The midterm elections: The consolidation of right-wing rule avoided. Now what?
Bob Sheak, November 12, 2018
The midterm election – overall
Initial tallies indicated that 49 percent of the electorate voted in the 2018 midterm elections. This included an “estimated 113 million people…making this the first midterm in history to exceed over 100 million votes,” according to an article by Jennifer De Pinto (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/record-voter-turnout-in-2018-midterm-elections). Additionally, she writes, “you’d have to go all the way back to 1914 to get a turnout rate above 50 percent.” Turnout in the last midterm elections in 2014 were one of the lowest on record, “with only 36.4 percent of eligible voters participating in the election.” There is a chance that, once all the votes are counted, the number of votes cast will reach or exceed 50 percent. The outpouring of voter participation was about Trump’s presidency, both for and against. But, as the following evidence indicates, Democrats made significant gains in the House, in governors’ races, and in other state-wide offices, while winning some important ballot initiatives. And, as much as anything, this means that the one-party, right-wing government at the federal has been ended and there have been democratic electoral and ballet-initiative victories in the states.
At the same time, Democrats lost ground in the Senate and are unlikely to find many issues that will garner the support of Republicans and overcome partisan gridlock. Amidst it all, Trump is still the president and through his crony appointees exercise great influence over the vast executive branch of the federal government. His core support among tens of millions of Americans appears to be stronger than ever. One recent poll indicates that he has a 46 percent approval rating. Corporate power remains largely unscathed. Few members of either party seriously challenge the military-industrial complex. The President’s foreign policy takes us toward a new cold war with Russia, as he withdraws from treaties governing nuclear weapons and pours money into new nuclear weapons. And we must not forget, the U.S. aggressively approaches relations with North Korea, Iran, and China in ways that deepen mutual antagonisms and the possibility of military conflict. There is still no indication that either party is willing or able to confront adequately the scale and existential threat of the accelerating climate crisis. There is little discussion of phasing out fossil fuels. The right-wing Supreme Court is prepared to undo the reproductive rights of women and, given the opportunity, further eviscerate civil rights, collective bargaining, immigration law, and to consider changes in the U.S. Constitution that would comply with right-wing interests.
The Democrats are left with two years, until the 2020 presidential elections, to build on their limited successes in the midterm elections.
Energizing Democratic voters
On a positive note, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns summarize the midterm results as follows.
“The president unwittingly galvanized a new generation of activism, inspiring hundreds of thousands angered, and a little disoriented, by his unexpected triumph to make their first foray into politics as volunteers and candidates. He also helped ensure that Democratic officeholders would more closely reflect the coalition of their party….
“It was the party’s grass roots, however, that seeded Democratic candidates with unprecedented amounts of small-dollar contributions and dwarfed traditional party fund-raising efforts. The so-called liberal resistance was undergirded by women and people of color and many of them won on Tuesday, including Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, Lauren Underwood in Illinois and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia.”
“Indeed, the coalition of voters that mobilized against Mr. Trump was broad, diverse and somewhat ungainly, taking in young people and minorities who reject his culture-war politics; women appalled by what they see as his misogyny; seniors alarmed by Republican health care policies; and upscale suburban whites who support gun control and environmental regulation as surely as they favor tax cuts. It will now fall to Democrats to forge these disparate communities alienated by the president into a durable electoral base for the 2020 presidential race at a time when their core voters are increasingly tilting left” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/06/us/politics/midterm-elections-results.html).
Democrats control The House of Representatives
As widely anticipated, Democrats won a majority in the House, but lost ground in the Senate. Writing for Our Future, Robert Borosage analyzes exit poll data and sees a “blue wave with a harsh red undertow” reflected in the numbers (https://ourfuture.org/20181107/2018-midterms-blue-wave-red-undertow). The blue wave, not the strongest, is reflected in the voting for the House of Representatives, where Democrats gained at least 30 seats with the possibility of adding another 7 or so seats. They started out with 193 seats, needed 218 to take control of the House, and surpassed that number in the elections, bringing their total to at least 225. As of Nov 9, according to Ballotpedia, “Democrats had gained a net total of 32 seats,” while there are “still eight competitive races where a winner has not been declared.” So, the only outstanding issue is how large the Democratic majority will be in the House, the outcome of which awaits the result of the “eight competitive races” yet to be decided.
In an article for The New York Times, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report that enthusiasm among Democrats help to explain the large turnout (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/06/us/politics/midterm-elections-results.html). They write: “…the Democrats’ House takeover represented a clarion call that a majority of the country wants to see limits on Mr. Trump for the next two years of his term. With the opposition [the Democrats] now wielding subpoena power and the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, still looming, the president is facing a drastically more hostile political environment in the lead up to his re-election.”
