Midterms Reveal Progressive Possibilities in a Changing Nation

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The much predicted and by some feared red wave turned into, as people are saying, a splotch of ketchup on the wall at Mar-A-Lago. Instead of overwhelming Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the November 8 election produced a return to Democratic Senate control with prospectively a one-seat gain depending on December runoff results in Georgia.  As of this writing, the House is still up in the air, but the best the Republicans can expect is a several-seat majority. It was a better result for Democrats than almost anyone expected, running against the tide of high inflation and the usual losses of a first term president’s party in the midterms.

It is clear Roevember happened, that women enraged by the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade abortion rights came out in numbers not captured by polls. In addition, younger people, also underrepresented in polls, swung heavily toward the Democrats. Trump’s presence in the election turned into a minus for Republicans, as extreme right candidates endorsed by him were defeated across the country. This election very likely signals that the kind of far right politics signified by Trump has reached its high water mark and is receding in a demographically changing nation.

“In a midterm election where issues largely centered on inflation and rising prices, about a quarter of voters said the Court’s decision was the single most important factor in their midterm vote,” reports KFF. “This share increases to more than three in ten among some groups that tend to be pro-choice, including Democratic voters (37%), younger women voters (34%), first time voters, and those who say they are angry about the Court’s decision . . . Majorities of Black and Hispanic women also report the Supreme Court decision impacted their voting behavior. . . “

KFF continues, “Voters who said the Supreme Court overturning Roe was the single most important factor in their vote went more than 2:1 for Democratic candidates . . . . Among the one-third of voters who said they were angry about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, eight in ten cast ballots for Democratic House candidates.”

Pumping up voter turnout

That also appears to have had a major impact on turnout. In the election three states approved measures to include abortion rights protections in their constitutions, California, Michigan and Vermont, while two states voted down measures to tighten restrictions on abortion, Kentucky and Montana. Indicating that the Supreme Court decision had a “major impact” on whether they were going to come out for the midterms, women between 18-49 who answered yes were 55% in California and Michigan, 51% in Vermont, and 45% in Kentucky.

Democratic election analyst David Shor said the Dobbs decision which overturned Roe was “the biggest factor” in the Democrats good fortunes. “If you look at every indicator that election nerds look at prior to Dobbs, whether it’s how Democrats were doing in special elections relative to their previous presidential election results, whether it’s the ratio of folks who voted in the Democratic primary relative to the Republican primary, whether it’s polling — all of the lights were flashing that Democrats were heading toward a red wave. All of those indicators changed dramatically after the Dobbs decision.”

Continued Shor, “After the Dobbs decision, there was a sudden jump: Abortion went from being a somewhat good issue for Democrats to becoming the single best issue for Democrats. It really raised the salience of the issue and brought into the public consciousness the reality that Republicans actually do hold these very unpopular beliefs.”

Young people swing Democrat

Turnout also increased among younger people. At a 27% rate among those 18-29, it was the second highest midterm turnout since 1994. It was still only a few points higher than in the past, but in a close election that can make all the difference. Edison Research exit polling shows voters 18-29 voted Democrat by a 28% margin, while the middle age contingent of 30-44 broke Democrat by 2%. Meanwhile, people age 45-64 went 11% for Republicans, and those over 65 gave the Republicans a 13% margin. Democrats gained solid majorities among young people of all ethnicities, and supermajorities among Blacks and Latinos.

If it wasn’t for Gen-Z, there would have been a red wave,” said Olivia Julianna, director of politics and government affairs at Gen Z for Change. “We now have a seat at the table. Time to start listening.”

Trends for Republicans are clearly getting worse. The Republican Party is sharply diverging from younger people on issues of deep concern to them, denying the climate crisis, fighting against sane gun regulation, and, of course, opposing abortion rights. The tide is clearly running against the Republicans, as this election showed. The profusion of state bills to restrict voter access and radical gerrymandering are proof they know what faces them. So we will hear more talk from Republican leaders and right-wing pundits that the U.S. is not a democracy, but a republic. In other words, as majorities turn against them, they will more and more turn against the democratic idea.

That is why we must build a broad-spanning movement for democracy in the U.S., not just for democratic processes, but for enacting actual policies supported by a majority, which only gain limited traction in legislatures and executive branches at federal and state levels. Indeed, while many progressives have the sense of relief at the 2022 results, the knife-edge nature of the results tells us we need some way to change the game.

The progressive supermajority

When it comes to issues, progressives have actual supermajorities in many cases. Writes Blake Fleetwood, “The majority of Americans are in harmony on the major issues: Medicare for all (69%), more taxes on the rich (80%), free college (58%), take money out of politics (78%), legal abortion (62%), climate crisis (75%), minimum wage increase (62%), paid family leave (70%), legal marijuana (91%), support for unions (71%), Equal Rights Amendment for women (78%).”

But, as we well know, in legislative halls and executive offices, the power of money and special interests speaks with an overwhelmingly loud voice. And we must recognize that the electoral victories by Democrats this past election were in some cases purchased with campaign funding that exceeded that of their Republican opponents, (begin 5:39) much from those same special interests. As long as this situation prevails, we cannot expect the kind of fundamental systems changes needed to adequately address the multiple crises bearing down on us.

Fundamentally, the only balance to money power in politics is people power. This election certainly demonstrated the power of an aroused electorate feeling threatened in fundamental ways to make its voice heard. A radical Republican right composed of true believers is unlikely to turn from a course that is repugnant to majorities. So it can be expected that the electorate will continue to be roiled and driven to Democrats and progressives. Prospects to mobilize people power will only grow.

Envisioning ew possibilities

The country is changing, as the election showed, and this should open us up to imagine new possibilities. I believe we need some new organizational form to fully realize progressive potentials. It begins by aligning around a broad set of common sense priorities supported by the majority such as Fleetwood lines out above. We need to somehow move beyond single-issue politics to create a wide-ranging alignment of all our movements and groups. We need a movement of movements.

This is not to urge groups focused on a single set of issues to stop what they are doing, but to make commitments for mutual support to other groups working on their issues in a broad progressive alignment. We might consider creating a basic progressive agenda, and having groups sign on to it, with some commitment they will make their networks and resources available to support the agenda. When making campaign endorsements, the agenda can serve as a basic template for judging them.

Those are only initial thoughts, and I would appreciate input from my readers on how we can create a broader alignment that gets us off this knife-edge and moves the dial toward solid progressive gains. We saw evidence of a changing nation November 8, and we should respond with more than a sigh of relief, but an exploration of where we might take this. We need a new progressive initiative. Let’s imagine it.

This first appeared on The Raven.