By Calvin Priest, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the United States)
Forecasts of a midterm “red wave” for the Republican Party failed to land on Tuesday, and instead a divided outcome was driven by growing levels of polarization in U.S. politics.
Republicans failed to win either house of Congress outright on election night, and as we go to print, both the House and Senate are still too close to call. While a small majority for Republicans in Congress appears most likely, even if so, they will have made smaller midterm gains than any opposition party has over the party in the White House since 2002.
What happened to the “Red Wave”?
The corporate media are broadly portraying the better-than-expected outcome as a victory for the Democrats. The results, however, represent more of a vote against the Republican Party and its Trumpian leadership than they do a clear vote for Biden and the Democrats. Biden’s approval ratings remain in the low 40s and two thirds of voters polled feel the country is moving in the wrong direction.
Democratic voters appear to have turned out mainly over anger at the Republican attack on abortion with the Dobbs ruling and concerns over the right-wing and threats to democratic rights. Exit polls consistently showed abortion as one of the top two issues, and abortion rights victories were won in four the five states where it was on the ballot. The fifth appears to be headed in the same direction. This follows on the heels of the decisive defeat for the Kansas referendum attacking abortion rights in August.
Relative success for the Democrats seems to have been almost exclusively driven by turnout — which was at similar levels to the historic highs of 2018 — and despite the fact that the Democrats lost ground with every single demographic group. In recent months, there was a wave of voter registrations by women and young people that likely contributed to historically high Democratic voter representation at the polls.
Republicans also appear to have been hurt by Trump-linked candidates who made it through the primary only to weigh down their party’s fortunes in the general election.
The corporate media have talked a lot about the highly consistent trend of the President’s party losing ground in the midterms, and discuss it as if it is a “law of gravity.” Certainly, it’s statistically true, and 20 out of the last 22 midterms have followed this trend — but this is not about Newton’s Laws of Motion, it’s about capitalism. The President’s party loses ground because its politicians unmask themselves as representing the rich rather than working people while in office. And since under capitalism, working people normally have no representation and no real alternatives (and in the U.S. have never had their own mass party), the only means they have to attempt to vote for change is to throw them all out.
Biden Agenda Blocked
The outcome of the balance of power in the Senate may have to wait until December when a Georgia run-off election could be decisive for the second time in two years.
But regardless of whether or not Democrats manage to hold onto the Senate, the Biden agenda will be blocked by the anticipated House Republican majority. The huge divisions within the Republican Party will make for a deeply polarized and chaotic environment, but those differences will not help Biden because the one area of the overwhelming agreement will be obstructing Biden’s already fractured agenda.
Ironically, the narrowness of the Republican majority likely points toward more chaos rather than less, because with a narrow majority the hard right-wing Freedom Caucus will hold the balance of power. The Freedom Caucus will be unafraid to use its leverage — unlike the Squad, who have held the balance of power in the House for the last two years but effectively been whipped into line by Biden and Pelosi.
The Squad has for two years held a historic opportunity to fight for the popular program they ran on — including a federal $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All — and they threw it away. Now the right wing will use its balance of power to pose as the defenders of working-class people. This is a dangerous development, which could further open the space for the growth of right-wing ideas in the absence of leadership from the left.
2024 starts now
Much of the corporate media has concluded that the midterm elections represent a defeat for Donald Trump.
The results are more mixed — though a number of high-profile Trump-endorsed candidates were voted down, others fared better, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa, Eric Schmitt in Missouri, and J.D. Vance in Ohio. Even the closeness of the Senate race in Georgia (and now run-off election) by disastrous Trump favorite, Herschel Walker, is a victory for Trump. And while the former president may have hurt the total Republican vote overall, the right wing made many advances with more than 210 “big lie” Republicans winning seats in the U.S. House and Senate and in high-profile state races. These advances confirm the tight grip that Trump maintains over the Republican Party.
Trump has been hinting for weeks that he’ll announce his run for the presidency in 2024 shortly after the midterms and he’s not about to pause for soul searching now — he’s projecting a formal announcement on November 15.
