US Mid-Term Elections: Some Takeaways For Progressive Politics

ACROSS the world, progressive politics has had to battle the ‘TINA’ factor – a deeply embedded notion in mainstream political discourse that there is ‘no alternative’.

The TINA narrative played out most in the realm of economic discourse, rationalising neo-liberal policies of privatisation and liberalisation. For some time now, we have been seeing the TINA narrative spill into the cultural realm as well. In the US (and to some extent in Europe and Britain), implicit and even explicit demonising of the ‘other’ – migrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks – has often come perilously close to becoming a hegemonic narrative shared by parties across the political spectrum. A prominent recent example is former US Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton telling Europe it must curb immigration to stop the rise of the far-right!  

We have many examples from closer home too. In the ongoing election campaign in Madhya Pradesh in India for instance, the BJP and the Congress fight to claim the cultural and political space of ‘cow protection’. It is in this regard that the recently conducted elections in the US provide much food for thought, precisely because we saw the strong potential for bucking the TINA trend, both in the economic as well as cultural realm.  

Democrats Flip The House   

In November, elections to 33 seats in the US Senate (out of the total 100 seats) and to the entire 435 seats in the US House of Representatives were held.  Prior to the elections, the ruling Republicans had a wafer-thin 51-49 advantage over Democrats in the Senate, while they had a comfortable 235-193 majority in the House of Representatives. The mid-term elections to the Senate have solidified the Republicans’ majority in the Senate – they now have 53 seats and a clearer edge over Democrats in the upper House.

In the House of Representatives on the other hand, for which elections happened all over the country unlike for the Senate, the Democrats have established a clear and comfortable majority. With 53% of the popular vote (as opposed to 45.3% which voted Republican), the Democrats have thrown the Republicans out of power in the lower House with style. As several political commentators have pointed out, this will have serious repercussions on US politics.

The House of Representatives is widely expected to place some checks and balances on President Trump’s agenda. There is already speculation that the Democrats could put pressure on Trump and prevent him from scuttling the Mueller investigation into the 2016 elections. They could also launch investigations into Trump’s finances and tax returns and could halt some of his legislations.

Women and Youth in US Politics Today

The results in these mid-term elections have to be seen in context. They were held soon after Trump and the Republicans openly cocked a snook at the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements by pushing through the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh (facing multiple accusations of sexual assault) to the Supreme Court.

During the election campaign, Trump predictably upped the racist, xenophobic ante, running a toxic and lie-filled campaign against a caravan of Central American migrants fleeing Honduras to seek asylum in the US. The message was clear: Republicans were unabashedly seeking a mandate for toxic masculinity, male privilege, xenophobia and racism.  

The response to this Republican campaign line, based as it was on stoking fears of gender equality and challenges to race (read white nationalist) pride, is indeed insightful. For one, there was a surge in women running for Congress, especially on the Democratic Party ticket. There was a concomitant surge in women voting for Democrats, one of the highest in US history. Overall, 59% women voted for Democrats while only 40% voted Republican.

What was more unexpected was the changing voting pattern amongst white women. In the House elections in 2016, 43 percent of white women voted for Democratic House candidates, while 55 percent voted for Republicans. In 2018, 49% voted for Democrats in House races, while another 49 percent voted for Republicans. Let us also remember that in 2016, Trump had received the support of 53% of white women! While these figures certainly do not indicate a landslide against Trump or the Republicans, they surely reveal an interesting trend. Women are in fact the big story of the US elections this time around, something which has been widely noted.

There was also a huge spike in young, college-educated voters supporting Democrat candidates. Young voters are hardly immune to the deep fractures of race in the US, and whites are somewhat more likely to support Republican candidates. However, the fact remains that Democrats are getting the support of a vast majority of America’s young voters. A whopping 66% of voters in the 18-39 year range voted for Democrat candidates across the country.

