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In the Wake of the Blue Wave: the Midterms, Recounts, and the Future of Progressive Politics

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In the wake of the 2018 midterms, President Trump and his foot soldiers on the right have continued to repeat paranoid and fact-free claims about “electoral fraud” via the recounts in Florida and Arizona. Trump is seeking to save face by weighing in on the Florida gubernatorial race (Nelson v. Scott) and the Florida (Gillum v. DeSantis) and Arizona (Sinema v. McSally) Senate races. These are political battles, plain and simple, and Trump is trying to preserve as many Senate seats as possible for Republicans moving toward 2020.

For progressively-minded Americans, the discussion now should focus on what the 2018 election tells us about the state of American politics and prospects for democratic change. For those who want an analysis of my thoughts on the election and how it relates to protest movements, take a look at my recent talk at the Open University of the Left (Chicago), which explores this issue in detail. For a shorter analysis of the election, I provide a brief review here of the exit polling data and what it tells us about the “pulse” of American voters following the large gains for Democrats in the House.

First off, it’s perfectly clear from the exit polling that this election was not a mandate on the state of the economy. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering incessant celebrations in the corporate media about low unemployment and sustained economic growth. These developments are privileged in a corporate press that is mainly interested in market performance and profits for the wealthy few, while critical discussions of worker insecurity and record inequality receive short shift. In line with the hegemonic focus on market performance, most voters – 68 percent– said that the economy was in either “good” or “excellent” shape, compared to just 30 percent who said it was “not so good” or “poor.”

But economic anxiety was linked to voting outcomes in a very different way – as related to the Republican health care agenda. The health care issue was far and away the most important issue to Americans, with 41 percent of voters saying it was “the most important issue facing the country,” compared to just 23 percent citing immigration, 22 percent citing the economy, and 10 percent citing “gun policy.” These findings suggest that the Republican Party, which lost nearly three dozen House seats, was the subject of electoral retribution in response to their repeal campaign. That repeal effort would have had significant consequences for those relying on the law’s Medicaid expansion, and for those dependent on taxpayer subsidies to purchase their insurance on state health care exchanges. Most voters appeared to recognize this, with 58 percent agreeing Democrats “would better protect health care for those with pre-existing conditions, compared to 34 percent who said Republicans would.”

Beyond the politics of Obamacare, the 2018 elections were a mandate on Trump’s presidency. About two-thirds of American voters admitted that Trump was a major motivating factor in their turning out to cast a ballot. And the numbers cut against the president, rather than in his favor, contrary to Trump’s delusional claim that Republicans faltered because they didn’t affiliate with himin contested races. Outside of Trump fantasyland, the exit polling data provided a very different picture, with four in ten voters saying they cast their ballot as a protest of Trump, compared to just a quarter who saw their vote as an endorsement of the president.

Outside of specific exit polling results, what does all this tell us about the state of American politics? On the most basic level, the results suggest that Americans are waking up from their political and electoral apathy, which was apparent among many working class voters who chose to stay home in 2016, out of disgust for their (admittedly) limited choices between a Democratic Party that has betrayed their economic interests via embracing neoliberal corporatist politics, and a Republican Party that has little to offer working Americans besides reactionary attacks on immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color.

But how will the visible disgust of 2018 be mobilized, if at all, in the future? One point that should be obvious is that rising anger with and protest of Trump is not going to manifest itself in the rise of a third party. As much as those on the progressive-left would like to see a serious labor or progressive party replace the Democrats, the rules of the game are rigged in favor of the establishment parties. The system is locked up in favor of Democratic and Republican victories, when we look at their tremendous monopoly power over campaign contributions/revenues and the overwhelming public exposure that buys, the blackballing of third party candidates from presidential debates, restrictive state ballot access laws that often grant easy or automatic access to major parties and put up large hurdles for third parties, and considering the “winner take all” electoral system in the U.S. (contrary to proportional representation systems), which makes it virtually impossible for third parties to gain representation in legislatures. As the historian Paul Street recently argued, short of a Constitutional convention to totally reshape the rules of American elections, there is little prospect for the rise of a progressive third party.

Outside of the third party/electoral reform issue, there is the question of what possibilities exist within the Democratic Party for building a progressive coalition moving forward. The rise of the “Democratic socialist” (read New Deal, Scandinavian-style welfare state reformist) wing of the Democratic Party has received increased attention in the last few years. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rise of Democratic Socialists for America (DSA). The group’s membership reached 52,000 in the immediate run-up to the 2018 elections, a growth of 63 percent from late 2017. The lion’s share of this growth is among younger Americans, with the median age of DSA members being 33 in 2018, compared to 68 in 2013.

The left-populistic campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016 suggested that there is a large contingent of younger Democratic Americans who are hungry for serious institutional reforms within the party, and who want to move away from the dominant corporatist, neoliberal core of the Hillary Clinton-Nancy Pelosi-Chuck Schumer wing. Younger Americans, lower income whites, and younger Americans expressing concerns with the rising and unsustainable costs of health care and education all flocked to Sanders, following his promises to prioritize socialized education and health care, and considering his push to make poverty and inequality reduction central elements of his campaign.

There is little reason to get too excited thus far about DSA’s growth in membership, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the traditional Democratic Party’s constituency. There are nearly 45 million registered Democrats in America, while DSA’s base is just .1 percent of the size of the Democratic Party base. Still, the rise of individual “Democratic socialists” and progressive electoral candidates across the U.S. suggests that the Sanderist wing of the party is no longer a marginal force in American politics.

I’ve never felt comfortable granting endorsements to any political party, and I generally spend what limited extra time I have for activism on community-based action and organizing, rather than on canvassing for political parties and their candidates. Electoral politics in America, while important, are a quite limited means of transforming political culture. At best, electoral and political reforms become more feasible after progressive-left social movements make change possible, and following movement successes in shifting popular political culture in favor of leftist causes. Still, it seems premature to write off prospects for progressive reform within the Democratic Party, considering the emerging schism between the establishment and reformist wings.

Regardless of what one thinks of the Democrats, the party is going to have to be a central part of any formal political effort to deal with the major crisis of our time: climate change. Congressional action is vital if we are to act in response to the warning from the IPCC that the world has a decade to radically reduce CO2 emissions to stave off the most catastrophic effects that accompany a rapidly warming planet. It seems clear at this point that no serious leftist third party is going to be built, institutionalized, and win an electoral majority within the decade window we have to act. For better or worse, this leaves one institutional venue for action – mass pressure on the Democratic Party.

As the radical historian Howard Zinn knew all too well, progressive change originates from the people, from the streets, and from social protest, rather than from the ballot box or major political parties. Still, it is long past due for left-leaning Americans to begin the much-needed discussion about what all the protests of the last decade are really working toward. We badly need a dialogue on what institutional venues should be utilized to achieve progressive transformation and political-institutional change. Progressive social movements are the lifeblood of democracy, but their agendas must break through into the mainstream for democratic change to be possible.

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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