He will use his presidential run to further reinforce his hold over the party and go after any dissenters among the Republican leadership. Hopes that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a big winner in the midterm elections, could offer an alternative to Trump as GOP standard bearer in 2024 are unlikely to bear fruit. What’s more possible is a Liz Cheney independent run on behalf of the former Republican Party establishment, more to damage Trump than to have any real shot at winning the race.
Deep crisis in both parties
The deepening levels of division inside both parties come from the growing crisis of capitalism itself, and the inability of the ruling class to agree on any way forward. The adamant but predictable refusal of either party to present any solutions to the social and economic breakdown faced by tens of millions of people, as billionaires amass more increased riches, will continue to fuel historic discontent. This crisis of capitalist parties is a global phenomenon, as evidenced by the utter disarray in the British Tory Party.
With a worsening economic crisis, and a recession all but certain next year, the coming months don’t bode well for the Democrats. Biden may be able to fend off challengers in a Democratic primary, helped by the better-than-expected midterm outcome, but that will not represent Democratic unity so much as fear of the party leadership of what a wide-open primary could look like (Sanders or others could step in if Biden steps out).
Meanwhile, the divisions in the GOP will likely be on full display as Kevin McCarthy attempts to preside over an emboldened Freedom Caucus and other forces in the House, and a potential for more organized rebellion by right-wing Republicans in the Senate.
As a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, said: “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter: one chamber, two chambers, if Republicans have control, the next 18 to 24 months in this country are going to be a new political hellscape unlike anything we’ve seen ever.” While this turn for the worse looks likely to bear out, capitalist democracy is generally a “hellscape” for ordinary working people, as they normally have no representation under this system.
“Commitment to America”
What will Republicans do with their likely majority in the House?
To begin with, the Republicans will likely move aggressively to block the Biden agenda. In the short term, this could well play to their benefit as Democrats are still seen as largely responsible for the crisis in the economy. However, in the medium and longer term, things will get harder for the GOP, and they will be forced to further articulate their own agenda.
There may be hints in the “Commitment to America” program advanced by presumed incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy’s program is quite thin, especially compared to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” (after which it appears to be named), but its main emphasis is calling for spending cuts, deregulation of oil and gas, and the reshoring of manufacturing.
Efforts by Republicans to create manufacturing jobs could be popular, though highly unlikely to be anything other than empty, populist promises. On the other hand, one only has to look to Liz Truss’ disastrous and shortest-ever term as British Prime Minister to see how deeply unpopular neoliberal spending cuts are likely to be in the present crisis of capitalism. Alongside this, there are many indications that the Republicans will launch a series of investigations and potential impeachment(s) as part of an offensive against Biden and the Democrats, some of which is likely to backfire. And certainly, if Republicans carry through with attacks on Social Security or Medicare, such as threats of a 5-year “renewal” requirement, it would seriously damage the Republicans and represent further right-wing overreach on their part.
We need a party of our own
The rightward direction of the Republican Party, and its posing now as the “party of the workers,” represents an increasingly dangerous threat to ordinary people in the U.S. and globally. But the growth of the right-wing doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from the complete failure of the Democrats to fight for working people, including its “progressive” members like the Squad.
The broken promises of the Democrats, even on Biden’s limited agenda, could have led to an even more decisive defeat had it not been for the right-wing overreach on abortion rights driving women and young people to the polls.
We need new mass organizations of struggle and a new political party for working people and youth. Such a party should root itself in mass movements, like Socialist Alternative’s elected Seattle City Councilmember, Kshama Sawant, and fight unambiguously for working people, rather than trying to cut deals with the political establishment.
In this age of polarization and disorder, working people are looking for a way to fight back. The growing efforts to unionize in the U.S. at major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, alongside the mass protests to defend abortion rights, show the hunger for progressive change. They also show the complete lack of leadership from the Democratic Party — who have been no friend of the labor movement and who failed to codify Roe over 50 years — as well as the urgent need for an alternative.