Sound, Fury and the Midterms

David Finkel

November 17, 2018

The much-discussed results of the U.S. midterm elections represent, in this writer’s view, a “rebalancing” rather than something “transformative.” It is of course significant that the far-right Republican stranglehold on both houses of Congress as well as the presidency will be broken by the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. But after the sound and fury, it’s also important to understand some sharp limitations.

Election results handwritten on a chalkboard

To begin with, let’s imagine the scenario if the 2016 election hadn’t produced the rather fluky Electoral College victory of Donald Trump. In that case, following two years of the stagnant neoliberalism of an unpopular Hillary Clinton presidency, we’d likely have been looking at a massive “red wave” of Republicans consolidating very large Congressional and state house majorities (especially with over two dozen Democratic Senate seats on the line).

Instead, the key factor this November was certainly mass revulsion against the grotesque performance of the Trump regime – a show that his base loves, but repels pretty much everyone else. It’s important that the African American and Latinx voter turnout expanded, reacting against racist voter suppression and Trump’s anti-immigrant atrocities, along with an impressive youth turnout that holds progressive potential for the future. The Republicans’ plans to “reform” (destroy) Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and wipe out what remains of health care protections under Obamacare were obvious huge factors in their defeat.

The increase in women elected to Congress is positive, of course, even if their proportion there remains pitiful by the standards of most ”advanced” countries and some “Third World” nations too. What would be essential for an electoral result to be seen as transformative, however, is a context of powerful social mobilization. That’s what wasn’t happening in this election.

Despite the heroic turnouts against Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the Women’ s Marches and #MeToo, the Movement for Black Lives, pro-immigrant actions and more, these have mostly been episodic upsurges that haven’t yet generated powerful self-sustaining campaigns. Most important, there isn’t a backdrop of massive labor militancy, even though the teachers’ strikes, the UPS rank and file rejection of a rotten contract, the widespread Fight for $15 and other organizing efforts are very hopeful vital signs.

The fact that a sizeable sector of white working class voters remain in the Trump camp remains a sobering political reality, for which the corporate-driven Democratic Party has no meaningful alternative message.

On the other hand, the fact that voter suppression is now recognized and openly discussed, after flying under the radar for so long, in my opinion is a major development. At this writing one major election – the Georgia governor’s race — has been successfully stolen by the fraudulent removal of tens of thousands of Black citizens from the voter rolls. Under the glare of public exposure, it should be harder to repeat that level of blatant cheating despite the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

Whatever the contested results in Florida turn out to be this time, the restoration of voting rights to ex-prisoners will change the voter demographics of that state. In my home state Michigan, ballot proposals to ensure access to voting, and ending absurd partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts, passed by large margins (as did legalization of recreational marijuana). Whether the defeat of the execrable Wisconsin governor Scott Walker might open the question of voter suppression there remains to be seen.

The overall reality of this midterm’s rebalancing is that the voters that Democratic strategists foolishly depended on in 2016 – those somewhat caricatured “suburban college-educated white women” – did break for them this year after two years of the Trump spectacle. What flipped in 2018 can flip back next time, of course – but just now, thinking about scenarios for 2020 is more than this writer’s stomach can handle.

For an incisive overview of the mixed midterm results and what they may portend, a useful piece by Matt Karp appears in JACOBIN.

The Left and the Future

What about the left in these elections? With regret, we must note that the Green Party didn’t do well, although the socialist Green candidate for New York governor, Howie Hawkins, is to be congratulated for maintaining the party’s ballot status.

An assessment from the Democratic Socialists of America celebrates a modest breakthrough in the election victories of more than a dozen DSA members, including U.S. House candidates Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, as well as a substantial list of DSA-endorsed state and local candidates.

The presence of a handful of self-declared democratic socialists, along with substantial numbers of left-leaning liberals, means that the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party will have a firm niche in the party. They will offer an attractive face to part of its voting base, and may be allowed a significant role in drafting that most meaningless of documents, the 2020 Party Platform.

None of this will change the reality that the Democratic Party in practice is subservient to, and a tool of, corporate power and Wall Street. Its relatively progressive stances (i.e. relative to the vicious Republican policies pandering to the religious fundamentalist right) on social issues only disguise that underlying fact.

We’ll need to watch to see whether progressive Democrats, and any other politicians who take the First Amendment seriously, will revolt against the pending Israel Anti-Boycott Act that aims to cripple and criminalize campus and community BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) activism.

No doubt this election will be followed by escalating cacophony around the daily antics of the big twit in the White House, civil wars in the West Wing, attempts to shut down the Mueller investigations, empty noise about impeachment, and all the rest. What mustn’t be forgotten is that the day after the election, whenever the vote recounts and lawsuits are over, and next January when the new Congress convenes, the fundamental crises remain.

Under the impact of climate change-driven disasters, California is burning and towns in Florida and the Carolinas are still staggering from hurricane destruction, as does the entire island nation of Puerto Rico. At the U.S. border, world-class crimes are committed against asylum seekers confined in detention camps while ICE’s reign of terror sweeps immigrant communities. Children in Yemen die from starvation by the hundreds every day under U.S.-supplied Saudi Arabian bombs and planes. College students are drowning in debt, families are devastated by housing foreclosures and water shutoffs, and wages stagnate even as official unemployment reaches “record lows” and corporate profits soar.

