Why the 2014 Midterms Just Might Matter After All

Do the 2014-midterm elections merit more than a yawn?  Judging by their actions to date, most people seem to think they do not.  They are spot on right.   But the elections about to befall us could be important nevertheless.

To be sure, there are a few state and local races where the outcomes could be consequential.

High on the list is the race for the governorship in Wisconsin.  The world will be a better place if Governor Scott Walker is sent packing.    If nothing else, this would give a boost to organized labor.

Voters will also have an opportunity to dispatch other noxious anti-labor Governors: Tom Corbett (Pennsylvania), Paul LePage (Maine), Rick Scott (Florida), Sam Brownback (Kansas), Nathan Deal (Georgia), and Rick Snyder (Michigan), among others.

At the state level, Republicans really are worse.

Unfortunately, Republican led voter suppression campaigns in conjunction with the spinelessness for which Democrats are famous make welcome outcomes in many of these statewide races unlikely.

This is the case in Wisconsin, for example, where rightwing state judges have given voter suppression a pass, and where, as in many other electoral contests in which Republicans are vulnerable, the Democratic Party’s candidate is, at best, insipid.

Still, the gubernatorial elections there and in those other states matter.  There are other, state and local races that are worth watching as well.

In elections that bear more directly on the federal government, there is hardly anything worth watching at all.

The conventional wisdom is that it matters which party controls the Senate.  No doubt, it does — at the margins.  But, in this case, the purported lesser evil is already so awful that it is hard to care.

Nevertheless, there is something important at stake this November: the future of America’s disabling and undemocratic duopoly party system.

It is in jeopardy, though not mainly for the demographic reasons that we hear so much about.

The coming elections will shed light on what the main problem is – indirectly.

The metamorphoses of Rand Paul, a candidate who is not even running in 2014, shed more light still.  But it is the coming elections that force attention on Paul’s trajectory, and that make it important,

This is far from obvious.  An explanation is therefore in order.

* * *

Midterm elections seldom generate much interest; this is why it is only a little surprising that this one is generating less than usual.

As always, the entire House and a third of the Senate is at stake, along with state and local offices.  Also, in some jurisdictions, important local initiatives are on the ballot.  Still, the level of interest is minimal, even in comparison to other midterms.

This makes sense.  Elections these days seldom make a difference worth caring about.

There are, of course, a few candidates worth voting for.  Among them, vying to retain their seats in Congress, are Keith Ellison, Barbara Lee, and Danny Davis.   They are the only Representatives so far to call for an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.  If only for that, I would vote for them all, if I could.

But they and other “above average” members of the Progressive, Black and Latino caucuses are running in safe districts.  All of Sheldon Adelson’s money couldn’t keep them from winning.   That would be a lot of money; there is one born every minute.

Were they not in safe seats, the Israel lobby would now be doing its utmost to do Ellison, Lee and Davis in.  Though
increasingly despised and plainly weakened, AIPAC and its sister organizations (all of them, in effect, undeclared agents of a foreign government) still strike terror in the hearts of all but the most resolute politicians.   They therefore still mostly get their way.

Consider the case of freshman Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso Texas, one of only eight members of Congress to oppose giving $225 million in “emergency aid” to Israel during the Gaza massacres.  The lobby countered with a battery of carrots and sticks.  And voilà; the wayward soul agreed to be saved.   It is reported that, on the lobby’s dime, a chastened O’Rourke was seen on an El Al flight to the Holy Land.

He was going there for “reeducation.”  Shades of their campaign to make Richard Goldstone welcome again at his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah or, more on point, of the way Stalinists dealt with dissenters years ago.

In a better possible world, this episode would draw national attention to the Congressional race in El Paso.   But since lobbies work best in the dark, and since they prefer to intimidate on a need-to-know basis, the corporate media, itself an adjunct of the Israel lobby, deep-sixed the story.  The media are not paying much attention to Ellison, Lee and Davis either.

There is therefore no reason to pay attention to the midterms on their account.

Because they involve entire states, Senate races have more national visibility, but, even there, in 2014, nobody seems to care.  That there is hardly anybody running who is worth getting excited about is not the only reason why.

There is not even much drama. Observers who follow electoral politics closely say that only a half dozen Senate seats are close enough to count as “toss ups.”  The others aren’t worth betting on.

Nevertheless, Democratic Party fundraisers are out in force.  They and their media allies are working overtime to promote the line that the fate of the world depends on the Democrats retaining control of the Senate.   Seriously!

But then, what other reason could they give for supporting all but one or two of the Democrats on whom control of the Senate depends?  The only thing good about them is that they are not Republicans.

