The morning after Election Day 2014, the New York Daily News featured a headline: “Bam Drags Down Dems.” Roughly translated, this means: “President Obama’s declining popularity led to the Democratic Party losing both Houses of Congress to the Republicans, as well as several state gubernatorial races.” More precisely, the political meaning is: “The Republicans’ relentless campaign of racial demonization successfully turned Obama into a pariah for midterm voters, even in his own party.”
The “conventional wisdom” promoted by mainstream media is that the country is swinging decisively to the right, that the Republicans are resurgent, and that Obama faces a debacle in his administration’s final two years.
Some indicators challenge these assumptions. Obama’s poll numbers are low, but those of Congress are much lower. Along with the Republican upsurge, there is a trend towards economic populism in ballot measure votes. Unregulated political spending naturally favored the mood of powerful and filthy rich conservatives. Voting districts have been divided through remapping to reduce the number of nonwhite voters, disenfranchising traditionally left and center-left constituencies.
Out of 11 Senate contests, only 2 went decisively to Democratic candidates. In gubernatorial races, Republicans dominated, and virulently anti-labor candidates won in industrial Midwest Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Yet all 5 state ballot measures calling for a higher minimum wage were supported by voters, even in states where Democrats were beaten.
Obama will face a solid opposition bloc from the majority in Congress, and from the arch-conservative “gang of five” majority of Justices in the Supreme Court. But his problems—with the Republican Party, and with the popular sectors that both parties vie for—have little to do with policy. Obama wants to continue his war moves against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, pursue a centrist (neoliberal) domestic policy, and protect the financial sector from post-recession backlash. These are not the kinds of proposals that force conservatives to the barricades. Yet the newly empowered GOP federal legislators are poised to launch impeachment proceedings at the first sign of a unilateral move by the White House.
The real fight on the electoral, legislative and judicial fronts concerns access to power for working people, in the form of union rights and the government’s authority to enforce correctives to historic discriminatory racial practices. The opposition to this access is bipartisan; it includes the majority of Democratic leadership, committed to neoliberalism, continued U.S. military presence in the Middle East, and the corporate-dominated status quo in general. The party leadership wants support from labor and communities of color, without appearing to be linked to, or supportive of them in any specific way.
In a few cases where Democratic candidates were more outspoken about their differences with Republicans and identified with Obama, they won, though whether this was the reason for their success is not clear. Democratic leadership is unlikely to accept that conclusion, or even test it.
Exploiting White Fear
Obama’s caution and frequent capitulations to the Right are viewed by most of the Left as a betrayal of his base, with justification. His apparent passivity in the face of unbridled attack from the Right has arguably made him less appealing to swing voters, and certainly not more. While support for his healthcare reform rises, the Obamacare system is still driven by industry profits, and carried out through a crude bureaucracy whose failings have been exploited by the anti-public health GOP.
While analyzing Obama’s weaknesses, “conventional wisdom” tends to belittle a drumbeat of racial aggression that has rumbled in the background since the first indications in 2008 that Obama was a contender. Republicans have used charges of usurpation and conspiracy relentlessly to rally the traditional consensus of racial xenophobia that was broken by Obama’s subsequent electoral victories. A far-right insurgence has taken advantage of the reassertion of racial scapegoating in center-right rhetoric: violent nativism, civilian weapons stockpiling, racially targeted attacks on voted rights, Confederate revivalism, and skyrocketing incarceration. The most ominous development is an increasing national trend: unchecked and unpunished murder, battery and torture by police in nonwhite areas.
All of these phenomena are connected to the Republicans’ efforts to exploit white fear, as the number of nonwhite residents promises to soon equal and exceed the number of whites. They are explicit about bringing Obama down, threatening to shut down the government and begin impeachment proceedings if he moves to allow undocumented immigrants temporary legal status. They have not acknowledged—let alone approved—Obama’s record number of detentions and deportations up to now. Their agenda has little to do with policy and much to do with laying waste to Obama’s administration. The increased power they have gained in the election will be applied directly to that purpose. This is a step beyond dismantling social services descended from the New Deal. Now the target shifts to the changes brought about by social movements in their 1960s-1970s high point. It is motivated by a perceived sense of outrage that a huge portion of voters have broken ranks from ‘whites first’ politics in two national elections, and so conservatives have fixated like a laser beam on somehow reversing that.
