The November 2018 election resulted in small but important victories for the American people and the progressive movement in the United States. Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives and flipped seven governorships. In the Deep Red South, Beto O’Rourke came close to beating the reactionary incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, and progressive African American candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum just missed being elected as the governors of Georgia and Florida.
Understanding the election victories in the context of the overall distribution of power – political, economic, and social – in this country is critical to developing a progressive path towards the 2020 election and beyond.
What happened on November 6?
The Democratic Party has put itself in a position to blunt some of the worst initiatives of the increasingly reactionary Republican Party. By winning a 35-seat majority in the House of Representatives, the Democrats can defeat some of the Republicans’ efforts to roll back environmental regulations, consumer protections, and abortion rights, protect the Affordable Care Act, and deflect some of Trump’s attacks on immigrants. The House will demand a voice in budget negotiations and can use its oversight powers to expose corruption in the Trump administration and perhaps protect Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s finances.
The Republicans maintained and slightly increased their majority in the Senate and maintain total control over the executive branch. The Senate majority will facilitate Trump’s efforts to pack the federal courts with young, conservative judges who will diminish abortion rights, restrict the recently won rights of LGBTQ people, annul efforts to restrict campaign spending by corporations and the super-rich, and allow political gerrymandering to maintain right-wing majorities in many state legislatures and elections to Congress.
The Republicans’ Senate victories were primarily corrective realignments rather than actual shifts in power. The Democratic Senators who were defeated – Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota – were never progressive and wore the Democratic label incongruously in their conservative states. Their defeats actually pushed the center of the Democratic Party a bit to the left. The Senate elections in 2020 will provide greater opportunities for Democratic victories, if only because in 2020 there will be 21 seats now controlled by Republicans and only 12 by Democrats on the ballot, almost a complete reverse of this year’s numbers.
By design the Senate will continue to be an obstacle to progressive political power in the U.S. The decision of the Founders to favor the interests of the less populated, agrarian, slave-holding states by awarding two Senate seats to each state means that 40 million Californians have the same representation as 580,000 citizens of Wyoming. Democratic candidates for the Senate received 46.7 million votes this year (40.3 million if California, where both candidates were Democrats, is excluded) compared to just 33.8 million for Republicans.
In the grossly gerrymandered North Carolina, Democrats and Republicans had an almost equal split of the popular vote, but Republicans wound up with three-fourths of the House seats.
But overall the framework of Democrats versus Republicans obscures the actual dynamics of the distribution of power in the U.S. Both major parties are dominated by the rich, the 1% of our Occupy discussions. The parties differ in terms of which sectors of the power elite dominate them and how they appeal to the masses of people for electoral support. The polarization that we are experiencing today sharpens these distinctions.
The Republican Party is dominated by the owners of the extractive industries and big agribusiness – the oil, gas, and chemical industries based in Texas, Oklahoma, the Gulf states and the Dakotas; the Koch Brothers industries; gambling plutocrats like Sheldon Adelson; and developers and real estate magnates including Trump himself.
The Democratic Party is dominated by finance capital headquartered in Wall Street banks including Goldman Sachs and billionaire investors and speculators like Warren Buffett, George Soros and Tom Steyer; Silicon Valley and the tech giants; Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
How each of the parties contends for mass support is what has led to the greatest polarization we have seen in this country since World War II. Racism remains the defining, driving force of American politics. The conscious use of racism to create a Republican electoral majority did not begin with Trump. Richard Nixon articulated the Southern Strategy in 1970 as an intentional effort to utilize race to end Democratic control of the South. That successful strategy almost completely eliminated Democratic politicians from statewide office in Southern states, a trend that is only now beginning to change with the election of Doug Baldwin to the Senate from Alabama and the strong campaigns of Abrams, Gillum, and O’Rourke. However, the decisive defeat of Mike Espy by the unrepentant Daughter of the Confederacy Cindy Hyde-Smith shows that Mississippi is not yet ready to enter the modern world.
Trump is one of this country’s most overtly racist Presidents, but he is only one in a long tradition that includes Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century and Andrew Jackson in the 19th. Much of what Trump says and does is pure contrivance. His history demonstrates that he has no strongly held views on abortion or LGBTQ rights, but his racism is sincere and deeply held. He and his KKK member father had a long history of housing discrimination in the developments they owned in New York City. One of Trump’s first public engagements was his scurrilous demand that the Central Park Five, later determined to be innocent of the rape and murder of a white woman in 1989, be executed. Later he was a charter member of the “Birthers” and perhaps the last well-known public figure to claim that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. He refuses to disavow the support of Klan leaders like David Duke or of the “good people” who attacked Jews and African Americans in Charlottesville last year. Trump’s most loyal base is in the far right, and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon continues to influence him.