The results in the Senate were not as good, where Republicans gained a net of one seat, increasing their majority from 52 to 53, leaving the Democrats with 47. This is unfortunate in that it gives the Republicans the power to confirm Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, to veto legislation supported by the Democratically-controlled House, and to stop any impeachment initiative coming from the House.
What Democrats can accomplish
Democratic-control of the House does give Democrats the opportunity to stop Senate legislation that would further reduce taxes on the rich and corporations or subvert government programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other safety-net programs. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is likely to be less challenged by Republicans due to the widely popular issue of pre-existing health conditions, an issue that generated huge support for Democrats. Though Republicans are likely to oppose any attempts to improve the ACA (e.g., imposing regulations on rising health insurance and prescription drugs). The House under Democratic control will also be able to gather information through its subpoena power or, more likely, by holding hearings about Trump’s links to Russia and whether the president has obstructed the investigation into these issues by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Generally, Democrats can hold hearings that focus attention on the party’s issues and that help educate the public. In the meantime, we have as a bitterly divided country that has just barely moved away from the continuation of a right-wing, one-party government headed by a narcissistic and reckless president.
The People for the American Way sent out an email following the midterm election that points to a “defensive strategy,” somewhat like the one I just described in the previous paragraph. It outlines succinctly what the House Democrats can accomplish. Here it is. (Their website: http://www.pfaw.org/action-center.)
“Because Democrats took back the House, our democracy has survived (at least for another two years) — we FINALLY have a meaningful check on the Trump administration’s lawlessness and corruption, and we can finally have some accountability…
“Because Democrats took back the House, the social safety net survives – we know that Social Security and Medicare would have been targeted for utter destruction had Republicans retained full control of Congress…
“Because Democrats took back the House, Republicans won’t fully be able to do away with the Affordable Care Act, at least legislatively…
“Because Democrats took back the House, Trump and his far-right allies won’t be able to pass another massive tax scam that shifts all of our nation’s wealth upward to corporations and the GOP’s billionaire donors…
“And because Democrats took back the House, Democrats now have a chance to show America a real alternative vision to Trump’s agenda of bigotry, division, and right-wing extremism. Already we see positive signs that Democrats are going to focus on desperately needed reforms that are immensely important to and popular with a vast majority of Americans, and that put Democrats in stark contrast with the extremist GOP. It’s health care, of course, but it’s also anti-corruption measures and ethics reform; infrastructure and jobs; and democracy reforms to address big money in politics and voting rights. We’ll be working hard to mobilize a grassroots movement over the coming weeks to make sure this agenda is prioritized in the first days of the 116th Congress.”
What else do Democrats in the House plan?
In an article for The New York Times, Nicholas Fandos, reports that “Democratic leaders say they would use their first month in the House majority to advance sweeping changes to future campaign and ethics laws, requiring disclosure of shadowy political donors, outlawing gerrymandering of congressional districts and restoring key enforcement provisions to the Voting Rights Act.” They will “work to improve the Affordable Care Act,” “prepare an onslaught of investigations into alleged malfeasance by the president and his administration,” prepare a more liberal and detailed $1 trillion infrastructure package, and, among other items, “’prepare the way with evidence’ for energy conservation and other climate change mitigation legislation” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/us/politics/house-democrats-nancy-pelosi.html).
Democrats at the state level
Zach Montellaro reports that “Democrats flipped governorships in seven states Tuesday, installing governors poised to play key roles in the next redistricting process in 2021 and 2022 — but Republicans held onto several major states, giving no party a clear leg up two years ahead of the census.” Prior to the elections on November 6, there were 33 Republican governors, 16 Democratic, and 1 Independent. Not all were up for election. Democrats won the governor’s races over Republican opponents in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Michigan though Republicans retain control of the state legislative houses. In Illinois, Maine, Nevada, and New Mexico, Democrats now have full control over state government. Overall, there are now 23 Democratic governors, up from 16. These numbers are in some cases not the final ones. In contested races, the Republicans held onto Indiana and Missouri, while the results in Georgia and Florida appear to be unresolved and possibly requiring a recount of the votes. All these results indicate that Democrats will have some increased influence in state-level policies, including over congressional redistricting decisions in 2020, because of their success in the midterm elections. The states under Democratic control can now become what Borosage refers to as “laboratories of democracy.”