Lowest voter turnout since World War II
Midterm elections bring a low turnout in general, which favors Republicans, whose base votes more regularly, though in smaller numbers. The Democratic leadership had a tough choice when they saw poll numbers showing a rerun of the Republican 2010 sweep. They could take a strong stand in support of their leader, reinforcing their base’s partisan backing, encouraging the voter turnout in the process. That base of organized labor, urban neighborhoods, students and professionals, combined with a larger than usual vote from Democratic-leaning women, elected Obama twice. Instead, Democratic campaigners either failed to express support for Obama’s policies, or tried to disassociate themselves. They read the polls indicating that undecided voters don’t like “Obamacare” but generally like the coverage it provides.
Democrats were fully aware that this illogic comes directly from the Right’s nonstop campaign to characterize Obama‘s healthcare package as usurpation of individual choice by big government—but more precisely, by the demonized chief executive. Rather than challenge this deception, Democrats chose to quietly demur. In the process they accepted the Right’s terms, in effect defending the racial defamation of their own leader, and cut their core supporters adrift.
The notion of white consensus is so pervasive in American politics that it tends to go without saying, even among left-leaning moderates and centrists. For Democrats to the right of Obama (who are the majority among elected officials and insider strategists), a perceived white consensus assumes a race-based political linkage between the working class voters who turned to the Republicans in tremendous numbers in 1972 and 1984—the “Reagan Democrats,” the Democratic leadership’s Moby Dick—and the corporate sector whose financial support they require. Even when their strongest asset is a leader who is black, they still find it necessary to essentially ratify their opponents’ racism, as if this will somehow validate them in the eyes of uncommitted voters and the powerful.
It didn’t. Instead, voting results show not the return of stray Democratic votes, but rather demoralized abstention by the loyal party base. All told, 64% of white men voted Republican. A real crossover did occur, however, in the success of ballot measures running counter to Republican policy, and to the left of the President’s own moderate, gradualist approach. Most significantly, state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed in direct conflict with the Republican gains. A number of GOP-dominated states showed up social conservatives (the church-based heart of the conservative coalition) by favoring pro-marijuana measures.
This seeming contradiction brings a new element to the argument that “middle Americans” vote against their own real interests. The voters (and abstainers) punished Obama and Democratic incumbents and contenders. But voting patterns do not indicate that even swing voters who tend to favor Republican candidates look to that party for leadership, or identify with the conservative coalition that makes up the core of its base. Even in America, workers do notice that their living standard is dropping and freedom is receding. For many of these people, food on the table trumps laissez faire libertarianism, and the right to smoke pot trumps the “back to the 50s” crusade. Unfortunately for them, this will have no impact on how Republicans in Congress conduct their business.
The GOP also benefits greatly from the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling ending government restrictions on independent campaign spending by nonprofits. This opened the floodgates for corporations and private money to crowd the media with messages far out of proportion to the actual public sympathy for campaigns and candidates.
This was the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. A substantial majority simply saw no point. There is a profound alienation from the election process and from any public role in governance. This benefits Republicans, who are predisposed to seeing democracy as an obstacle to power, and have worked hard to restrict access to the vote for constituencies who have little financial security to conserve.
The GOP’s voter suppression strategy
Besides general alienation, the effect of voter suppression made a serious difference. Political scientist Michael P. McDonald outlined several forms of voter suppression used in the 2014 election.
• Felon disenfranchisement laws removed the rights of almost 6 million voters this year. In three of seven key Senate races and in the Florida gubernatorial election, the number of disenfranchised felons was greater than the margin of victory.