The few Democrats running this year who are better than that are plying that line too.

A case in point is Oregon’s Jeff Merkley.  Though likely to retain his seat, his campaign seems to have bought up every “progressive” email list in creation in order to send out the message that unless people send money to the Merkley campaign, the Republicans will win control the Senate — and the world, as we know it, will end.

There is really only one toss up Senate race — Mark Udall’s in Colorado – that is suitable for rallying liberal support.  In the others, either the fix is in (or might as well be) or the candidates are too awful to vote for in any case.

But, yes, the Democrats could lose their majority in the Senate; in fact, they probably will.  This will not be the end of the world.

After all, Democrats have controlled the Senate for years, and what has anyone to the left of, say, Richard Nixon got to show for it?   How much worse could it be if Republicans take over for a while?  It might even be better.

If Republicans had more of a role in governance, they would be more able to get their way and therefore less inclined to obstruct everything Democrats propose.  Or, at least this would be case insofar as getting their way matters to them more than making sure that Obama doesn’t get his.

The sting of defeat might also put a little backbone back into the liberals’ party of choice.

However this may be, the main reason why so few seem to care which party controls the Senate is that, at some level, nearly everyone realizes that whatever the link once was between the outcomes of elections and the will of the people, the connection is now so attenuated that elections are little more than empty rituals in which, as in kabuki theater, the players merely go through the motions.  The difference is that elections are artless, colorless and dull.

This year, in a few cases, local factors will affect the outcomes; they always do.   For the most part, though, the coming midterms will be a referendum on the immediate past.  Midterm elections usually are.

But what is the point of a referendum on the past now?

If voters agree on anything, it is that most politicians – the ones in Congress especially – merit unbridled contempt.  Since everybody knows this, why bother voting on it?  Why indeed when elections don’t clearly convey the message in any case?

Elections in the United States are unusual, by world standards, in at least one respect: at the national level especially, there is seldom anyone or anything to vote for, and seldom a constructive way even to vote against anything or anyone.

If a voter doesn’t want a Republican loony-tune to win, he or she has to vote for a Clinton-Obama Democrat or, worse, for the kind of Blue Dog (right-wing) Democrat that Rahm Emanuel enlisted in droves to run for Congress in 2008.

Many of them were swept into office along with Obama.  Then nearly all of them lost in 2010.

The Democrats therefore lost control of the House.  Conventional wisdom in liberal circles makes this out to be a tragedy.  Evidently, memories of the historical opportunities Congressional Democrats squandered after Obama’s 2008 election have gone missing down the memory hole.

Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and other like-minded Clintonites lost a lot of their power when the Republicans won back the House.   So what!  Good riddance to the Blue Dogs, and shame on the so-called progressives and liberals who rode herd over them.

That was four years ago.  Since, then, under Obama’s tutelage, the Democrats have somehow managed to become even worse.  In the Age of Obama, if you want your vote to say “lose the loony-tune,” you have to vote for inequality and austerity at home, and murder and mayhem abroad.

Republicans who still have the sense they were born with face the opposite problem.  If they want to vote against a Democrat, their only way is to sign on with a loony-tune.

“None of the above” would win by a landslide every time.  But that option is never on the ballot.  Not voting, which is how most Americans deal with the situation, hardly conveys the message.

In theory, elections are about reaching collective choices that realize the peoples’ will – that give the people what they think best or what they most want.

In reality, American elections have almost nothing to do with any of that.  They only determine who gets to serve the handful of plutocrats who run the show, and, insofar as there is a difference, who gets to steward the empire and control its perpetual war machine.

This is about as morally and politically uplifting as deciding between Coke and Pepsi.

The only thing elections are still good for is damage control; and they are often not much good even at that.

Even so, civic-minded voters soldier on, trying to salvage something worthwhile from an otherwise useless exercise.   To this end, they vote for the candidate they deem less bad.

In liberal circles, it is taken for granted that the Republican is always worse.  Faith in this precept seldom falters, and when it does – when, for instance, Obama golfs with corporate sleazeballs in Martha’s Vineyard while Fergusson erupts, or when he reenergizes the “dumb war” in Iraq that he claimed to have shut down, or when he expands that war into Syria, and aggressively antagonizes Russia and China – Republicans come to the rescue, with fresh evidence of their greater turpitude.

The liberals’ prejudice therefore has merit.  Nevertheless, it is far from obvious that it is always worse when Republicans win elections – presidential elections, especially.

Counter-factual speculations are hazardous; and, by definition, they can never be settled by facts.  But facts do make some counter-factual claims more plausible than others.

