Ilhan Omar giving her victory speech after the primaries. Photo credit: Eric Miller/Reuters
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After two years of an authentic Trump experience, most Americans are running away screaming. With voter turnout for the midterms at a fifty-year high, the elections yielded historic victories for women-of-color candidates, and multiple states passed ballot measures to extend economic and voting rights that will most benefit people of color and the poor. House Democrats fared better across almost all demographics than in the last two election cycles, in a rebuke of Trump that echoes his historically low approval ratings compared to other presidents at similar points in their tenure since Eisenhower.
Then again, House Democrats trailed behind their performances in the previous two midterms, none of the three black gubernatorial candidates defeated against their less-qualified opponents, voters proved less willing to support women for the executive office of governor than for House leadership, and several states elected anti-choice candidates or otherwise upheld ballot measures attacking abortion rights. These elections occurred amidst a wave of deadly hate crimes and open demonstrations of ultra-nationalists, placing them within a global context of movements rejecting traditional party politics from both the left and right. Some of these new movements have given rise to authoritarian populists portraying themselves as anti-partisans who understand their nations’ pain and can restore justice (for example, Trump in the US, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary, and Bolsonaro in Brazil).
What explains these mixed midterm results and the dire state of institutionalized politics in the US today? Through an intersectional and working-class perspective, I assess this unsettled political landscape as it is shaped by three factors: an antiquated electoral design, the feebleness of the Democratic Party, and insecurity wrought by neoliberal globalization.
Class struggle is the preeminent contradiction of capitalist society, and scholarly accounts trace racial and gendered domination back to the capital-driven invention of private property, colonialism, and demands for cheap labor. But with the passage of historical time and the complex development of social life under capitalism, it may be possible for different forms of oppression to incur their own logics and momentums irreducible to class-based oppression. At the same time, imagining a world without racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia is difficult, if not impossible, within the framework of capitalism. This is because capitalist production and governance depends on markers of difference to divide, distract, and control workers. Hence, different types of oppressions are causally related, as when capitalism continually reproduces the “breeding ground” or “matrix” for racial and gendered domination.
As elaborated by Charles Post, the laws of motion of capital generate a reserve army of labor—the unemployed—that can be tapped to replace disobedient workers. Employers also construct fictional gender/ethnic/racial characteristics to justify hiring different workers for different tasks and at different pay grades. Facing the constant threat of being replaced, workers compete with one another along identity lines by accepting lower wages, longer hours, and more hazardous working conditions. Especially when workers’ organizations are weak, some groups of workers may leverage identity-based hierarchies to protect themselves from the despotic labor market and rationalize their self-interested behavior.
Intersectionalism allows more nuanced analysis of the current political climate by attuning to how class interlocks with other hierarchies to produce multi-dimensional experiences of privilege and marginalization. Such are the conditions propelling us into the 2018 midterms.
Working-class interests do not translate into votes under existing electoral structures
The US claims to be the greatest democracy in the world, yet we are plagued by the same problems found in new or unconsolidated democracies, including voter suppression and intimidation, malfunctioning ballot boxes, long lines, polling stations opened hours late, gerrymandering, and the corruptive influences of big money (a record $4.7 billion was spent on the midterm Congressional races alone). Voter restrictions, purging, and registration delays disproportionately punish poor people of color for having less flexible work hours and being less likely to own cars or identification cards. Leading up to the midterms, 70% of the 53,000 voter registrations put on hold by the state of Georgia belonged to black voters, and thousands of Native Americans residing in North Dakota were barred from voting because they lacked non-reservation addresses.
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Neither are elections free and fair for working-class people of color when considering the US’s winner-takes-all electoral design. Because independent third parties lack a fighting chance, workers must choose the least terrible option out of two parties representing their bosses, landlords, bankers, and jailers. As for the configuration of House to Senate seats, the Senate over-represents the predominantly white rural counties of America (whites make up 79% of rural counties, while people of color make up 66% of urban counties). This racialized population distribution and the conservative leanings of ruralites allowed Republicans to actually gain seats in the Senate, even as Democrats won four times the number of House districts. For similar reasons, the electoral college delivered Trump’s victory even though Clinton received 2.8 million more popular votes. The way America conducts elections minimizes the voice of urban communities, who account for 80.7% of the total population, and who said no to Trump the first time and continue to do so two years later.
Our antiquated system has not kept pace with the changing demographics of the country, consequently spawning deep inequities in democratic representation. Without some outside-the-box thinking to restructure this system, the inequities may hit a crisis point by 2040, when 70% of Americans will reside in only 16 states. This means that 30% of the population will control 68% of Senate seats. While that generation of the 30% will be dramatically more liberal than their predecessors, they will also be “older, whiter, more rural, and] more male.” Thus, the Senate will completely fail to reflect the rapidly diversifying face of the nation, wherein people of color are projected to compose [over half of the population by 2045.