• States that have enacted new laws requiring voters to carry special identification cards have, on average, had 4.4 percentage points lower turnout, according to the U.S. General Accountability Office.
• States have also moved against early voting and email voting, claiming that they lead to voter fraud.
Investigative reporter Greg Palast revealed in Al Jazeera America:
Election officials in 27 states, most of them Republicans, have launched a program that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls. Millions, especially Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk. Already, tens of thousands have been removed in at least one battleground state […]. At the heart of this voter-roll scrub is the Interstate Crosscheck program, which has generated a master list of nearly 7 million names. Officials say that these names represent legions of fraudsters who are not only registered but have actually voted in two or more states in the same election—a felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison. […] The Crosscheck list of suspected double voters has been compiled by matching names from roughly 110 million voter records from participating states. […] The three states’ (Georgia, Virginia and Washington) lists are heavily weighted with names—such as Jackson, Garcia, Patel and Kim—ones common among minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Indeed, fully 1 in 7 African-Americans in those 27 states, plus the state of Washington (which enrolled in Crosscheck but has decided not to utilize the results), are listed as under suspicion of having voted twice. This also applies to 1 in 8 Asian-Americans and 1 in 8 Hispanic voters. White voters too—1 in 11—are at risk of having their names scrubbed from the voter rolls, though not as vulnerable as minorities.
The Supreme Court had a direct hand in enabling voter suppression. In 2013, the decision in Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a hard-won milestone of the Civil Rights Movement. The Court effectively struck down the “preclearance” provision that required states with long histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval before altering voting rules.
The claim of widespread voter fraud, which is overwhelmingly unsubstantiated, is only one weapon in the Republican arsenal. Their campaigning reflected the breadth of their coalition. Their response to economic decline has been to push the hyper free market rhetoric of tax and service cuts and attacks on unions. For the support of the religious Right, they condemn science, abortion rights, gay marriage and gun control in any form, though this has begun to antagonize their libertarian wing, as has their neoconservative “shoot first” foreign policy.
All of these positions have a racial edge. A hard neoliberal line increases immiseration of the poor, which includes a higher proportion of people of color. The same applies to government workers, whose unions are being stripped of collective bargaining rights in state after state.
Republican grab for power
Each position is raw meat thrown to the various segments of the core base—small businessmen, downwardly mobile whites, gun nuts, and above all, fundamentalist church members. The coalition is held together tenuously around a shared sense of insecurity and xenophobia. But to a certain extent, beyond the base the Republicans’ argument rests on a hollow claim of widespread commitment to conservatism that cuts across class lines.
Three factors inhibit their perennial, cynical grab for power and the financial rewards it brings. First, they have chosen to rely heavily on a voter base whose obsessions increasingly run counter to that of the rest of the population. The religious Right has numbers but is increasingly isolated, with the social libertarian streak in U.S. society currently reasserting itself as it has periodically since the 1960s. From baby boomers to millennials, fewer and fewer Americans see any problem with sexual expression, racial integration, or individuals’ right to define the pursuit of happiness.
Some of these free-spirited souls are attracted to the Ron and Rand Paul libertarian wing of the party, but to the extent that the religious Right dominates the GOP’s local organizations with their social conservative agenda, the libertarian/fundamentalist/militarist coalition grows more unstable. This poses a particularly urgent problem, as the leadership’s real heart and soul belong not to Christ or racial purity, but to Mammon—that is, material wealth and greed. The sectors providing the funds that animate their politics are not washed in the blood of the lamb, and the soldiers of Jesus are harder to control when they grow distrustful of greed-crazed politicians who claim to speak in their name.
A second factor, conversely, is the party’s insistence that the free market always saves the day, all evidence to the contrary. The GOP broke the hold of New Deal-type programs as a defining function of government by attacking welfare for the poor, as well as the taxes on middle-income workers and small businesses that purportedly funded it. Now those middle-income workers are rapidly moving deeper into financial uncertainty, and many are already destitute. Whether they move to the left or further to the right, the political faith of this sector of the GOP base is shaky.