I received an email from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee on Friday, November 9, that the 2018 election had dealt a “body blow to partisan gerrymandering (firstname.lastname@example.org). The email included evidence that Democrats had made gains in state legislatures, namely:
• Democrats flipped six legislative chambers: Colorado Senate, Maine Senate, Minnesota House, New Hampshire House and Senate, and New York Senate
• Democrats broke supermajorities in four chambers: North Carolina House and Senate, Michigan Senate, and Pennsylvania Senate
• Democrats made addition gains in seven legislative chambers: Ohio House and Senate, Michigan House, Texas House and Senate, and Pennsylvania House and Senate
According to Montellaro’s report (cited previously), “Colorado and Michigan also passed ballot measures, supported by the NDRC [National Democratic Redistricting Committee], that transferred redistricting power from legislators and governors to independent commissions. (Democrats also elected new governors in both states, ending unified GOP control over Michigan’s state government.) The results represent progress for Democrats since 2010, when Michigan and Wisconsin — along with Pennsylvania, where Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was reelected — were three states where GOP-controlled redistricting after the 2010 census hit Democrats especially hard, but Tuesday’s results guaranteed Republicans won’t have unified control in those states this time. Another ballot measure to establish a redistricting commission in Utah is too close to call.
At the same time, Montellaro points out that “Democratic gubernatorial candidates were reported to fall short in Ohio and Florida [though there is a recount in Florida], with dozens of congressional districts between them, and Democrat Stacey Abrams currently trails in Georgia, though her campaign believes late-counted ballots could lead to a December runoff. The Republican Party has trifectas [the state house and both legislative branches] in all three of those states. And reelection wins by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan could give Republicans a seat at the table in those Democratic-dominated states during the next redistricting process.” The latest news is that there are likely to be recounts for the Senate and governor’s races in Florida and Arizona, as well as in Georgia.
An overview of ballot initiatives
Negin Owliaei gives us a detailed breakdown on ballot initiatives. He reports: “Voters weighed in on a host of high-profile issues and, for the most part, passed measures to protect and expand the rights of people across the country” (https://inequality.org/great-divide/2018-midterms-ballot-initiatives-breakdown). In Florida, the voters “repealed a Jim-Crow-era disenfranchisement law, with a 64 percent favorable vote, that restores access to voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people convicted of felonies who have done their time in prison, probation, parole, etc. In Arkansas and Missouri, voters supported modest increases in the minimum wage, which will affect “a combined one million workers.” The minimum wage in Arkansas will increased from $8.50 to $11 by 2021 and in Missouri from $7.85 to $12 by 2023. In Massachusetts, voters “upheld a law protecting the rights of trans people in public accommodations.” Voters in Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Idaho “passed Medicaid expansion initiatives,” giving an additional 300,000 people medical coverage. In Colorado, “65 percent of voters who said yes to A,” the state “officially abolished slavery as a form of punishment by removing a clause in the state’s constitution that kept it legal for those convicted of a crime.” A handful of cities in California “successfully voted in policies to address the affordable housing and homelessness crisis.” For example, “Oakland passed a slew of measures to make housing more equitable, including increased renter protections from eviction, a vacancy tax on properties used less than 50 days a year, and a change in the property tax structure to ensure high-end homeowners play their fair share.”
The climate crisis
James Rainey reports on NBC News on ballot measures regarding global warming (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/mixed-vote-global-warming-ballot-measures-lose-democrats-gain-power-n933766). His overall interpretation of the relevant ballot initiatives is that “[e]vironmentalists lost high-profile ballot fights this week to combat climate change and promote conservation.” He continues: “But they took heart that new Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives and several governorships could pave the way for future victories against fossil fuels and global warming.” However, the victorious initiatives to which he refers are so modest as to be of little help in stemming the continuing rise in global warming.
The biggest defeat “came in Washington state, where a measure to tax carbon dioxide emissions lost 56 percent to 44 percent, despite backing from a broad coalition of Democratic, environmental, union and Native American groups.” And there were other setbacks. “Arizona voters overwhelmingly defeated a measure that would have required the state to get half its power from renewable energy like wind and solar power by 2030.” In Colorado, rules that would have pushed oil and gas drilling substantially farther from homes, businesses, streams and rivers were defeated 57 percent to 43 percent. And in Alaska, a “Stand for Salmon” initiative aimed at protecting the state’s favorite game fish lost 64 percent to 36 percent. Rainey points to two victories. In Nevada, voters approved a measure to require the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from green sources by 2030 with 59 percent of the vote. And “Georgia passed “an amendment…to put 90 percent of sales taxes on sporting goods toward conservation efforts,” with the “estimated $200 million collected over a decade” helping to “create parks and protect wildlife habitat.”
