By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
“This is the most important midterm election in the modern history of this country,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, and many politicians and pundits agreed. President Trump spoke similarly during his week-long campaign tour, aimed mainly at shoring up Republican candidates in so-called Red States. “Everything we have achieved is at stake,” Trump declared to his cheering admirers.
After the election, however, the mood quickly subsided; there was no evidence that substantial changes had come onto the political landscape. For one thing, the hoopla that Democrats had drummed up to create a mighty “blue wave” produced merely a ripple of elected candidates. In a Nov. 7 news conference, in fact, Trump boasted that his campaign rallies had “stopped the blue wave.”
The Democrats’ lackluster finish came despite the fact that they had received the bulk of Wall Street donations. The securities and finance industry backed Democratic congressional candidates 63 percent to 37 percent for the Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of course, the Democrats did succeed in winning a majority in the House for the first time since 2011, and made gains in many relatively affluent suburban districts that had leaned Republican in years past. And here and there, a few rookie Congress members were elected who consider themselves to be “progressives” or even “democratic socialists.” More women, LGBTQ people, and people of color than ever before were elected on the Democratic ticket.
But the candidates within the Democratic Party “big tent” ranged widely in their views—from Democratic Socialists of America members to conservatives like party hack Joe Manchin in West Virginia—who shamefully voted for Brett Kavanaugh to join the Supreme Court. The crook Bob Menendez was also reelected as a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey, despite having been censured by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting bribes from a wealthy businessman.
Evidence that the “blue wave” did not flow significantly to the left can be seen in the fact that a quarter of the Democratic Party candidates in the Nov. 6 election have a background in the CIA, the military, the State Department, or national security. They included, for example, Elissa Slotkin, who won a congressional seat from Michigan’s Eighth District. Slotkin is a former CIA operative in Iraq, who also served as Obama’s Iraq director on the National Security Council. Later, she worked at the Pentagon, looking into drone warfare, “homeland defense,” and cyber warfare.
All in all, despite the addition of a few “progressive” Democrats to Congress, the complexion of U.S. politics has changed very little since the election. The policies of the capitalist Democratic Party have not been altered one iota from the pro-corporate, pro-war, anti-environmental ones of the past.
The social issues that the Democratic Party candidates addressed in their campaigns were exceedingly narrow. “Medicare for All” was a central plank of the Democrats this year, though we can expect that the proposal will be watered down; as under Obama, the needs of the insurance industry will have to be catered to before the proposal ever reaches a vote in Congress. The Democrats also spoke about repairing the country’s roads and bridges—always a safe bet at election time—but ignoring the need for efficient mass transportation and the use of renewable fuels.
Major issues of an international scope were ignored, such as climate change and out-of-control environmental pollution, and pouring more money into the military (most Democrats in Congress supported this year’s $716 billion military budget). Likewise, questions such as the sanctions against Iran, trade wars with China and other countries, and the endless U.S. wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East were virtually absent from the platforms of Democratic candidates for Congress.
Moreover, important domestic issues such as raising the minimum wage to be enough to live on; the right to low-cost housing; securing the rights of women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people; and stopping police violence against people of color generally received no more than a nod by the Democrats.
A referendum on Trump
The main issue that the Democrats ran on was simply “stop Trump.” CNN and AP VoteCast polls on the eve of the election both showed that close to 70% of voters hoped to send a message to Trump with their vote; about 26% to 28% of the respondents were for Trump, and 38% to 40% were against. Trump readily agreed that the election was a referendum on his administration. He told potential voters in Mississippi, “Pretend I’m on the ballot.”
The Republicans held onto their “strongholds” in rural districts and in areas of discontented white workers who had voted for Trump in 2016. Accordingly, the Republicans increased their edge in the Senate and won several key governor races. In general, right-wing and Trump-supporting politicians were elected, while more mainstream Republicans did not do as well. In a Nov. 7 tweet, Trump acknowledged the fact, saying, “Those that worked with me in this incredible Midterm Election, embracing certain policies and principles, did very well. Those that did not, say goodbye!”