Fear of a Black Planet
Third, and most ominous for them, is that their ancient fear is now a looming inevitability: the number of nonwhite residents is overtaking the white population. The immigration issue now threatens to drown the GOP. The leadership has catered to violent nativists, stirring up hostility for Latinos, who make up a huge part of the workforce and a growing and increasingly decisive voting bloc. Now the Republicans could find themselves in a quandary for some time to come. They have already completely alienated African Americans. Their promised free market solutions hold little appeal for striving immigrants from the Global South, since the racial onus the GOP either promotes or enables makes advancement for these national minorities prohibitively difficult.
This could eventually backfire if demographic shifts begin to further challenge the white consensus which so many consider permanent. The far Right has more influence in the Republican leadership than most observers will admit. They have been pushing a race war narrative that complements their class-based attacks on labor. The question is whether the appeal to racial identification with the nation (i.e., the system) will retain its historic potency. As racial and national minorities sense their growing numbers and potential political strength, they are not so easy to scapegoat. Workers, who are increasingly responding to the costs that neoliberalism forces them to pay, are increasingly polarized on a class basis. In a setting of rising organization of the hardest hit, starting on one side of the racial divide but not held fast by the color line, Republicans’ appeals to white consensus are more easily seen as false promises.
Yet despite this bleak prognosis, the Republicans have at least succeeded in isolating the Democrats for the moment, and a bunch of elected officials and their friends and loved ones should do very well for themselves. They will legislate under the slogan: “This is what you voted for.” Whether or not this is true will not have any effect on their determination to punish Obama for getting elected. It is unlikely that they could succeed in running him out of Washington; i.e. impeaching him as they’ve threatened, and even if they do succeed their fight for the White House will not be guaranteed or painless.
Democrats: Always reserving deniability
But did the Republicans really win this year, or did the Democrats simply make it impossible for them to lose? The prevailing theme in post-election discussions focuses on disenchantment with Obama and the Democrats’ failure to connect to working class whites, usually using code names like “mainstream” or “heartland.” This failure is allegedly made worse by their pandering to social movement constituencies, who fall into the category of “special interests.”
There are elements of truth in this argument. Obama has disappointed much of his base, not necessarily to the point of opposing him, but enough to dampen the turnout for other Democrats. The party leadership does seem to view working people as paper dolls, wearing the grievance or prejudice that consultants are paid to pretend to identify and understand.
But the claim that leading Democrats typically listen to anyone besides the powerful is false. Their basic message to core constituencies is to bite the bullet and be patient, so as not to scare off the “mainstream” votes needed to defeat the other side. They are, on one hand, aware that progressive rhetoric resonates with a great many voters in different demographics and settings. But they see rich and middle-income professionals and workers all leaning right, and they panic over losing both money and white votes to the Republicans. In their eyes, this broad range of mostly white men of different classes appears as an undifferentiated, pale-faced, right-wing mass that once, in happier times, they could call their own.
From there, the party’s problems get worse. They are clueless about the stark differentiation between a 1 percenter and a 99 percenter. Or between the race interests versus the class interests of a working class “white.” They might see the wisdom of advocating for the demands made by labor, immigrant workers, urban communities, women, LGBTQ, etc. But they are careful to express this only to each particular constituency separately, thus always reserving deniability when talking to money.
In short, they are terrified of alienating the mega-rich donors who are nervous about taxing the rich and inhibiting commerce, and so avoid discussion of wealth redistribution and fair taxation. They rely on those voters who need social services, unions, and equal justice, but don’t want to be identified with them. They see the GOP eating their lunch and they are convinced they can defend their ground by imitating. The result is a great squandering of the only real asset they have.