Based on a review of initiatives on gun control, German Lopez draws this conclusion: “Gun control advocates didn’t get all the wins they were hoping for on Election Day, but all in all, the 2018 midterm elections were pretty good for supporters of strong gun laws” (https://www.vox.com/2018/11/07/180721461/midterm-election-gun-control-ballot-initiative-congress-results). Lopez identifies some positive movement at the state level. A statewide ballot initiative in Washington State curtailing access to assault rifles won. Democrats in the House representing Virginia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Colorado, South Carolina, and Kansas displeased the National Rifle Association so much that they were given an F or low rating by the NRA. There were Democrats who ran their elections with strong emphasis on the need for gun regulation. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican “signed a gun control package into law that expanded background checks and lets officials take guns from people deemed at risk for violence, among other changes.”
Attorney general races and fossil fuels
There were, moreover, important races for the position of attorney general in the states. Alexander C. Kaufman reports on these races in an article for Huffington Post, with particular attention to how Democratic attorney generals are challenging fossil fuel corporations (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/midterms-democrats-attorney-general-climate-lawsuits_us_5be5f199e4b0e8438897aa58). Here’s the thrust of what he writes.
“Democrats scored a string of state attorney general victories on Tuesday night, ousting loyal oil and gas allies and threatening to add to mounting lawsuits against the industry over climate change.
“The party flipped four states and held 13, re-electing incumbents in seven of them. in an election sweep that secured Democrats 27 states that represent over 58 percent of the U.S. population and 63 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The top-cop posts are considered the “most effective way” to challenge President Donald Trump’s environmental agenda.
“During the Obama administration, Republican attorneys general became a fearsome opposition force, coalescing around legal challenges to landmark power plant, health care and water regulations. The new Democratic majority comes as the party’s rising stars are already jockeying to make names for themselves by sparring with the Trump administration.”
Kaufman reports that Rhode Island and New York are already suing oil companies. And, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Colorado, Democrats won on initiatives to challenge oil companies, despite the industry spending over $100 million to defeat them.
It remains to be seen whether initiatives and legal challenges such as those to which Kaufman refers will succeed enough to reduce carbon emissions. However, the record shows that the financial penalties from legal suits can easily be absorbed financially by the oil industry. Nonetheless, the legal approach may be important as one part of a larger strategy, but it is time-consuming and expensive and does not have any direct effect on reducing oil production and the emissions that accompanies it. And, if such suits end up in the right-wing Supreme Court, the industry will prevail over any challenge by environmentalists.
The elections leave us with a complex set of legislative arrangements and the prospect of considerable gridlock, especially at the federal level. At the same time, Democrats are now in a better position to influence policies in more states than they were before the elections. Borosage provides a summary of the outcomes that is consistent with the evidence reviewed in my essay: “Democrats took the House, moving towards flipping over 30 seats, took seven gubernatorial races and counting, and made significant gains in down-ballot races –winning over 330 state legislative seats, six state legislatures and breaking 4 GOP supermajorities, with more victories to com.” Okay, breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, Trump and the Republicans will control a lot more than the Democrats will.
There is good news. At the national level, House Democrats may well be able to defend important and popular programs, stymie advances in the Republican agenda, and protect Mueller’s investigations. And Democratic political forces at the state level may be able to have a decisive influence on redistricting, on some climate and environmental issues, on whether to adopt Medicaid expansion, on imposing regulations of oil and gas corporations, on opposing “right to work” laws, on raising state minimum wage laws, and more.
But the overall situation is not so good and there is not a lot of time. In one of Dahr Jamail’s recent (Nov. 2, 2018) highly informative reviews of developments on anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), he refers to the new U.N. Report that warns of impending climate catastrophe (https://truthout.org/articles/new-un-report-warns-of-impending-catastrophes-as-world-warms-glaciers-melt). Here is what he writes.
“The biggest news in the corporate media regarding climate change since my last dispatch has been the UN report stating that we have 12 years left to limit a full-on climate change catastrophe. To avoid this fate, we would need to spend those 12 years curbing global emissions dramatically. Essentially, there would need to be a government-mandated plan across the globe that would enable us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade (1.5°C) rather than the 2°C goal of the 2015 Paris climate talks. Eliminating that extra .5 of warming would save tens of millions of people from sea level rise inundation, and hundreds of millions from water scarcity and a myriad of other catastrophic impacts. Limiting warming to 1.5°C would, scientists have said, require a radical rethinking of virtually every facet of modern society, including an abandonment of our entire fossil-fuel based economy. However, currently, we are headed for at least a 3°C increase by 2100, with no mass government mobilization in sight.”