But it would be a mistake to focus on the personal beliefs of Trump and his richest supporters as the reason for their political power. There is no reason to believe that Trump, the Koch Brothers, Adelson, the ALEC crowd, the Federalists, or the Heritage Foundation actually care about the rights of women and LGBTQ people, or even about the immigrants whose labor has been welcomed for generations by the owners of America’s farms and factories.
Instead, Trump and his supporters have successfully exploited the tribal differences that continue to divide people in this country and throughout the world. A brief step back is important here.
One of the issues discussed by socialist intellectuals during the early 20th century was why socialist movements became successful in some countries rather than others. Marx and Engels believed that a developed capitalist economy and an educated working class were necessary preconditions for socialist revolution, but their predictions were upset by the October 1917 revolution in backward Russia instead of highly developed capitalist countries like Germany and England. Trotsky argued that the “law of uneven development” explained the uneven progression of social and political change from country to country.
When we survey the world today, we see that socialist and modern capitalist countries co-exist with feudal societies and even some that still practice slavery. The dominant political structure in today’s world is the nation state, but the stability of many countries remains threatened by tribalism. This phenomenon persists, not only in nations that were artificially created by the colonial powers that divided Africa or drew national lines in the Middle East after World War I, but also in almost every so-called modern nation, including European countries and the United States.
In the modern world there are more examples of tribal influences and conflicts in the world then we can easily count: Han versus Uighur in China; Flemish and Walloon in Belgium; Hutu versus Tutsi in Rwanda; Burmese versus Rohingya in Myanmar, Houthi versus Yemeni in Yemen, to name just a few. In many places tribal differences are exacerbated by religious differences.
Human evolution occurred primarily in small groups as opposed to mass societies, and humans naturally maintain social networks based on tribal identification, even in complex, modern societies. Tribes often create obstacles to national unity, attempting to exercise control over land and local economies and seeking to protect their members’ social and cultural practices.
In the United States, tribalism can refer to a way of thinking or behaving in which people are loyal to their social group above all else. Tribal identification continues to play a major role in modern U.S. society. Anglo-Saxon domination of the United States began in the early 1600s and is only beginning to loosen. Although small in number, Jews exercise outsize influence, primarily because a large part of the Jewish community is loyal to Israel and focuses its attention on U.S. policy towards the Middle East.
The European conquest of North America is more accurately described as the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Anglo-Saxons from western Europe occupied what is now known as New England in the early 17th century and soon afterward established an empire built on slavery in the Southeast. After the American Revolution they created the doctrine of Manifest Destiny to justify their push west and the genocide of native people who stood in their way. With few, late exceptions, particularly the elections of presidents John Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008, they completely dominated and continue to dominate the political, economic, and social life of the United States.
Anglo-Saxon domination was also almost uniformly male domination. Only since the 1960s has Anglo-Saxon domination been challenged by an increasingly diverse and empowered society, energized by the African American civil rights movement and joined by Latinx, Asians, and other people of color. During the same time the modern women’s movement developed, creating another challenge to the existing order, a challenge multiplied in recent years by the LGBTQ movement.
Within barely 50 years, the existing U.S. social order has been turned on its head. White, male, and straight hegemony is challenged at every level – politically, economically, socially and culturally. Diversity has forced its way into the nation’s elite. Every week there is a new “first” – the first openly gay governor, the first Black female Senator, the first Asian to lead an Ivy League University.
None of these changes has changed the status of the country’s elites. The billionaires have made room on their corporate boards, exclusive neighborhoods, and country clubs for a few women, African Americans, and other people of color. As long as they are not too radical, politicians from previously excluded groups have been welcome to the halls of government.
Working and poor people from the Anglo-Saxon tribe have not fared as well as their wealthy and more adaptable fellow tribe members. With the rise of large scale industrial production during the late 19th and 20th centuries, particularly after the growth of trade unions in the 1930s, millions of white workers attained middle class life styles that had previously been unimaginable. People bought homes and cars, saved to send their kids to college, and even went on vacation. But that relative prosperity was short-lived. As the ruined economies of Western Europe and Japan began to develop after World War II, the domination of U.S. corporations began to slip.
Japanese and German cars competed successfully with those manufactured in the United States. Companies in Brazil, Taiwan, Korea, and India learned to produce steel more cheaply than U.S. companies. American textile companies could not compete with low-wage clothing manufacturers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. U.S. corporations, with no loyalty to the workers and consumers that had made them rich, quickly adapted to the new international economic order and abandoned communities that had briefly prospered. The deindustrialization of the U.S. victimized millions of working class families.