This election also showed the limits of the Democratic tactic of concentrating and relying on one social movement constituency apart from others: namely the supposedly solid women’s vote. Women as a whole still lean Democratic, but this reflects the consistently strong support from black women, while white women played no small role in electing Republicans this year. One interesting example is the senate race in North Carolina, historically a GOP state, which has been the site of the black community-based Moral Mondays mass demonstrations. Female Democratic candidate Kay Hagan lost to Thom Tillis by two percentage points. Hagan was an incumbent and the Democrats gave her strong support with money and organization. She was a classic Democratic centrist, even refusing to admit that she had voted for Obama. Tillis was backed to the hilt by GOP power broker Karl Rove and the billionaire right-wing Koch Brothers. The breakout count of white women alone puts Hagan at 37 percent, Tillis at 57 percent. Republican candidates tended to win white women’s votes whether or not the candidates were women.
Another unforeseen wrinkle: the emergence of urban conservatives, reflecting the gentrification of neighborhoods in cities usually considered Republican-proof. In Chicago, a Democratic bastion for generations, a rightist millionaire candidate for governor bested the Democratic incumbent in a ward in the heart of the city. It is not uncommon for a conservative Republican statewide candidate to win with exurban votes, as this one did, but to make a splash in Chicago is unheard of.
The Democrats have a lot of rethinking to do, and it seems they will do it without conferring with the White House. Given their track record, this will not play out well for them.
Democrats searching for risk-free politics
It remains to be seen if Democratic strategists will take note of the great exception in this scenario: California. The nation’s largest state saw polling results that contrasted sharply from the rest of the country (although there was some reflection in the state’s northern neighbors Oregon and Washington State). Democrats led by Governor Jerry Brown won every statewide office. Both senators and 38 of the 53 representatives representing California in Congress are Democrats.
The passage of California’s Proposition 47 was a milestone in challenging the war on drugs and mass incarceration. It downgrades drug possession and other nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. As a result, thousands of felons are being released from prisons. Proposition 47 also sets aside funding for housing placement programs. It will give another chance to some prisoners serving life terms due to a punitive law targeting three-time offenders, who have up to now been unable to obtain reduced sentences.
This is a real breakthrough in the current climate. The huge proportion of Americans under lock and key has finally reached the point where families and friends of prisoners, voting in serious numbers, have been able to grab the reins of a runaway system. This has implications for the country, for a revival of the vote as a tool of democracy, and for Democratic Party prospects.
Obama seems ready to at least make gestures towards serving his base in his last two years in office. While most Democratic operatives backed away from challenging the other side, fights over immigrant policy, climate change, and net neutrality are already under way. It remains to be seen if his party will support him if he follows through. They should, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, because these issues are crucial to a great many voters, and the Republicans are too compromised to budge on them. Taking a strong stand on these questions will infuriate nativist yahoos, anti-science kooks and major media corporations, respectively. It involves a risk. The Democratic leadership, in their never-ending search for risk-free politics, could very well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory once again.
The road ahead and the role of the left
The Republicans have a firm upper hand among lawmakers for the next two years, and they will try to use that to build a foundation for the 2016 presidential bid. At this writing the likely candidate will be George W. Bush’s younger, smarter brother Jeb. This will not be an easy sell for swing voters who have no fond memories of “W” and are suspicious of political dynasties. (That suspicion will affect Hillary Clinton’s campaign as well). They will have to choose a running mate from their new crop of nonwhite officials to make an appeal to voters of color. In upcoming local races as well, they will attempt to woo Asians and Latinos, hoping the yearning for financial advancement will make these sectors overlook the GOP’s record on immigrant rights. But their notorious tone deafness when not speaking to, for, or about whites will be hard to hide, given their politics.
The Republicans’ strong showing does not mean they will have an easy ride in 2016, as was proven by Obama’s reelection following the last GOP sweep in 2010. The Democrats’ biggest problem will be rallying Obama’s base to a candidate with the same centrist platform (or worse), but without the symbolic appeal of an underdog with street credentials. Hillary Clinton is just such a candidate, and while she will attract Democratic loyalists, her drawing power among social movement constituencies on the party’s left, or among swing voters, failed to materialize in 2008. The possibilities for an organized Left push in the primaries show some promise, although an economic populist candidate would face a bourgeoisie polarized against him or her.