Elections don’t change these realities – certainly not automatically. It takes sustained mobilization and mass action to do so.


2 responses to “Sound, Fury and the Midterms”

  1. Fred R Phillips Avatar
    Fred R Phillips

    There’s a 3 part video on 1916 Irish Revolution on Amazon. I had studied the Bolshevik Revolution and little of Haymarket Massacre & trial of lies as well as Johnson County Massacre 1891 & Italian Red Revolution. What is important to take note is; throughout history there is an era that few people unite on the struggle for liberty & freedom or human dignity. The Grapes of Wrath revealed that working poor are hated regardless of ethnicity, it hasn’t changed. Media is a vehicle to control masses. Point is, this struggle involves diligence and hope that a future of human dignity & liberty can be achieved. Grasshopper vs Ants fable.

  2. Linda Kerth Avatar
    Linda Kerth

    REPLY TO DAVID FINKEL “Sound, Fury and the Midterms”
    Solidarity Nov. 17,2018:

    “… the key factor this November was certainly mass revulsion against the grotesque performance of the Trump regime”

    IMHO, Trump has done the country a big favor! His corrupt and criminal administration has been so incomprehensibly oppressive, that it has sickened all but the wealthiest die-hard capitalists. Women by-and-large are revolted by his misogyny; students are rethinking their abolition of their right to vote, African-Americans are outraged about the suppression of their votes, and all minorities in general are appalled at his immigration policies. And just about everyone is sick of his denial of the scientific truth of climate change and the degradation and demise of measures to protect the environment. What a guy! He has done more in the past two years to arouse emotions and engender the will to action than the socialist movement has done in the past few decades.

    “Despite the heroic turnouts … these have mostly been episodic upsurges that haven’t yet generated powerful self-sustaining campaigns.”

    And that has also been true since the advent of Socialism as a viable political goal. “Single-issue” demonstrations always fail due to the lack of a self-sustaining movement. People get aroused, paint their slogans on cardboard, march in the streets, and then what? Everyone goes home! And waits for the next march, the next issue, the next cause. Eventually it will become clear that ALL these issues are related, and ALL of them can only be changed by a fundamental change from the ‘bottom’ — a revolutionary and sustained intention by the mass of humanity to “throw out the bums” and replace them with a system that actually works FOR the people, BY the people.

    “College students are drowning in debt, families are devastated by housing foreclosures and water shutoffs, and wages stagnate … Elections don’t change these realities … It takes sustained mobilization and mass action to do so.”

    The bottom line is this: What does it take to create such “sustained mobilization?” How does the “mass action” come into being? I suggest at a minimum the following:

    FIRST: Redefine the term “working class.” I cut my socialist teeth in the Printer’s Union (the ITU), when it was still all hot metal, lead exposure, and continual (and ugly) confrontation with the owners and their lackeys. The “working class” was (or so I thought) defined as “blue collar” … the miner, the steelworker, the dock worker, ditch diggers; brick layers. You get the idea: BLUE COLLAR.

    NOT TRUE. The broader — and more correct — definition is ANYONE who works for a salary … and has no investment in the means of production. That includes an unbelievable number of people — and occupations: teachers, secretaries, librarians, word processors, paralegals, healthcare practitioners, salesmen, numerous office occupations (bank clerks, bookkeepers, payroll, receptionists, dispatchers, stock brokers, computer operators); technical writers , musicians, pharmacists audiologists, registered nurses, lab technologists, dental assistants (and in many cases, dentists); phlebotomists, even correctional officers, police, firefighters,
    fish and game wardens, bartenders, waitresses, food servers, hostesses, grounds maintenance, building engineers and janitors); gaming workers, motion picture projectionists, animal trainers, funeral attendants, barbers, hairdressers, travel guide, childcare workers, cashiers, copy editors, stock clerks, mail carriers, meter readers, dispatchers, freight agents, loan agents — quite literally thousands of occupations — all SALARIED.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics has tables and tables of occupations and descriptions of the workers who hold them. Only the higher echelons of management, business owners, and financial operators escape the the defining characteristic of the “working class” — they are the CEOs, the owners, the bank owners, the high financiers who constitute the 1%. All the rest of us? The 99% — We fill all those salaried slots.

    Now I know, and YOU know, that we are all working class. But the gal who works at my credit union doesn’t realize this! The woman who sells me groceries down at the corner doesn’t know it. A whole lot of people just don’t SEE this, let alone understand it. Most of them just wonder why they work so hard for so little. They still think they are members of the vanishing middle-class.

    Some folks are getting this … teachers are organizing, nurses are organizing, and workers who are centrally located in huge numbers (e.g.,Google, Amazon), are beginning to see the light … but hundreds of thousands of every-day workers in every-day sorts of jobs are not. This is where we must start! Educate! Inform! Draw very clear lines. Is this elementary? Yes, of course. Does anyone out there still believe it?

    “… a handful of self-declared democratic socialists, along with substantial numbers of left-leaning liberals, means that the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party will have a firm niche in the party [in 2019-2020].”

    In my humble opinion, this might be a great opportunity to accomplish some things that are now clear in the public imagination — elimination of the electoral college, elimination of the crazy redistricting by political parties, removal of big money from campaigns, universal health care. These are reformations at best, but if Socialists can organize around — and be associated with — clearly defined goals that have immediate results, so much the better. Building a good reputation has its merits.