These are not, as they say, your parents’ midterm elections. They are not just another reshuffling of the representatives of the interests of capital, meant to maintain some holy center of neoliberal stability. And yet, despite what Biden and the Democrats would like you to believe, these midterms are also not a referendum on democracy. No, coming as they do, less than two years after the Capitol protests that attempted to overturn the last presidential elections, and a little more than two years since the BLM uprisings that rocked the country, these midterms clearly reflect the ongoing crisis of the regime itself and the regroupment of the Right after January 6.
But no matter who wins, and from which direction the regime attempts to resolve the political crisis, the bigger crisis of capitalism is only going to be compounded by the results of this election, because neither party is capable of solving it.
Prospects and Consequences
After four years of Trump which culminated in the chaos of the Capitol riots, many Americans saw President Biden’s election as a return to normalcy. But that sense of normalcy quickly faded. As Biden was unable or unwilling to deliver on most of his campaign promises, as the Coronavirus continued to kill tens of thousands of people in the U.S. every month, as supply chains unraveled, as the war in Ukraine exploded, and as inflation increased to levels not seen since the 1970s, his poll numbers fell precipitously, and with them any naïve hopes of a return to a new normal post-Trump.
As a result, both the House and the Senate are up for grabs, and there is a strong chance that Republicans could flip both houses this election.
Democrats currently control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but with very narrow margins that have already hampered their ability to pass very much legislation without massive concessions to the right wing of the party. In the House, they have a slim majority of just 221 to 212 seats, while in the Senate they have a majority of just one tie-breaking vote in the form of Vice President Kamala Harris.
This means the Republicans only need to gain six seats this midterm election to take back the house and only one to recover the Senate. And according to most analyses, there seems to be a much larger number of House Democratic seats that are a toss up than Republican seats, which — thanks in large part to gerrymandering — are in most cases much safer. Therefore, there is a strong chance that the Republicans will retake the House.
The Senate is safer for Democrats, but there is no guarantee that it will not also flip to the Republicans. In fact, poll after poll suggest that the senate is now a toss up and there are several states where Democrats could lose that are currently too close to call. This is a decidedly different situation than just a few weeks ago, and much closer than in the summer, when the Senate seemed like a safe bet for the Democrats.
Though minority parties historically perform better in midterms than the party in power, and though we can expect that to be the case this year, these are no ordinary elections. They are the first national elections to take place after a sitting U.S. president denied the results of a national presidential election; the first after the January 6 protest at the Capitol, which attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election; the first in which a huge percentage of Republicans think the last elections were stolen, and the first in more than forty years to take place amid crushing rates of inflation.
A Republican victory in this context, particularly in races where Trumpist candidates have expressed strong anti-democratic tendencies, such as refusing to accept the vote if they lose, would not just be business as usual, but would be signal the continued power of the Far Right, which has managed to find a place of renewed legitimacy within the Republican Party and the institutions of the state, despite the failure of January 6.
If Republicans win the House or both the House and the Senate, it is unlikely the Democrats will be able to accomplish much of anything, and we could see two years of deadlock. This will only add to the ongoing political crisis in the parties and could pave the way for a Republican victory in 2024, and maybe even the return of a Trumpist of one variety or another to the white House.
A Democratic victory, on the other hand, as unlikely as that is, could signal that the apparatuses of what Gramsci called “the integral state” — that is, the machinery of ruling class hegemony, which includes the NGOs and labor bureaucracies that have propped up the Democrats for decades — remain more resilient and more capable of defending establishment politics than they seem.
The State of the Regime
While it’s very likely we will see a shift in political power back toward the Republican Party on Tuesday, these elections are about more than who controls Congress — like all elections, they also offer a glimpse into the state of the current regime. And these elections are already revealing the sometimes contradictory nature of the economic and political crises that have only grown more profound since the Great Recession broke the spell of neoliberal ideology in 2008. And yet, while there are clear indications of increasing political polarization and crisis in both parties, there are also counter-tendencies, particularly among Democratic Party voters, toward the legitimization of the current regime, which the Democratic Party has worked hard to promote.
In these efforts to relegitimize the regime, the Democratic Party has been abetted by the rightward turn of the so-called progressive wing of the party, which, since January 6, has taken up the mantle of supporting the regime, embedding themselves even deeper in the party, and helping to circle the wagons around Biden and the Democrats as the defenders of liberal bourgeois stability. Indeed, Sanders and The Squad, sometimes alongside former President Barack Obama, have repeatedly used Democratic Party talking points about defending democracy as a cudgel against the Republicans and to get out the vote for Democratic candidates, regardless of their political positions on such progressive issues as Medicare for All, abortion rights, defunding the police, etc.
Meanwhile, many of this election cycle’s mainstream Democratic Party candidates are themselves also turning to the Right in order to appeal to swing voters on questions of immigration, China, and a whole slew of other often jingoistic issues that ironically echo Trump’s rhetoric. Indeed, an entire section of the Democratic Party sees the adoption of such rhetoric as a strategy for the 2024 elections as well.
In this way, the midterm elections present a series of contradictions for us to consider — contradictions that both reveal the ongoing crisis of political legitimacy (what Gramsci called an “organic crisis”) unfolding in the United States, as well as the power of the strategic reserves of the integral state to withstand that crisis, at least temporarily.
