On US Midterm Elections

R Arun Kumar

DONALD Trump, the US president, at a rally organised a day before the midterm elections, stated: “The midterm elections used to be, like, boring. Who ever heard of midterms? Now it’s, like, the hottest thing”. The elections to the US Congress held on November 6 have assumed great significance, because of which, it witnessed a never-before-seen vitriolic campaign. At stake in these elections are the entire seats of the House of Representatives, one-third of the seats of the Senate, governorships of few states and certain state level representative positions. Heavy weights of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties campaigned hard. The results saw the Democratic Party winning the House of Representatives (223 seats out of 435, an increase of 28), and the Republican Party retaining its control of the Senate (51 seats, an increase of 2), which made both the parties claim victory. Democratic Party has governors in 23 states (an increase of 7), while the Republicans have their governors in 26 states (a reduction of 6).

This year’s midterm elections in the US have assumed enormous importance because it gave the US citizens the first opportunity to express their opinion on the presidency of Donald Trump since his election in 2016. Similarly, it also gave an opportunity to the world citizens, who are watching the maverick president’s actions with alarm, to assess his standing among his own country people. In the background of the widespread opposition and protests that took place since Trump assumed presidency, there were serious efforts to mobilise voters in support of their respective candidates. The New York Times estimates that 114 million votes were cast, compared to 83 million four years ago.

The ‘Me Too’ movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the young students of Parkland school who had mobilised against the existing gun laws, movement against immigration policy of Trump and the workers of various states, like in Wisconsin, who mobilised against the attack on labour rights – all added seriousness to the issues debated in the campaign. Hence, in spite of the fact that these are not presidential elections, they assumed such a dimension.

The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker lost his bid for re-election as governor, which is an important outcome of these elections. Walker is a rabid anti-working class Republican governor, who, using his power, had tried to break labour unions. He banned their right to strike and right to unionise. Republicans have projected him as a ‘model governor’, whose anti-union measures need to be replicated in other states too. These moves were met with militant resistance from various unions and the state witnessed working class actions as never before. His defeat is a result of these working class protests, which galvanised the people to vote against him and his anti-union agenda.

For the first time in the US history, 92 women had been elected to the House, surpassing the previous record of 84. In the Senate, 10 women had been elected bringing the total number of women to 23. There are nine women elected to the post of governors, tying it with the most number of governors US ever had (2004). The result for the governorship of one state (Georgia) is yet to be declared and is expected to go to the run-off in December. If Stacey Abrams, Democratic woman candidate wins, then the number will be ten, the highest ever.  Most of the women elected are from the Democratic Party. The youngest women ever elected to Congress are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (member of the Democratic Socialists of America) and Abby Finkenauer, both 29 years old. Debra Haaland and Sharice Davids, became the first native American women in Congress, while Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women ever elected to the Congress. Many of these women ran their campaigns highlighting the discrimination women faced in the society, household, sexual harassment, racism and the need for childcare facilities provided by the State.

These elections have also exposed the loopholes in the US electoral system and its version of ‘democracy’. Similar to the US presidential elections in 2016, where Hillary Clinton won more number of votes, but still lost the presidency, this year too, the Democratic Party candidates won 8 per cent more votes than the Republicans, but still were unable to assume control of both the Houses of the Congress. This is because of the way the constituencies for the Senate seats are drawn. For example, half of the country’s population residing in the urban states are represented by only 20 senate members, while the rest half of the population residing in small rural states are represented by 80 senate members. Commentators point out that this “disproportionate representation of small states is part of the body’s (Senate’s) original design”, whose “advantage benefits white voters”. With Trump championing white supremacist views, this proves to be an advantage for the Republicans, who in spite of the widespread opposition to Trump, are able to retain control of the Senate. According to a CBS poll survey, 65 per cent stated that the president was a factor in deciding their voting preference. Among them, 39 per cent opposed and only 26 per cent supported him.

Using their control of state governorships, Republicans created many obstacles in voter registration and had deregistered many voters, particularly those belonging to colour, who they viewed as definitely voting against them. In many states, these moves of voter denial were challenged in courts. Some of these measures were overturned, but in many, these measures remained. This is because of the judicial appointments made by the Trump administration. While the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice hogged the limelight, what had happened at lower courts went largely unnoticed. Trump had made 84 judicial appointments, all known conservatives who support his agenda. These appointees now came to goodstead. Another major loophole was the way Republicans, in the name of gerrymandering, changed the contours of electoral districts to suit their interests. All these changes are directly responsible for the defeat of at least a few Democratic Party candidates.

According to Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP), more than $5.2 billion was spent in these elections. This is a massive 35 per cent increase over four years ago and the largest increase in at last two decades. It once again shows that elections in the US are no place for the poor and common people. Even democratic socialists like Alexandria Cortez were forced to fight these elections by mobilising hundreds of thousands of dollars, though not through huge donations, but collecting small donations from many people. Both Democratic and Republican parties are equally responsible for pumping millions of dollars. Thomas Ferguson, a leading scholar of money in American politics, in a paper on electoral spending in the US, states: “Many just did not perceive a meaningful difference between the major parties….For Democrats to offer real solutions, the party has to break its dependency on big money”.

There are some disappointments from these elections, like the election of pro-gun governor in Florida, where the Parkland students, victims of the school firing campaigned energetically against him. Similarly, the Democrats failed to win in Texas and in other swing states, where everybody expected them to do much better.

The reason for the failure of the Democrats is not hard to fathom. Taxes and healthcare became a major concern for many people and the Democrats failed to capitalise on the popular discontent, as they did not have much to offer in the form of concrete alternatives. Most of their campaign was based on an anti-Trump campaign. They had failed to spell out their alternative positive vision for the working class, like the $15 minimum wage, job security, etc. It was only the democratic socialists who had talked about these issues and they succeeded in catching the imagination of the people. Many people still consider the Democratic Party to be against the interests of workers.

People of the US are eagerly waiting for a real anti-establishment force to emerge as an alternative to the two ‘establishment’ parties. That is the reason, socialist ideas are becoming popular.

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