In other words, the Republicans are losing support amongst women (including white women) and young people, even as Blacks and ethnic minorities continue to be wary of them. Republicans are holding on to their bases in rural US (especially amongst white men), and this along with massive targeted gerrymandering and voter suppression is keeping them more than afloat.

Challenging Dominant Political Narratives

Numbers and statistics alone do not tell the complete story of these elections. These elections saw a spirited attempt to rewrite dominant political narratives in the US.

For the longest possible time, it was political hara-kiri in the US for a mainstream candidate to declare oneself as ‘socialist’. It was near impossible to speak out against US policy in Palestine, let alone express support for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to end Israeli suppression of Palestinians. Al Gore’s homilies on climate change notwithstanding, the ‘environment’ had little chance to compete against the far more persuasive agenda of jobs and coal mines.

With the growth of far-right, white nationalist and Islamophobic discourse, it seemed difficult for a Hijabi woman, an openly trans or gay person, or a leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to stand for, and get elected to the US Congress. What made campaigns for the US mid-term elections exhilarating was the presence of several spirited men and women who tried to break these strong norms that have dictated US politics.

29-year old former bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez signalled this phenomenon way back in June this year when she won the Democrat primaries in New York, defeating 10-term congressman Joe Crowley. Her stunning success rocked the status-quo in the Democratic Party and signalled the strength of a campaign centred around healthcare, affordable housing, anti-racism and anti-imperialism.

Much has been written on the ‘historic firsts’ this time. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women elected to the US Congress, a feat made all the more impressive by their origins. Omar is a Somalian-American former refugee who proudly wears her Muslim identity and her identity as an ‘intersectional feminist', and Tlaib was born to working class Palestinian immigrants. Omar has supported the BDS movement and vocally advocated for Palestine, and spoken up against US support for repressive and genocidal Saudi Arabia. After being elected, Omar said she planned to continue wearing her head-scarf, defying an absurd “ban on hats/headgear in the Congress”. Challenging the notion that a headscarf on a Muslim woman was a sign of coercion or oppression alone, she tweeted: “No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment. And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.”    

Democrats Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids (who is also an open lesbian) became the first Native American women elected to Congress. Beto O’Rourke came very close to defeating Republican heavyweight Ted Cruz in Texas, a traditional Republican stronghold (he lost 48-51 to Cruz).

Democrats won seats in the most unlikely of States; they breached traditional Republican bastions and States which had swept Trump to power in 2016. The Democrats held Montana, won Nevada and Arizona, came close to victory in Florida and Georgia. They won Ohio, a state that went for Trump in 2016, by a 10% margin. The three states that handed Trump the presidency – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – now all have Democrat governors. What needs to be underlined is this: many seats the Democrats won or came close to winning were seats where candidates decided to take the Trump/Republican discourse head on rather than succumb to it. This phenomenon – of which O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez remain among the most visible symbols – needs to be understood.

Democratic Socialism

Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, unabashedly supports abolition of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency notorious for oppression and violence of immigrants and refugees); more progressive immigration legislation; universal healthcare; higher minimum wages; and debt-free higher education. She has spoken out against US policy on Palestine (referring, albeit somewhat hesitantly, to the “occupation of Palestine” and calling the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli troops at the Gaza fence a “massacre.”

One of her first public acts as Member-elect of the House was to join climate change activists in a protest at Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. She enjoys the support of, and in turn supported, the Justice Democrats, a group trying to push the Democratic Party to the Left, in their campaign to oust status quoist Democrats in various primaries.

Ocasio-Cortez’s spirited campaign in June was in a sense a precursor O’Rourke’s in October-November. Running, like Ocasio-Cortez, on a platform of universal healthcare, gender equality, pro-immigration and gun control, his campaign took Texas by storm. He campaigned across Texas, recruiting 25,000 volunteers in the process.

