Unpopularity contest: How midterm success brings US Democrats to a historic dilemma


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To hold their ground, the Democrats had to make promises that risk alienating their key donors
Pictures of a smirking President Biden graced the front pages of newspapers in the days following the midterm elections. The worst fears of the Democrats – that they would lose both houses of Congress to the Republicans in an electoral debacle that would pave the way to a MAGA Trump presidency in 2024 – remained unrealized. The feared ‘red wave’ had turned into a ‘red ripple’, and President Biden was already talking of running again in 2024, when he will be 82.How sound is this assessment? While the results are yet to be finalized, we know that the Democrats will likely continue narrowly controlling the Senate thanks to the casting vote of the vice president, and that the Republicans will gain a small majority in the House.All the praise for Biden for not losing more comes from comparisons with past midterm losses for incumbent presidents. However, this fails to take account of critical recent changes which, if factored in, indicate not so much a secure electoral future for the Democrats but the possibility that the Democrats may have jumped from the proverbial frying pan of the increasingly complex structure of US politics, into the fire.Politics scholar William Galston has noticed the change. Speaking of US presidential elections, he observed that ‘between 1920 and 1984… the contest between the two parties resembles World War Two, with a high level of mobility and rapid gains and losses of large swaths of territory. By contrast, the contemporary era resembles World War One, with a single, mostly immobile line of battle and endless trench warfare.’ Given how few seats changed hands, it appears that this logic also applies to congressional elections, and despite recent demographic changes – college education, urbanization etc. – somewhere between 40 and 45% of the US electorate remains solidly Republican. 

Moreover, Biden and his Democrats appear to have lost an unpopularity contest, rather than won a popularity contest. As President Biden’s approval rating plumbed new depths, many Democratic candidates shunned him in their campaigns. President Trump, for his part, didn’t do much better. Though most of the candidates he endorsed won, none of those he endorsed for highly contested races did. Many commentators blamed this on his emphasis on candidates who agreed with his false narrative of the ‘stolen’ 2020 presidential election. It led him to scrape the barrel of candidates, and to choose some pretty unattractive specimens. With Ron DeSantis pulling off a spectacular victory in Florida, the possibility that he will replace Trump as the Republican nominee for president is being canvassed. Even if that happens, Trumpist politics are going nowhere anytime soon.This is clear from many aspects of the voting pattern. The small gains the Democrats made came very substantially from women and young people, generally turning out in large numbers and voting Democrat because they felt strongly about abortion rights. However, this factor may lose its utility for the Democrats if, as seems increasingly the case, the Republicans also soften their stance on abortion.For the rest, the gains came from the usual source, money. Not only was this the most expensive midterm ever, experts suggest that the Democrats outspent the Republicans very considerably. This has returned US elections to the pattern where elections are essentially bought by the highest spending party, a pattern that the election of President Donald Trump very briefly reversed.

Even with this monetary advantage, however, the Democrats had to move away from their traditional ‘woke’ agenda and towards the agenda that Trump’s Republicans have been emphasizing: bread and butter issues relating to the economy, inflation and jobs. Indeed, commentators have emphasized just how much discipline there was this time around among Democratic candidates.This necessary shift has put the Democrats in a historic quandary. Ever since the Democratic Party came to terms with Reagan’s neoliberal revolution under Clinton, it has acted as the party of corporate capital more or less exclusively. It has made up for the loss of support among working people and black voters chiefly by spending more and more on election campaigns to convince them that the immaterial benefits they offer – symbolic recognition of women’s or minorities’ rights while most remain marginalised and disproportionately less well off if not outright poor – are enough. Now, however, the very pressures created by Trump have forced the Democrats to make promises that go against the interests of the very corporations that bankroll democratic election campaigns: tackling inflation or unemployment or low pay requires higher taxation and tougher regulation. If the Democrats take these actions they will alienate the very donors without whom they cannot win elections. If they don’t take these actions they will alienate their voters.The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.


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