Would we now be better off had Mitt Romney won in 2012?  An affirmative answer is plausible.  He could hardly have harmed the ninety-nine percent more than Obama has or resisted the pressure for war – hot and cold — less.

And, if Romney, not Obama, were the one at the helm, Congressional Democrats would not now be so acquiescent.  There might even be an anti-war movement in Congress.

But even conceding that it is better that Obama won and that Democrats are always the lesser evil, it is hard to muster up any enthusiasm for the coming election on that account.  Apathy is a more natural reaction.

Add that to voter suppression and it is no wonder that the GOP’s prospects look good.

But, of course, Republicans have enthusiasm problems too.

Nefarious billionaires like Adelson and the Koch brothers think they can make a killing on November 4.  As Obama flounders, they smell blood.

Their money therefore keeps flowing in.  Much of it could end up down the toilet however, because the useful idiots they’ve enlisted to serve their cause aren’t as useful as they used to be.  They too are worn out and in despair.

It even looks as if the once mighty Tea Party is on the skids.   It is still a presence, especially in America’s more benighted backwaters, but, as a movement, it seems to have lost its oomph.

This is because many, perhaps most, erstwhile Tea Partiers are back under the thumb of the Republican establishment.  They remain as obdurate as ever, but they no longer target the Republican Party’s grandees along with Obama and the Democrats.  For the time being, their ire is directed at Obama and his party alone.

In the 2012 election, the establishment Republicans behind Mitt Romney took as much of a “shellacking” as Obama’s Democrats did two years earlier.  Somehow, though, they bounced back.  It is amazing what money can buy.

Some things don’t change, however; the Tea Partiers they helped conjure into being still despise them, and the discredit they brought upon themselves when Romney got trounced has never been expunged.

Nevertheless, they have been successful in peddling the same bill of goods that they sold in 2012 to the same sad sacks. This is quite a feat.

In 2012, they secured the nomination for Romney, but only after a long contest in which his rivals effectively self-destructed.   Even so, Romney only won the by the skin of his teeth.

When the Republicans lost to Obama anyway, Tea Partiers and their fellow travelers were adamant: never again would they sacrifice their “principles” in order to seem respectable enough to win over the dead center of the American electorate.

However, as George W. Bush might say, they “misunderestimated” their own resolve; never again is now.

Apart from the many unreconstructed wackos who will never move on, Republicans of all stamps, not just the few remaining so-called moderates, now think that, to win in 2016, they will need a presidential candidate who is, perish the thought, acceptable to voters of sound mind.

But there is nobody like that in the running any more – except maybe Mitt Romney again, or Jeb Bush.   What self-respecting – or self-hating – Tea Partier could enthuse over characters like that?   For that matter, how could they think that another Bush would be acceptable to anybody, much less to voters of sound mind?

And so, with less than a month to go before Election Day, on the right as much as on what passes for a left, enthusiasm is nil.

Everybody wants to throw the bastards out, though for different reasons.   But however satisfying that would be, everybody also assumes that what would then happen is only that new bastards would come in to replace them.

Lesser evilism just doesn’t cut it any more.

Therefore, indifference reigns.

* * *

Midterms are referenda on the past, but they are also portents of the future.  They are always as much about the presidential election two years hence, as about the one two years before.

Normally, this is what makes them interesting.  It is a little bit different this time around, especially on the Republican side.

It is relevant that, nowadays, voters seldom, if ever, get the policies they think they are voting for – whether or not their candidate wins.

This problem is endemic in all contemporary liberal democracies, but the mechanism behind it is not everywhere the same.  The United States is “exceptional.”

In Europe and elsewhere, the main reason why democracy has been reduced to formal procedures that have almost nothing to do with realizing the will of the people is that national sovereignty has given way to the supremacy of global capital.

This is not the main problem in America because the United States is still enough of a global hegemon that its capitalists and the political leaders who serve them don’t so much obey orders as issue them.

This is not to say, however, that popular sovereignty fares better in America than elsewhere; just that it is undermined in a different way.

Henry Ford said famously that his customers could buy a Model-T in any color they want, so long as it is black.  In America, anybody can win an election – so long as he or she is a Democrat or a Republican.

It is different in Europe.  The EU is comprised of multi-party states that permit a wider range of opinions to find their way into the mainstream.   There are more opportunities there for what Albert Hirschman called “voice” to register.

