And Ocasio-Cortez has taken a number of actions that show she’s pretty indistinguishable from progressive Democrats.” 

Steve Bannon, the far right iconoclast and former Trump chief strategist, was correct when he said, on the ABC’s Four Corners program in September, that nothing in the Democrats resembles the Trump rebellion of 2015-16 or the Tea Party that preceded it. 

A ninth point, which does not derive from the midterms, but is nevertheless important, is that there is unlikely to be a challenge in the Democrats with success approximating that of the Tea Party or Trump. The Republicans are susceptible to right wing insurgencies in a way that the left is incapable of emulating in the Democrats because the far right and the political establishment (GOP and Democratic) are in lock step on the question of preserving the power and privilege of the ruling class. 

Trump, for example, could barnstorm to the GOP nomination despite establishment opposition to his stated strategies to keep the US in a position of global pre-eminence. But Republicans – and many House and Senate Democrats – have been able to accommodate or at least tolerate the president while he delivers for the big end of town.

By contrast, a real left insurgency in the Democrats would be an assault on the party’s entire philosophical and organisational foundations – an attack on US capitalism and US imperialism, rather than a left-field but debatable strategy on how best to preserve them. That would be a qualitatively different confrontation, one that would never be allowed to remain on the terrain of the ballot line. 

The US ruling class is not like some bumbling rich kid with an inheritance; it is one of the most calculating and vicious associations ever known to human society. Its collective will and focus are of a degree that makes organised crime shudder to think about the boundaries it can’t cross. It casually wipes out entire societies around the world at a whim. And the Democratic Party is arguably its most important institution for maintaining domestic rule and for ensuring that there is a pro-imperialist political consensus in Washington. The idea that the US ruling class would let the left waltz in on the ballot line and ruin the party is naïve in the extreme. 

The Democrats can tolerate a few social democrats and even socialists – as long as they don’t get in the way of the party serving corporate America. Indeed, people like Ocasio-Cortez help the Democrats to remain relevant to young people and to sell themselves as progressive, a “big tent” etc. But if a genuine left insurgency began to develop, and its leaders could not be co-opted, there would be bureaucratic purging and career- and life-threatening intimidation. Any left current that had illusions in a polite, Democratic Party path to a future socialist party would likely disintegrate. 

Finally: if the situation with progressives and Democrat-aligned NGOs portends passivity, the situation on the right seems more explosive. Trump’s midterm campaign, the House results, the White House press conference on 7 November and the sacking of attorney general Jeff Sessions a day later point to a higher level of far right grievance channelling over the next two years. 

Despite the GOP holding the greatest bloc of legislative power of any party in 100 years at state and federal levels, and despite the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court and the stacking of federal circuit courts with reactionaries, Trump blamed the Democrats for destroying the country and gained traction among millions of voters. He successfully stirred a far right rebellion in a period of right wing legislative hegemony. 

Now that the Democrats look like they might use the House majority to go after the president – personally, though perhaps not politically – he may well go ballistic. Who knows what that would mean for the organised far right or for far right terrorism, which is already an issue? “If Democrats follow their history, all the promises around health care, etc. will go by the board”, says Selfa. “We’ll hear much more about Russia, investigations, etc. Who knows where this all leads – a constitutional crisis?” 

Many things could happen to shift the situation in various ways: an economic recession, international conflict, a small bloc of Republicans distancing themselves from the president to save their own skins, conservative overreach in the courts, a galvanising strike wave in some industry, for example. 

As always, time will tell. But whatever eventuates, the political polarisation is here to stay and the right is on a war footing. Those of us in the rest of the world can only hope that there will be a break that shifts the US balance of forces and fuels a global left rebellion in the same way that Trump has fuelled one to the right.