The Democratic Party is an impotent counterforce against Trump
In a post-9/11 age of omnipresent Islamophobia and never-ending occupation of Muslim-majority countries, perhaps the most exciting midterm result was the election of two Muslim women into Congress—one a Palestinian American, and the other a Somali refugee who wears hijab. Neither were supported by the Democratic Party Establishment, yet they indomitably demonstrated the power of workers to organize and win outside of the Democratic Party machine. In fact, it is the boldness of candidates like these (women of color, LGBTQ people, and socialists) that allowed the Democratic Party its stunning victory in the House.
Centrist leaders have failed to advance a galvanizing alternative to far-right demagogic leaders whose attractiveness comes from the fact that they don’t talk or act like regular politicians. Thus, despite heightened partisan polarization in the US, midterm exit polls showed that 46% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans hold an unfavorable view of their party. The success of insurgent candidates suggests that neo-fascism cannot be defeated with another roster of moderate Democrats, but rather with an equally forceful working-class agenda that takes on intersectional oppressions in radical ways. Yet, insurgent Democrats weaken their own platforms by binding themselves to the pro-corporate norms and tepid campaigns of the Democratic Party. The Obama administration even laid the groundwork for Trumpism by deporting over 2.5 million immigrants, loosening restrictions on the deployment of troops for domestic control, chiseling away press freedoms, and refusing to hold torturers accountable. At their best, Democrats have responded to Trump’s authoritarian consolidation by remaining inert and silent (such as on granting refugee status to the migrant caravan).
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Working-class women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people of color face immediate life-or-death problems under Trump, so they strategically vote Democrat. But their own party lacks a similar sense of urgency. Why else is some of the worst voter suppression taking place in Democratic strongholds like New York? Why else would the Democrats not push harder to change an electoral system that actually harms their electoral chances? Democrats have demonstrated that they are more invested in sustaining the two-party chokehold than in making the most limited reforms to capitalist democracy by way of deepening representation.
The anti-Trump #Resistance and the #MeToo movement have elevated a record number of women into positions of power, but the jury is out on whether their liberal feminist approach will translate to improved livelihoods for women at the bottom of the wealth distribution. The danger is that working-class women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley will be consumed by the Democratic Party Establishment—which, although quite successful in co-opting women and black leaders into their elite ranks, has never served as a vessel for advancing the interests of working-class women and working-class people of color.
Neoliberal globalization produces economic insecurities that fuels racist scapegoating
A trip through the US will make painfully clear why Trump is president and why neo-fascism is on the rise. Retrenchment of the welfare state, record levels of private debt, deindustrialization, and stagnant wages have converged experiences of precarity encountered by workers in the US and other countries similarly undergoing neoliberal transformation. Those who suffer from such extreme commodification of labor lose hope in the future (six in ten midterm voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction), and are driven into the arms of populist strongmen who offer easy answers. These leaders pinpoint non-white immigrants as the source of scarcity and crime, and promise to close borders as the logical solution. Hence, while campaigning for Republicans before the midterms, Trump riffed on these xenophobic themes by declaring himself a nationalist and deploying troops to the southern border to beat back the migrant caravan. Analogously, immigration was the second-highest concern for voters, topping economic performance and jobs for the first time in over a decade.
Growing nativism on the right, and mass demoralization with institutionalized politics across the board, are hardly surprising developments. Centrist policy-makers have everywhere failed to mitigate the blow of neoliberal globalization’s “race to the bottom.” In fact, it was Democratic administrations that signed landmark free-trade agreements upon which neoliberal restructuring took place, without bolstering the social safety net to help American workers weather these economic changes. Neither are labor unions entirely blameless, given the time and resources they expend to schmooze with Democratic elites instead of mobilizing their members to defend women, people of color, and the environment against capital’s attacks.
Black workers who benefited most from unionized industrial jobs subsequently lost the most under neoliberal globalization. But unlike their white counterparts, their response was to resoundly reject Trump (90% voted blue in the 2016 presidential election and again in the midterm elections). So why would a sizeable proportion of white workers continue to support Trump? A study of the 1980 presidential election, when working-class voters brought Ronald Reagan into power, reveals that workers share common interests while also being forced to compete for jobs. When unions are strong and workers are aware of their power, they tend to fight together. When unions are weak and workers feel intimidated, they tend to prioritize their individual interests over solidarity. Thus, racism and sexism can naturally gain traction among workers, but this is neither inherent nor irreversible, especially if workers can build bonds across racial and gender lines through joint struggle. Unfortunately, union density has been declining since 1945, reaching a historic low of 10.7% last year. This condition of disorganization—and related to it, the low level of class consciousness in the US—poses colossal (but not insurmountable) obstacles toward organizing a genuine workers party that reflects the interests and faces of the American working class, in all of its diversity.
Four decades of neoliberal adjustment under both Democrats and Republicans have left the vast majority of Americans demoralized about their future and disenchanted with partisan politics. While both parties have moved to the right in recent decades, the midterms indicate that the Democratic Party is again being pulled leftward by a youthful generation of progressives who are Black, Muslim, and Latinx, and who campaigned on working-class agendas. But no matter how the two parties of big capital reinvent themselves to trick us for another round, history warns of their inevitable betrayal. The emergence of Trump, the mixed midterm results, and the pervasive anti-partisan mood in the US all point to the same lesson: two-party rule is profoundly undemocratic, and there’s no better time to construct an alternative.