But then, on matters that affect capitalists’ interests (as most political issues do), their more democratic electoral systems become irrelevant because decisions are no longer made at the national level.  They are made in Brussels by EU bureaucrats, in the boardrooms of international banks, and in Washington DC by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The United States, still the global hegemon, is not similarly constrained; the institutions that rule elsewhere are part of its arsenal of domination.

But there are other, similarly efficacious, means that American capitalists deploy to disempower Americans, the better to take all they can for themselves.

The support they accord to a party system consisting of one center-right party whose guiding principle is pusillanimity, and another that only knows how to obstruct is especially useful.  It helps maintain a status quo from which they benefit egregiously.

The American government is famously dysfunctional – on matters that could make life better for some ninety-nine percent of the American people.

Because what is good for the people could adversely affect the short-term and longer-range interests of the fraction of the one percent who own nearly all that there is to own, capitalists think this situation is just fine.   It puts hope and change – the reality, not the words — beyond reach.

On the other hand, when it comes to waging wars or projecting American power abroad, or to enhancing social control over the American people, there is no dysfunction to speak of.  This is also how leading capitalists want it, and so this is how it is.

Therefore, in America as elsewhere, there is a disconnect between democracy and elections.  Voting for X, getting X, and then finding that X = not-X is the norm.

This is what happened in the presidential election of 2008.

Then voters voted not just against John McCain — or against McCain and Sarah Palin — but also for “hope and change.”  Obama, the hope and change candidate, won – and promptly took hope and change off the agenda.

A vote for Obama turned out to be a vote for Goldman Sachs.

By 2012, no sane person still looked to Obama for hope and change.  But a majority voted for him anyway – in order to vote against the inchoate Tea Party ideology that his opponent, Mitt Romney, felt obliged to take on board.

If, as now seems likely, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016, it will be déjá vu all over again.  Her opponent will put Clinton over the top.

In 2008, illusions were shattered; 2012 was about lesser evilism only.  Anything can happen, but it looks as if 2016 will be as well.

* * *

The conventional wisdom has it that 2014 will be the last election where whiteness rules.  The Republican victory, if it comes to pass, will mark the final consummation, but also the last gasp, of Nixon’s Southern strategy.

The idea is, or was, that there are enough electoral votes in the South, the lower Midwest, the mountain states, and Texas and Arizona to win the presidency, and that substantial white majorities in the electorates of those states can assure that their electoral votes will be cast on the Republican side.

However, by 2016, the story goes, Hispanics will vote in large enough numbers in some of those states, Texas especially, to tear that strategy apart.  In 2014, with nothing much to vote for and with voter suppression in high gear, Hispanics, along with other potential Democratic voters, will mostly stay home.  In 2016, they will go to the polls.

Perhaps so.  But this is not a reason to stay up late November 4 to follow the returns.  This election may be the last hurrah for Tricky Dicky’s ghost, but it is still not anything to cheer on.

The impending demise of the Southern strategy may not even be the most momentous change in our political culture that will soon unfold.  A demographic shift that favors Democrats over Republicans would indeed be game changing, but the end of the duopoly party system would be even more consequential.

This is why the reason to follow the returns this year, along with the campaigning that precedes them and the rationalizations that will follow, is to see how the GOP establishment will do this time around.

For the system to hold on, it will have to keep Republican voters on board – in victory as well as in defeat.  As the campaign proceeds and as the votes come in, and then in the weeks ahead as the results are analyzed, we may get some indication of how this is going, and therefore of what lies ahead.

The pivotal figure here is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.  He is not running this time; his Senate term doesn’t expire until 2016.  But he is positioning himself to run for President.

Because he is, the vicissitudes of this dreary electoral season take on a significance that actually renders them interesting.

The Republican establishment managed to hang on after their Romney fiasco, but they learned a lesson from it: that while they cannot win without the flotsam and jetsam they recruited into their party’s ranks, they cannot gain the presidency when their candidate is one of their own, a ruling class poltroon, who shamelessly panders to their obsessions.

Now Rand Paul is the closest thing that the later-day know-nothings in the Republican base have for a standard-bearer that ruling class types would trust to superintend their affairs.  Ted Cruz is his closest competitor, and he is borderline at best.

Therefore, rather than running Romney or some functional equivalent again, why not flip Rand Paul?  Better yet, get Paul to self-flip, in much the way that Romney wanted undocumented Hispanics in the United States to self-deport.

This is just what Rand Paul did this summer.  the question is: will it work?  Or will the Republican base smell a rat?

If they do, all bets are off on the establishment holding on again, and therefore on the duopoly remaining robust.

The impending midterm elections should put this issue in focus.  More important, they will play a role in bringing it to a head.