If, like Labour in the UK, the Democratic leadership cuts ties to unions in favor of the promise of Wall Street largesse, they also cut their own throat. The teachers’ and service workers’ unions are among the party’s biggest donors. However, paid political consultants who push for a calculated victory based on shifting steadily to the right are predisposed to view labor support as an albatross.
The scenario described above offers some but not much room for the U.S. Left to maneuver. It would be dishonest to suggest much can be expected from the Left in its current state of disarray. The Left in this case is broader than grouplets, but more recognizable in the flesh than the various vaguely ideological, progressive sympathies shared by parts of the public. It takes three forms in general (as described in my RLS−NYC study “Mapping the Left”): progressive social movements, the political Left, and the academic Left. Within these forms, there are different tendencies with opposing approaches to political action, reflecting the bitter experiences of the Left’s decline, upturn, and deeper decline since World War II and following the Cold War.
One tendency rejects voting as either a strategy or a tactic. They anticipate a revolution, and believe anything that fails to call for that is accommodation to capitalism. In some cases they just favor direct action, which they see as an effective, even practical alternative to electoral campaigns. Big or small in number relative to the rest of the Left: in discarding the electoral arena altogether they have limited political impact.
Another tendency sees voting as a tactic of greater or lesser importance, but only if it involves parties independent from the Democrats. Like the first tendency, they see no difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties. They work in the margins on principle, satisfied that they are free of the taint of either corporate party. They anticipate being discovered by the masses, and some work hard to make that happen.
A third tendency considers Democratic Party contests fair game for the Left. They may or may not view electoral campaigns as their strategic arena, but they see a definite difference between the two big party dinosaurs. They are concerned with grabbing any political space that situations offer, where large numbers of progressive people can take political action in their own interest, inside or outside the main arenas.
The problem this tendency confronts is the problem of the Left itself. They lack focus, coordination, and the organizational means to maximize their efforts. This is urgent because the conditions for a political offensive are rapidly taking shape. Movements for raising the minimum wage, confronting the climate crisis, and responding to an epidemic of police violence are beginning to take on a mass character. More established forces with organizing resources and money are stirring and will play a role, regardless of their traditional politics.
There may be a challenge to the center-right Clinton camp in Democratic campaigns and gatherings before 2016. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, socialist senator from Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, progressive anti-Wall Street senator from Massachusetts, are already organizing for an economic populist platform. They have little hope of pushing the leadership’s choice aside, whether it is Hillary Clinton or another centrist, but the voice of the Left can be raised in a national setting. Given the instability of the Right and Center alignments, and the increasing unrest just coming to the surface, the possibilities for reaching a national audience are improving.
It becomes a matter of assessing and developing the capacities of the forces of the Left as they are—not as we would prefer them to be—to meet the requirements of the political moment. There is no guarantee that the detritus of a long winter can be overcome in time, before the moment has passed. But the stakes are higher now, so activists in all sectors of the Left really have no choice but to identify one another, get together, come to terms on a common direction, and take it to their peoples.
What the Republicans and centrist Democrats view as a weakness is the Left’s greatest advantage in this situation: representing the disenfranchised. If any demographic is on the rise, it’s those held in check by social relations that have outlived their usefulness for profiteering, but continue to characterize society’s hierarchy from top to bottom. Actual (small-“d”) democratic power manifests in the lower strata of workers and their “intersection” with other popular sectors. In other words, they are the part of the population for whom spectacular campaigns have the least to offer. When they organize, they break the rules.
If the Left can succeed in becoming a self-conscious force in elections, it could tip the balance in any number of contests. This will not happen without politically confronting some ruthless and heavily armed adversaries. Many clocks are now ticking, and some of them are time bombs.