In a football-crazy and deeply conservative state such as Texas, he showed political courage to support Black players taking the knee during the national anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it “as American as it can get”. In other words, he worked to make democracy, equality and dignity ‘cool’ and acceptable, even in a hostile environment.
Ocasio-Cortez, O’Rourke and others refused corporate funding and relied on good old-fashioned grassroots campaigns, meeting and speaking to people face-to-face. After her victory in the Democratic primaries, she responded to people who claimed she won for ‘demographic’ reasons by tweeting a photo of her (now famous) shoes with worn-out soles, writing, “1st of all, that’s false. We won (with) voters of all kinds. 2nd, here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle. We won (because) we out-worked the competition. Period.”

The results of these campaigns are there for all to see, best exemplified perhaps by right-wing commentator Virginia Kruta’s discomfiture. She attended an Ocasio-Cortez rally with the intention to “expose” and vilify it. Instead her write-up reflected how Ocasio-Cortez’ platform could persuade and sway even those who consider themselves rigidly right-wing. In her words, “They say things—I mean, they talk about things that everybody wants, especially like if you are a parent. They talk about education for your kids, healthcare for your kids. The things that you want. And if you're not really paying attention to how they're going to pay for it or the rest of that, it's easy to fall into that trap and say, my kids deserve this”.  

An Agenda For The 99%

In many ways, the ‘Justice Democrats’ and ‘Democratic Socialists’ platform are descendants of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement of 2011 that demanded policies that worked for the 99% rather than just the 1%. How Ocasio-Cortex responds to questions about how to pay for her agenda illustrates this well. When Trevor Noah, host of a popular late-night comedy show, posed this question, Coasio-Cortez replied:  

“One of the things that we saw is, if people pay their fair share, if corporations and the ultra wealthy — for example, as Warren Buffett likes to say, if he pays as much as his secretary paid, 15 percent tax rate, if corporations paid — if we reverse the tax bill, raised our corporate tax rate to 28 percent … if we do those two things and also close some of those loopholes, that’s $2 trillion right there. That’s two trillion dollars in ten years.

"If we get people to pay their fair share, that’s $2 trillion in ten years. Now if we implement a carbon tax on top of that, so that we can transition and financially incentivize people away from fossil fuels, if we implement a carbon tax — that’s an additional amount, a large amount of revenue that we can have.

“Then the last key, which is extremely extremely important is re-prioritization. Just last year we gave the military a $700 billion budget increase, which they didn’t even ask for,” she said. “They’re, like, ‘we don’t want another fighter jet!’ They’re, like, ‘don’t give us another nuclear bomb,’ you know?

We in India have much to learn from the immense popular appeal of such progressive campaigns that refuse to make any artificial distinction between pro-people economic agenda and equally bold and progressive social/cultural agendas. In India, a recent news report carried the headline: “BJP & Congress don’t want to field Muslims in Madhya Pradesh. Muslims say they understand.” Too many are willing to “understand” the Congress’ compulsion to distance itself from Muslims, remain silent on communal lynchings, and even avoid fielding Muslim candidates. There are quite a few political commentators who claim that ‘Not In My Name’ type protests against communal lynchings benefit Modi and the BJP, and that anti-BJP politics should steer clear from anti-communal campaigns or resistance to the persecution of activists branded as “Urban Naxals”, and instead focus solely on economic issues of unemployment, farmers’ movements, corruption and so on.        

Essentially, groups such as the Democratic Socialists and Justice Democrats, which today have activists and leaders of the calibre of Rashida Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez, are showing the potential of brave, creative, energetic campaigns that do not equivocate on crucial economic and cultural matters. Young men and women are listening, agreeing, and signing up to support their agenda. Clearly, the battle against fascist and far-right politics is far from lost. It can be won - but it needs hard work; courage of conviction and leadership to call a spade a spade; to dare to reset the terms of the political discourse; to resist rather than appease, accommodate, and pander to imperialism, jingoist nationalism, ecological destruction, toxic and violent patriarchy, growing inequality, and xenophobia.