Ironically, Paul’s situation, at least until the past few weeks, resembled Obama’s in 2006.  Though the bar is set low, he is, or was, by far, the most exciting figure on the horizon, just as Obama had been.  And he appeals especially to the young, just as Obama did.

So did his father, Ron Paul.  The two are much alike.  The only difference is that, for as long as he has been in politics, the son has tried, usually in vain, to seem less wacky.

Because Rand Paul aspired to the presidency from Day One, he could hardly not have tried to distance himself from his father: there are racist and Birch Society associations in Ron Paul’s past, and the father’s economic views – especially on the gold standard – raise alarms in corporate America, as well they should.

However, in recent years, Ron Paul was the only genuine anti-war candidate in the field, and, on this, he and his son seemed to be of one mind.  Since the Democratic Party, under Clinton and Obama, has become addicted to empire and war, the Pauls naturally attract a following – even, indeed especially, among people whom one would otherwise expect to vote for Democrats.

To be clear: the Pauls are not, and never have been, anti-imperialists.  Neither are they refurbished isolationists, though, like the isolationists of old, they are inclined to think that overseas wars are bad for business, and like many of those isolationists too, they think that what is bad for business is bad tout court.

But they both understand that American business is, and long has been, a global affair; and that the time is long past when the spirit of American commerce could retreat back into Fortress America.

No doubt, if there were still an isolationist current in the GOP, the Pauls would be welcomed into its fold.  But it would be a difficult fit, and not just because isolationism has been a dead letter since America’s entry into World War II.

The Pauls’ anti-war positions follow from their libertarianism, not from nostalgia for the days when America forswore “foreign entanglements”  –  outside Latin America, the Pacific Ocean, and the coastal regions of east Asia.

There is a libertarian current within the GOP, and many Republicans are attracted, in varying degrees, by it.    But except for a few ideologues, Republicans today are more like John McCain and Lindsey Graham than Ron or Rand Paul.  The McCains and the Grahams never met a war they didn’t like.

And, like McCain and Graham, most Republicans are happy to do whatever the government of Israel commands, no matter where American subservience leads.  More generally, in Republican circles, neoconservative nostrums strike a responsive chord, and the more aggressive America is, the more they like it.

In these respects and others, the Pauls’ views go against the grain.

Indeed, their views on war and peace and on American diplomacy seem closer to Obama’s, before he became President, than to those of most Republicans.  It is hard to believe now but Obama was once an anti-war candidate too.  Or rather, he let people think that he was.  He was so good at it that he won a Nobel Prize.

The man was a Rorschach inkblot.  People who paid close attention knew from the get go that the hopes he was raising were bogus, and that people were seeing in him only what they wanted to see.

But he became a political phenomenon, a magnet for the hopes of the easily fooled and the less gullible alike.   Even skeptics succumbed.

As an opponent of the Bush, now Bush-Obama, wars, Ron Paul, unlike Obama, seldom equivocated or pulled his punches.  His son was with him on that.  There have always been good reasons to be wary of the Paul family’s politics, but, on this, there was never cause to doubt the father’s or the son’s bona fides.

And yet, this past summer, with midterm elections coming, Rand Paul threw it all aside.  He didn’t wait to be elected President – in fact, he hasn’t even announced his candidacy.   He turned into his opposite preemptively.

No doubt, he felt he had no choice.   Either show obeisance to the War Party and the Israel lobby now, in time to grow into the idea, or forget about running for President in two year’s time.

And so, like Beto O’Rourke, he saw the light.

How will this about-face, this flip-flop more flagrant than any of John Kerry’s, play in Tea Party country?   Will it matter that, again like Obama, their man — their best, perhaps their only — acceptable standard-bearer, is hardly a leader, and that he has the backbone of a jellyfish?

If it does, watch for the rats to desert the Grand Old Party’s sinking ship.  The GOP establishment is on top now, but if its victory – not so much over Democrats but over its own base — turns out to be pyrrhic, it will spell the end of the Republican Party “as we know it” and therefore of the duopoly party system itself.

This will not necessarily save American democracy; that would depend on what comes next.  But no significant improvement is conceivable so long as the duopoly remains intact.

The coming midterm elections will not mark the duopoly’s demise, but they will very likely accelerate its disintegration.  Rand Paul’s volte-face is, at once, a symptom and a cause of this likely turn of events.

Watch for that as the current, terminally boring and otherwise useless, electoral season plods on.  And, come November 4, tune in and wait up.

Statewide races apart, there may be little reason to care who wins, but there are excellent reasons to care about how it happens.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).



ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).