The implication of the U.N. report is that the ice cover in the polar regions, in Greenland, and on mountain tops will continue to shrink, the ocean levels will rise, desertification and draughts will ravage forests and soils, disrupting agriculture around the world, severe weather events will increase in frequency and intensity, some parts of the world will become uninhabitable due to high and humid temperatures, and the number of environmental refugees will soar. There is a lot more to be concerned about. Here’s one example from Jamail’s article.
“A recent study in a paper published August 31 in the journal Science warned that for each degree of rise in global temperature, insect-driven losses to the staple crops of rice, wheat and corn increase by 10-25 percent. Given we are already at 1.1°C warming, we are already seeing these losses, which are sure to increase. ‘In 2016, the United Nations estimated that at least 815 million people worldwide don’t get enough to eat,’ the University of Washington Press wrote of the study. “Corn, rice and wheat are staple crops for about 4 billion people, and account for about two-thirds of the food energy intake, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.”
“At the same time, scientists are deeply concerned about the fact that non-pest insect numbers are declining rapidly. Bees, moths, butterflies, ladybugs and other insects are far less abundant, and scientists around the world warn that these insects are crucial to as much as 80 percent of all the food we eat. ‘You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects,’ University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy told the AP.”
We can appreciate the great efforts that went into the Democratic electoral victories, and hope they are but a first step toward achieving a more rational, just, and humane political system that will usher in societal transformation that we need. Right now, though, we have a long way to go electorally. Still, the door is not closed.
Let me close by quoting David Korten’s bold agenda in an article recently published in Yes magazine titled “Why I have hope in the face of human extinction” (https://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/why-i-have-hope-in-the-face-of-human-extinction-20181101). Something like this kind of agenda seems appropriate, given the dire conditions we face. It perhaps calls for far more than we can expect, given political and economic realities. Korten insists that it is a “hopeful” agenda, that is, one that is feasible – with considerable luck and effort.
“We humans now have the knowledge and technology to move beyond the violence, fear, and daily struggle for survival that besets the lives of so many. We have the capacity to secure a world of peace, beauty, diversity, creativity, material sufficiency, and spiritual abundance for all people, and have all that in balance with Earth’s ecosystems. Achieving such a goal requires that we make this vision our common goal and transform our cultural narratives, institutions, and infrastructure accordingly—a steep but imperative challenge.
“Success requires leadership from all levels of society, including from people everywhere working to grow community-facilitating cultural values, institutions, and infrastructure in the places where they live. Together we need to achieve four conditions critical to the transition.
“1. Earth balance. We must reduce humanity’s total environmental burden to bring us into sustainable balance with the capacity of Earth’s generative systems. This requires immediate action to eliminate nonessential consumption—including fossil fuels and weaponry. Longer-term action is needed to create institutional and physical structures that make doing the right thing easy and enjoyable—for example, designing urban environments to make the essentials of daily living readily accessible by biking, or walking in safe and pleasant neighborhoods connected by convenient mass transit.
“2. Equitable distribution. We must achieve an equitable distribution of wealth and power. Immediate action is required to stop the further concentration of wealth while advancing equitable cooperative ownership, restoring the commons, and connecting the rights of ownership with corresponding responsibilities.
“3. Life-serving technologies. We must advance technologies that strengthen rather than impair life’s regenerative capacity. Immediate action is required to roll back use of harmful technologies, including the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and our dependence on carbon and nuclear energy. Longer-term action is needed to develop and apply technologies that better meet human needs while simultaneously restoring the environment, such as developing greener agricultural practices and creating buildings designed for natural heating and cooling.
“4. Living communities. We must rebuild relationships of people to one another and to nature to create strong, healthy, deeply democratic living communities. This will involve reducing dependence on money while encouraging sharing and mutual self-help in the places where people live. Immediate action is required to block further concentration of corporate power, while taking longer-term steps to break up existing concentrations, secure the accountability of governments to the people, advance equitable participation in local cooperative ownership and shared housing, and establish rules that assure the accountability of businesses to the communities in which they operate.
“The transition will test the limits of human creativity, social intelligence, and commitment to collaborate in the face of relentless establishment opposition. We now equate money to wealth and see making money as the key to well-being and happiness. In doing so, we ignore the reality that we are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Money is merely a number that has no intrinsic value. To destroy life only so that the financial assets of billionaires can grow is a monumental act of collective stupidity.
“Forward-looking communities around the world are engaged in advancing these transformations on both micro and macro scales. Their activities must become the norm everywhere, with all peoples and governments freely sharing the lessons of their efforts to develop proven, deeply democratic approaches to local self-reliance and liberation from corporate rule. The well-being of people and planet will rise, as corporate profits fall.
“It is time to unite as families, communities, and nations in our common identity as members of an ecological civilization, with a commitment to creating the possible world of our shared human dream.”