On the one hand, these elections have revealed a long simmering mistrust and concern about U.S. democratic institutions on both the Right and the Left, a worry that has been on the rise since at least 2016. Recently, mainstream news outlets, including the New York Times, and even the president himself, have been sounding alarm bells about the threats to democracy. In a speech on November 2, Biden sold himself once again as a defender of democracy and the candidate of establishment stability. Using the recent brutal attack on Paul Pelosi as a springboard, he railed against the former President, saying for the second time in as many months that “American democracy is under attack,” and that “extreme MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections, but elections being held now and into the future.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that an astonishing 71 percent of all voters reported that they think Democracy is at risk ahead of the midterm elections. And yet, many of these same respondents also said they were not concerned about voting for someone who denied the election results, for instance, saying that they cared much more about economic issues than democracy. As one Times headline succinctly put it: “Voters see Democracy in Peril but Saving it Isn’t a Priority.”
On the other hand, despite this generalized fear and mistrust, most Americans ironically see few options for addressing those concerns other than voting for one of the two parties. And when it comes to other issues like inflation and abortion, it seems that many people have been convinced, at least for the short term, that voting is the best way to address those problems. In fact, reports of early voting already indicate that 2022 could see a higher voter turnout than the 2018 midterms, which had the highest turnout on record.
This wave of voter turnout is in large part because of the overturning of Roe v Wade. Although the Democrats have done almost nothing to actually protect access to abortion, they have nonetheless cynically used the Dobbs decision to get out the vote for their candidates nationwide, but particularly in red states, where there are tight elections. In this they have been helped by reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, and the Women’s March who, after doing little to help build an independent movement to fight for abortion rights, has driven activists into the arms of the Democrats.
However, despite this wave of enthusiasm to the polls, most voters, even Democratic Party voters, did not list abortion as their top priority. In fact, according to a Times/Siena poll only five percent said abortion was the most important issue, well below the 44 percent that said the economy and inflation were most important. This primary concern for economic issues is almost as strong among Democratic voters as Republican voters, but until recently the Democratic Party has largely avoided the question of the economy, even as they have been hammered by the Republicans for not addressing inflation — a problem that neither party is capable of solving in the interests of working people. Indeed, the Federal Reserve’s three quarter of a percent raise just this week indicates that the Democrats are desperate to show they are “doing something” and set on tanking the economy in order to “solve” the problem of inflation.
All of this shows that the ongoing crisis of capitalist accumulation, inflation, the pandemic, supply-chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine are only contributing to the bigger organic crisis that has been developing since 2015, and whose roots lie in the 2008 recession. This crisis has led to a profound questioning of the establishment from both the Right and the Left as well as greater political polarization. But most importantly, it has led to a crisis of representation between the parties and the represented, which has in turn led to deeper polarization within the parties themselves, particularly the Republican Party, as populists and right wing conspiracy peddlers have taken advantage of growing discontent with the status quo.
One expression of this continued polarization within the Republican party can be seen in the increasing reactionary attacks on democratic rights in the lead up to the election. This is highlighted by the Trumpist sector of the GOP, with candidates like Kari Lake saying they will not accept a lost election, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis very publicly arresting former convicts for so-called election fraud violations just weeks ahead of elections in what is an obvious attempt to Intimidate Black voters in his state.
The Dead End of Bourgeois Democracy
Voters across the spectrum say they believe that democracy is threatened and in response they seem poised to turn out in record numbers this election year. And while more participation may be a good thing, more participation in a system where both parties represent only the interest of capital does not equal more democracy. This phenomenon is also highly contradictory, indicating both an increase in political polarization as well as a misguided faith in the institutions of bourgeois democracy to solve the problems of capitalist crisis. While the Right is attacking basic democratic rights, the Left continues to believe it can use the system in order to change it.
Like the Squad, the Democratic Socialist of America, and the writers at Jacobin, who have been acting as loyal advisors to the Democrats the entire election cycle, many on the Left remain convinced that the state and the regime are capable of arbitrating the class struggle. But we cannot vote our way out of the crisis of capitalism or the climate crisis, or to any kind of freedom and liberation for women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ folks. As Marx and Engels explained, the state is little more than a “committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie,” and this is nowhere more true perhaps than in the United States, whose constitution was explicitly designed to limit the political power and influence of working people.
From the compromise that allowed southern states to count enslaved people as three fiths of the populaiton despite their inability to vote; to the electoral college, which interferes in the ability of the people to directly choose the President; to the Senate, which was specifically designed to give more power to slave sates and to overwrite the will of the majority by eliminating the basic democratic principle of equal representation; to the unelected Supreme Court, which defends that system, American democracy is designed to maintain the system of capitalism and the exploitation of the many by the few. And these elections will not change any of that.
In order to protect and defend the basic rights of the working class, we must first give up any illusions that we can win real representation among the Democrats or Republicans, and, second, that the apparatuses of the state can be used to win any real lasting gains for working people, much less put an end to exploitation and oppression. As these elections demonstrate, there is no electoral path to liberation possible for the working class and no way out of the crisis of capitalism except through revolution. But this does not mean that working people should refrain from political action or refrain from challenging the regime in the electoral arena. More than ever, working people need representation of their own. This means we must turn our backs on both parties and immediately prioritize the building of a working class party with a socialist program capable of using elections as a way to build the kind of working-class power we need in the streets and in the workplaces to eventually overthrow this rotten system.