The Smoke Clears — Not?

David Finkel

Posted November 10, 2022

As the smoke clears — or more accurately, thickens — over the midterm election results, one outcome emerges clearly: the polarization and crisis of U.S. politics continues. And in the next two years at least, political gridlock means that any positive steps on fundamental issues facing the society are vanishingly unlikely — whether on access to health care, on inequality and child poverty, on racial injustice at every level, on a looming stagflation recession, and above all on the ever-escalating climate catastrophe.

Another sure thing: the seventeen billion dollar expenditure on this election sets an all-time high, which will last all the way until the next one. Campaign spending records in U.S. politics fall faster than home-run marks during baseball’s steroid era. That’s both a symptom and a cause of dysfunction.

What follows are only first responses to what’s emerging after the vote. The immediate prospect of an explosion of post-election violence has apparently receded — and even if the Republicans take control of Congress, it’s now highly unlikely that they’d be so stupid as to try to pass a national abortion ban, or force a crisis over the debt ceiling. But the institutions of “stability” in this country are still fraying.

It’s impossible here to take in the full scope of the already-settled and still-pending races, but voters’ response to the unhinged Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade obviously stands out. In every state with abortion rights referenda on the ballot, women’s right to choose won. The outraged response of women, and of decent people in general, energized a voter turnout that blunted what was expected to be a wave of Republican victories.

Here in Michigan, an expansive reproductive rights state constitutional amendment (Proposal 3) won handily, as did the three women holding the top state offices — governor, attorney general and secretary of state — aided by the circumstance that the Republican challengers were rabid anti-choice, election-denial MAGA fanatics. All three incumbents (Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson) ran on pro-choice platforms, including the governor’s court challenge to the state’s (now-dead) 1931 abortion ban and attorney-general Nessel’s vow not to enforce it.

Michigan voters also adopted proposals to ensure expanded voter access and candidate financial disclosures. For the first time in decades, thanks to nonpartisan redistricting Republicans lost their control of both houses of the state legislature which has enabled all kinds of rightwing malicious mischief, including the noxious Emergency Manager laws that imposed bankruptcy on majority-Black Detroit and other cities and poisoned the water of Flint.

The national picture, as always, is a mixed pattern as the two U.S. parties of corporate capital battle for domination. At this writing on the morning of November 9, readers already know that a narrower-than-expected Republican takeover of the House of Representatives is likely though not assured, while the Senate hangs in the balance and may rest on a Georgia runoff in December.

Contrary to many expectations, the uninspiring Joe Biden did not drag down the Democratic vote, nor did the malignant magnetism of Donald Trump elevate the Republicans in critical battleground races. And it’s refreshing to note that money doesn’t rule everything: For example, the targeted assault on Summer Lee (in Pennsylvania District 12) by AIPAC (American Israel Political Affairs Committee) has failed spectacularly.

On the whole, the vaguely-defined “progressive” Democratic party wing appears to have held its own, although (contrary to some left illusions) it represents no challenge to the firm control of the corporate-loyal party establishment. The details of state and local results, and a survey of where the Green Party has maintained ballot access, must await further analysis. Regrettably, the independent left was not a factor in this election except for some on-the-ground presence — as in the exemplary case of Michigan in activist canvassing for ballot access signatures and then voter turnout for Proposal 3.

Future Prospects

The foregoing observations are obviously fragmentary. The bigger questions revolve around where all this leads in the next two years and beyond.

Thanks to voter turnout and Republican underperformance, a feared wave of reactionary legislative onslaughts seems less likely. That is the most positive and hopeful outcome of this nasty, brutish and long electoral cycle.

We’ll have to see whether anti-abortion state legislatures will seek to criminalize women’s travel to states where abortion can be legally obtained, whether prosecutors will pursue doctors providing abortion medications, and other atrocities that will further inflame the national crisis of women’s access to abortion.

Speculations over whether Biden and Trump will be running for president in 2024, how viciously the Republican Party might be internally fighting over Trump’s future — and whether Trump himself will be prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the United States, attempting to overturn the 2020 election and various financial crimes — will provide full-employment opportunities for commentators.

Deeper issues remain, and here are some of them:

1. Factors that were long regarded as pillars of guaranteed “stability” — such as the domination of two capitalist parties reliably and peacefully alternating in power, the decentralization of much authority to the states, and the Supreme Court as a check on legislative “extremism” — have become in fact agents of destabilization. One formerly traditional-conservative party is now an essentially far-right purveyor of unrestrained plutocracy, Christian nationalism and white supremacy with a stranglehold on highly gerrymandered state legislatures.

As for the Supreme Court, even though its atrocious ruling on abortion has been slapped in the face by voters, its majority remains firmly a far-right White Supremacy Court of the United States (WSCOTUS) that has already destroyed the Voting Rights Act and is poised in this term to wipe out affirmative action and seriously consider enabling state legislatures to overturn election results.

2. The stagflation recession (economic downturn coupled with persistent inflation, last seen in the mid-1970s) that is quite likely in 2023 will only exacerbate the profound ongoing dysfunctions in the United States, from health care and labor rights to housing, the social safety net, and gun violence. Neither party has a serious response to the economic situation, since the Republican policy consists of tax cuts for the rich and vicious budget cuts for everyone else — while the Democrats can’t confront corporate price-gouging or take other measures against the wishes of their own mega-donor base.

3. The authoritarian and racist trend in U.S. politics is very much part of an international one. We can cite not only Viktor Orban in Hungary, the darling of U.S. white nationalists, and the now mercifully defeated Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, but also the next Israeli coalition government which will include parties that explicitly advocate ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and stripping their citizenship rights.

In this connection we should note sadly that in this as in every U.S. election, and in every international upheaval — right now, the war resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its consequences for the global economy and food supplies — Palestine and its people are collateral damage. Even as the likes of AIPAC strive to crush any Congressional voices for Palestinian rights, Israel’s daily raids and murders in occupied Palestine barely register in U.S. media. This can change only with a critical upsurge in grassroots pro-Palestinian activism.

4. Speaking of thickening smoke, and rising floodwaters, the environmental collapse hangs over the future not only of U.S. politics but humanity. We don’t know who will be running for president in 2024, or what the economy will look like, or whether the war in Ukraine will be over, or many other things — but we do know that wildfires, floods and droughts, species extinctions and habitat collapses will be even worse than they already are now.

The partial defeat of far-right misogynist and racist politics in the 2022 election is a reason for some relief, but not reassurance about the depths of our political, social and racial crises. The biggest missing element is an independent left capable of addressing them at the roots.