Many of those following the U.S. midterms who identify themselves as part of the progressive left probably went to bed on that Nov. 6 feeling vaguely disappointed. In what was arguably the most high profile race, for the junior Senate seat in Texas, the charismatic Beto O’Rourke had failed to unseat the odious Ted Cruz.
On top of this, Republicans had gained seats in the Senate and it appeared that the governorships of Georgia and Florida, where Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum ran strong, come from behind campaigns, were already lost.
On that evening, as the initial results rolled in, and even into the end of the week as some recounts were taking place, it seemed that while the Congress had been won by Democrats, the predicted blue wave was more like a strong tide.
Even victories for a new generation of left progressives like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Presley and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, candidates that didn’t accept corporate money, were overshadowed that night by Democratic losses, most of them by center right Democrats like Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, the kind of politician that the U.S. left often feels it has no choice but to vote for.
Another reason for the disappointment was a feeling that, while turnout was high, in terms of overall numbers, at least at first, it didn’t seem all that different from previous midterms and certainly wasn’t the rebuke of the current president that many hoped for, especially after his antics in the lead up to the vote. Worse, by maintaining their majority in the Senate, the Republicans control judicial nominations until at least 2020, meaning the courts will continue to be stacked with right-wing judges.
In the week and change since, however, with a little bit more data, slow recounts in some places and a wider view that takes into account what happened in many state level races, the U.S. left has made solid inroads toward breaking the stranglehold of moneyed interests over the country’s politics, whether they fund Republicans or corporatist Democrats.
Further, while the larger Democratic strategy was to target areas where Hillary Clinton had defeated the current President, 17 districts that had voted for him produced wins for the party in House races, contributing about half the seats in the lower chamber turned over in the midterms.
A President who was so fierce in his denunciation of ‘mobs’ and protesters generally in the lead up to the vote was strangely supportive of loud crowds in Florida in its aftermath. One couldn’t help but be reminded of the Brooks Brothers Riot in 2000 that played a large role in ensuring that George W. Bush was awarded the presidency, as well branded Republican protesters descended on the Broward County Election Office with a new twist, This time the crowd chanted “Lock her up!”, presumably meaning Brenda Snipes, the Southern Florida county’s chief election officer.
In the meantime, the Democrats have only increased their lead as races that were initially up in the air were decided. By the following Tuesday, the party had flipped 32 seats (and more recent reports claim it could increase to as much as 40), up from the 26 predicted by the early returns. In a blow to the President’s colossal ego, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema even picked up a Senate seat in Arizona, vanquishing Martha McSally, who had received his enthusiastic support.
Ballot wins for democracy
Just as in previous elections, with a couple of outliers, state ballot initiatives once again showed that when U.S. citizens are given a voice they almost always choose the more progressive option offered to them.
This fact might necessitate a critique of the U.S.’ republican form of government. Too outsiders like this writer, a Canadian, it seems strange that small, thinly populated states like South Dakota elect the same number of Senators as massively populated ones like New York and California.
Like the Electoral College, which has handed the presidency to the person with less of the popular vote on two occasions so far this century, this shows that the American system of government is long overdue for an update in a more democratic, less 18th century, direction.
Widespread gerrymandering is probably an easier problem to solve in the shorter term and could alleviate some disparities. In these elections, the share of the votes going to Democrats on the national level was higher than Republicans but didn’t produce the same results as previous Republican wave elections. Because the system as it is currently constituted benefits the right wing status quo, even approaching such systemic changes will require time and tireless activism.
In one important ballot measure that wasn’t widely reported on, Louisiana voted to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would change their jury system, which had entrenched white political dominance in the state’s justice system for decades by not requiring unanimous jury verdicts.
As Patrick Cockburn explained on Counterpunch shortly after the measure passed, “Since there were usually only one or two black jurors on a jury, they only had influence so long as verdicts were unanimous. Once a split verdict was allowed, then all-white juries could effectively decide the fate of defendants by a 10 to 2 verdict. This entrenched the legal bias against black people for over a century.”
Another ballot measure that passed in Florida will permit convicted felons who have served their time to vote, re-enfranchising 1.4 million potential voters, many of them people of color.
Showing the continued desire of Americans for healthcare reform, Nebraska, Idaho and Utah passed ballot measures that will expand Medicaid. As reported by CBS News, these expansions will give health care coverage to well over 300,000 low income people.
There were losses too, with most of them based on the power of money.
As reported by The Socialist Worker, in Ohio, a hastily formed group called Vote No! Protect Ohio spent over $1 million in the last weeks of the campaign, reportedly by police unions and prosecutors, to defeat Issue 1, a ballot measure that, “would have reclassified nonviolent drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors (with retroactive reclassification for past offenses), ended prison sentences for technical probation violations, expanded prison rehabilitation and sentence reduction programs and redirected the cost savings from these measures to drug treatment programs.”
Other failed ballot initiatives in this election were focused on environmental measures and access to abortion, if targeted at very different constituencies and for very different reasons.
Washington state saw the most money ever poured into a ballot measure in its history in a successful effort to defeat Initiative 1631, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by charging a fee on them, the proceeds from which would then have been used for a variety of environmental projects throughout the state. The anti-1631 coalition raised $31 million to defeat it and, as reported by Steve Leigh, “The top contributors to the defeat were oil companies including BP, Phillips 66 and the Western States Petroleum Association, as well Koch Industries and the Association of Washington Business.”
Despite setbacks like this on the environmental front, both Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez showed that they haven’t abandoned the idea of a ‘green new deal’ that both campaigned on when they came out in support of a protest for environmental action by the group Sunrise, with the latter joining a march to the office of Nancy Pelosi and speaking passionately to the mostly young people gathered there.
All in all, the results of these midterms show that progressive ideas are gaining ground with American voters, even in unexpected places. It’s also a warning to the corporate Democrats who always call for ‘bipartisanship’ with far right Republicans: get on board or get out of the way.