Battle for the Republic: Historic midterm elections in the US
The US midterm elections on November 6, 2018 have been widely accepted as being among the most consequential in American history. A record-making 113 million Americans voted in the recent midterm elections—far more than the 82 million Americans who had voted in the 2014 midterm elections and not too far behind the 130 million voters in the 2016 presidential elections.
These voters knew that last Tuesday's elections were no less than a battle for the meaning of the American republic. At issue was whether the United States is indeed a country where all individuals are created equal with freedoms boldly enshrined in the Constitution; the land of the Statue of Liberty welcoming migrants who have helped build the most dynamic and influential country in the world; the leader of the democratic world since 1945 when it led the setting up of the United Nations and the current global order. Or is it a country that seeks to retreat from leadership and dismantle the multilateral world order that it has led since 1945? And will it again become a country divided by race, gender, colour, and religion—where some will be more equal than others?
Another urgent issue was to restore balance. The United States, a country born with careful attention to checks and balances of power, had come close to being, as the New York Times put it, a one-party rule in the last two years. It was not merely that the Republicans occupied the White House and ruled both chambers of the US Congress. It was also that Republican leaders in Congress seem to have lost their strength to stand up to the president. In the past too, one party, often Democrats in recent history, had occupied the White House and the Congress as they did in the days of President Johnson or President Roosevelt. However, there were strong, independent-minded congressional leaders who did not balk from challenging their own party's president. Mike Mansfield, the legendary Democratic Senate leader, became a fierce critic of President Johnson over Vietnam.
The last two years have been vastly different, however. Republican leaders have swallowed personal insults not only to themselves but also to their families to line up behind President Trump.
As anticipated, the unchecked one-party rule over the past two years has already led to major mishaps or some near ones. One of the most serious cases was when more than 20 million Americans came close to losing their health insurance. Only one vote by an American hero, the late Senator John McCain, the last Republican standing and voting against his own party, saved them.
Another mishap was fiscal profligacy and deepening inequality. At a time when there is an urgent need to invest in infrastructure, education, and training of American workers, the Republicans passed a highly unequal, budget-busting tax cut creating trillion-dollar deficits and debts. Regulations promoting energy efficiency and emissions standards have been weakened, encouraging US industry to regress towards sunset industries and old techniques instead of investing in innovation and new technology to increase productivity. All this will set them back in the race towards new artificial-intelligence-based, energy-efficient technology that countries such as China are rapidly developing.
Internationally, the US has cavalierly gone about tearing up international treaties such as the Paris Agreement, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the painstakingly crafted, multi-country-supported Iranian peace treaty. In this process, the country has lost considerable credibility as a reliable leader of the free world. Countries around the world are adjusting to this new reality by forming new alliances and treaties excluding the United States.
Amidst all this, the cultural and institutional damage to the US may be the worst of all casualties. Fear and anger injected into the body politic have no less than cleaved society. In a country built by migrants, the bugaboo of a caravan of migrants supposedly carrying smallpox, Zika and containing hidden Middle-Easterners has been used to rile up the base and foment pseudo-nationalism with thinly veiled racism behind it. At various points, American institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI and the Department of Justice have come under attack. Completely unprecedented in recent years, the executive has questioned America's central bank policies, and implicitly their independence.
Against such a stark background, the results of this Tuesday's elections have brought enormous relief. The Democratic Party-led House of Representatives will be an essential check thanks to its supreme power over the budget and its majority and chair of numerous subject committees. It will not be possible for the Senate to ram through bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act or the budget-busting and highly iniquitous tax cuts passed last year. The US will be less of a lurching giant rattling its institutions and the rest of the world along with it.
Politically also very important, the Democrats have regained the governorships of another seven states, and newly won 300 state legislative seats from the Republicans in last Tuesday's elections. So Democrats now lead 22 of the 50 state governments—states where the majority, 190 million Americans, live. I say this as a matter of balance, not partisanship. I live in a Democratic state, Maryland, where, as in another deep blue state, Massachusetts, a popular Republican governor easily won his re-election bid although Democrats lead the state legislatures. I welcome this and see it as a bright spot. There must be bridges between the parties and the ability to work together.
There are other bright spots. The young voters, racial minorities and urban areas voted 70 to 90 percent solidly behind Democrats as they had in 2016. Democrats have also started the process of regaining the Blue Wall by bringing back middle- and working-class voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin who had voted for President Obama but then switched their vote to Mr Trump in 2016. Even beyond the Blue Wall traditionally, solidly Republican districts such as Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the slave-owning Confederate States of America—and even Charleston, South Carolina have turned Democratic this year. As this is being written, both the governor and Senate races in Florida have been declared as too close, and a new count is under way.
The biggest sign of optimism and the most important reason for the Democratic victory in the House is that women voters have finally reacted. Overall, while only 44 percent of men voted for Democrats, 56 percent of women parted ways and voted Democratic. Electorally particularly critical has been the crossover of white college-educated women. As many as 61 percent of these voters voted Democrat and helped to flip many suburban Republican districts to the Democratic side of the House.
Reflecting their newfound voice, about 100 women, overwhelmingly Democrats, have been elected to Congress. They include African-Americans, Native Americans, and even two Muslims, including a hijab-wearing woman who came to the US as a refugee, no less. The latter in her smiling victory speech enthusiastically captured the spirit of the United States saying: "Americans not only welcome refugees, but they also send them to Washington!"
Even so, the results were surprisingly closer than what had been widely expected. President Trump has managed the unusual feat to gain Senate seats in his midterms—only the third president to do so in the last 100 years. How did this happen when President Trump's popularity ratings have ranked among the lowest in US history? And what are the lessons?
Read the second part of this analysis here.
Dr Ahmad Ahsan is Director, Policy Research Institute and formerly a Dhaka University faculty member and World Bank economist.
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