The decline of industrial America was masked by tremendous growth in other areas of the economy. U.S. banks and other financial services companies grew to dominate the world economy. Entirely new businesses, particularly the tech industry, grew into global powerhouses that created a new generation of billionaires, particularly in California but also in urban areas surrounding major universities on both coasts. These businesses created a new generation of relatively affluent knowledge workers.
But life in the former industrial centers stagnated and even got worse. People lost their homes and were left with old and increasingly unreliable cars. Families that had done reasonably well with one breadwinner in a lifetime job with medical and pension benefits found themselves with four or five low-wage jobs and no benefits. Adult children stayed on their parents’ coaches without the ability to buy or rent their own homes. The elites attacked the trade unions that fought for the rights of working people.
Cultural changes exacerbated the frustrations of the families that suffered through these economic changes. Many white men began to believe that society cared more about African Americans and other people of color than it did about them. Some felt ashamed that their wives had to go to work to help support their families and were bewildered by their daughters’ demands for equality and the right to pursue new and frightening gender choices.
Trump and his advisors were smart enough to recognize this dynamic and to capitalize on it. “Make America Great Again” was not a call to support a strengthened U.S. economy or a more powerful role for the U.S. in the world. Rather, it was a call for white men to recover their roles as the dominant force in their communities and in their homes. It was and is a call for white men to fight back against those they hold responsible for their diminished roles in the world – African Americans, immigrants from Latin America, Muslims, empowered women, and LGBTQ people.
Trump was successful in 2016 because of his complete domination of the white vote, a trend that continued to a lesser degree in 2018. The strength of his message was not blunted by the Hillary Clinton campaign, which only confirmed the right-wing narrative that the Democratic Party was led by rich, smug liberals who had only contempt for working class voters.
Trump’s ideas will not succeed for long in controlling white voters. Although it appeals to their prejudices and perceived interests, Trumpism works against the actual interests of all working people. Attacks on environmental and consumer regulations, affordable health care, strong public schools, union rights, and other worker protections cannot sustain widespread belief that the Republican right wing is acting in the interests of the average American.
The progressive movement needs a program that will undermine Trump’s base and create a majority for change in the United States. The organizational form for the promotion of the program is not an issue that must be addressed immediately. Instead the program should be designed to unite progressive people and organizations working within the Democratic Party and outside of it.
Here are some ideas for a progressive program to unite the American people:
Guaranteed annual income for all Americans.The government must guarantee that every person has the minimum income necessary to provide for basic needs, either through employment or welfare payments. Far from a new idea, American revolutionary Thomas Paine and Napoleon Bonaparte both advocated for the guaranteed annual income. Guaranteed income programs have been promoted or implemented in Canada, France, Brazil and other countries.
Commitment to full equality for all races, ethnicities, religious groups, and genders. Racism remains the defining characteristic of U.S. society. Progressives must prioritize and implement laws and programs to guarantee full equality in every sphere and put aside resources for reparations necessary to insure equity and equality for all. The U.S. must once again become a haven for political and economic migrants from around the world.
Protect the Earth. The U.S. must become a leader rather than a hindrance in international efforts to protect the planet from the disasters of climate change. The nation’s laws and resources must prioritize clean air and water and the protection of all animal and plant species.
Commitment to World Peace. The United States must become a leader in efforts to end regional conflicts and implement complete nuclear disarmament. The world needs a strong peace keeping force that will end conflicts such as those in Yemen, Myanmar, and South Sudan. Dramatic cuts in the military budget will help fund the social programs we need.
Right to Affordable Housing. The richest nation in world history can no longer tolerate the scourge of homelessness. State and government programs must insure affordable housing for everyone.
Progressive tax system. No-one needs billions of dollars. A progressive income tax system modeled on the programs of the 1950s and reasonable inheritance taxes will pay for the social service programs we advocate.
Right to healthcare. Single payer, finally!
Quality Education. Excellent, publicly financed education from early childhood through college is a human right necessary to achieve full equality.
Personal Liberty. The government must not be involved in regulating individual decisions about child-bearing, marriage, sexual identity, and personal relationships, period.
End mass incarceration. Prison sentences should be reserved for people who are truly dangerous to others. Restorative justice programs, education, guaranteed income, and jobs will make society safe and help the vast majority to become productive citizens.
Democratize the political system. We need powerful reforms to create a functioning democratic political system, including public financing of campaigns, contribution limits including no corporate contributions, voter protections, and an end to political gerrymandering of electoral districts.