One loyal Trump supporter who followed the formula, Marsha Blackburn, was elected to the Senate from Tennessee. “I’m going to work with President Trump all of the way to build that wall,” she affirmed to voters. A Blackburn commercial started with a shot of the immigrant caravan crossing Mexico. “I’m going to stop the criminals who are going toward our border,” Blackburn stated in a voice-over.
In order to rally his supporters in the weeks leading up to the election, Trump relied almost exclusively on scare tactics, using racist descriptions that are commonly employed by the ultra-right. Trump described the Central American migrants traveling through Mexico as “invaders” and “terrorists,” and he endorsed a campaign ad that likened them to Luis Bracamontes, an immigrant who had been convicted for killing two police officers.
Polls showed that the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was a key issue for Trump supporters in the election. Only a month before the election, Trump spread the conspiracy theory that people protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination (“elevator screamers”) were being paid for by billionaire George Soros—a figure who is frequently denounced in anti-Semitic literature.
In the South, with its long history of injustices against Black people, racism was merged with anti-immigrant prejudices in Republican messages against the Democrats. In Georgia, Trump said that Democrat Stacey Abrams, a Black “progressive” running for governor, was “unqualified” for the office, and that she “would turn Georgia into a giant sanctuary city for criminal aliens, putting innocent Georgia families at the mercy of hardened criminals and predators.” The National Rifle Association in Georgia put out a message, “Defend yourself. Defeat Abrams.” And ABC News reported that a robocall on behalf of her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, called Abrams a “negress.”
Should socialists work within the Democratic Party?
The elections reflected the broader polarization that has taken place in the United States during the last few years, brought on in part by the dissatisfaction and alienation that working people feel toward the status quo in capitalist society. Some workers and middle-class people, often in “rust-belt” districts that have seen better times, have been hoodwinked by the anti-immigrant and racist messages of the right wing.
But likewise, there is no doubt that the reactionary pronouncements by Trump and the right have had an electric effect in mobilizing people in opposition. The last two years have seen massive rallies in the streets against Trump’s policies.
Unfortunately, at the present time, working people have no authentic voice in the political arena except in the streets. Some socialists mistakenly adhere to the idea that it might be possible to change the pro-big business nature of the Democratic Party by working within it, or that it might be possible to break a “left wing” (such as Bernie Sanders supporters) out of the party. But both scenarios are merely wishful thinking.
Similarly, it is a deadly illusion to think that revolutionary socialists can be elected to public office and work for significant social change when using the ballot line of the capitalist Democratic Party—always a “lesser-evil” trap for the unwary. History has repeatedly demonstrated that the former party of the Klan, White Citizens Councils, and Southern slavocracy serves the ruling class elite unfailingly.
That this “graveyard of all fighting social movements” can be considered a vehicle for advancing working-class interests is preposterous. In general, when “progressive” or “left” candidates run as Democrats, the party hierarchy forces them to align their positions with those of the mainstream, not the opposite.
Consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) from the Bronx, who was just elected to the House as a Democrat. At first, the party leadership viewed her with suspicion, but after winning the primary vote, she became a celebrity, the subject of talk shows—and even Barak Obama endorsed her.
Accordingly, the DSA enlisted Ocasio-Cortez to travel to California to raise money and support for other “left” candidates running in the Democratic Party. We can expect, too, that the Democratic Party leadership will use her services in selected and “safe” locales as an opportunity to refurbish the party’s image when it suits their needs. They understand that Ocasio-Cortez and other DSAers are fresh faces who can attract young people and activists with new energy into the party—and thus channel dissident voices into the double-talking capitalist mainstream. Sanders played a similar role in 2016, shepherding the unwary first into his campaign and then into Hillary Clinton’s.
At her acceptance speech on Nov. 6, Ocasio-Cortez told supporters, “We can make change … We are here, and we are going to rock the world in the next two years … This is not the end. This is the beginning.”
But real change will never be achieved from within the Democratic Party. The beginning of a new day for working people in the United States will arrive when they construct their own party, one that operates not only at the ballot box but in workplaces and in the streets, and with a revolutionary program to enable the working class to take political power in its own name and abolish the rule of the capitalists.