Lance Selfa examines the political terrain surrounding the midterm elections
IT’S BEEN obvious for more than a year that the Democrats can expect a beating at the polls in the November midterm elections. For months, most leading opinion polls have shown the Republicans tied with, or leading, the Democrats in voters’ preferences for congressional candidates. And even more ominous for Democrats, President Obama is now more unpopular than popular, with an average of 50 percent saying they disapprove of his performance, compared to the 45 percent who say they approve, according to polling averages Pollster.com compiles.
What does this mean for November? Washington election forecaster Charles Cook predicts a “wave” that will sweep out the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Although considered less probable, Republicans winning the Senate is also not out of the question. If one or both of these events takes place this fall, it will mark one of the biggest reversals in mainstream electoral politics in decades. If both houses of Congress flip to the GOP, the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 would look like incremental change.
For months, polls have also noted a wide “enthusiasm gap” between people who say they plan to vote Republican and those who say they plan to vote Democrat. This means that conservatives are fired up about the midterms while people who voted for Obama in 2008 and the rest of the Democratic “base” remain demoralized and seemingly indifferent to the outcome in November.
There are factors that may make the outcome in November something short of a disaster for the Democrats. As of late July, the Democratic congressional campaign committees and individual House members considered the most “vulnerable” to losing to GOP candidates held a significant cash advantage over the Republican opponents, according to Federal Election Commission figures. Some ultraconservative GOP candidates, like Nevada’s Sharron Angle—nominated to run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—may be so extreme that they scare away more voters than they attract. And the only major political force less popular than President Obama or the Democratic Party is the Republican Party.
But even if these factors help the Democrats to stave off disaster, it won’t change the fact that November is shaping up to be a major defeat for the party of mainstream liberalism in U.S. politics. After the right had so thoroughly discredited itself during the Bush years, how could the GOP be staging a comeback? How is it that a sizable segment of the population appears to accept the conservative case that unions/immigrants/public-sector workers are to blame for the crisis? Or that cutting the government deficit is more important than government aid for jobs and the unemployed? Or that the president was not really born in the United States?
It’s the economy, stupid
Only a year or so after the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression punctured all the neoliberal and conservative myths about the free market, and gave a Democratic administration the opportunity to change course, it seems that not much has changed. Instead of a movement calling for the bankers and CEOs to pay for the crisis they caused, we seem to have a “movement,” embodied in the Tea Party fringe, calling for a deepening of policies that will only make these matters worse. Except for a brief uptick of confidence among liberals that came with the passage of health care reform in the spring, the political shift for Obama supporters has been from “hope” to “frustration.” How do we get our heads around this crazy situation?
The explanation, of course, starts with the dire state of the U.S. economy. No incumbent party presiding over nearly 10 percent unemployment in the worst recession since the Great Depression could hope to win accolades from millions of the unemployed and underemployed. Though the GOP will tout any gains it makes as proof that Americans have rejected Obama’s “socialist” agenda, rejection of the Democrats has a less ideological explanation.
Salon.com’s Steve Karnacki broke down the opposition to Obama into three main groups: conservative diehards who hated Obama and the Democrats from the start, “mushier” Republicans willing to give Obama a chance, and true “swing” voters who have switched from supporting the Democrats to supporting the Republicans. As Karnacki explained the impact of the bad economy on these three groups,
The expansive agenda Obama has pursued provides plenty of specific targets for his foes. But if he had pursued different (or fewer) agenda items, I doubt his overall approval rating would be much different. The diehards would still hate him, the mushier Republicans would still have turned on him (maybe more of them would cite the deficit, instead of, say healthcare), and he’d still be losing swing voters, too. A bad economy causes voters whose opinions are subject to change to view just about all of a president’s agenda items negatively (or to deemphasize the agenda items that they agree with). A robust economy reverses this phenomenon.
This analysis is all right as far as it goes. But it focuses only on the conservative side of the political spectrum. To truly understand why the Democrats and liberalism look headed for defeat in November, we have to also look at what will be the most likely explanation for a conservative resurgence: the demoralization of the Democratic “base” over the last two years. Blogger Les Leopold, writing on the liberal FireDogLake Web site, summed up this feeling:
It’s open season on Obama, whom so many hoped would lead us out of the neoliberal wilderness. He once was a community organizer and ought to know how working people have suffered through a generation of tax breaks for the rich, Wall Street deregulation and unfair competition. When the economy crashed, he was in the perfect position to limit the unjustified pay levels on Wall Street.
Instead, we got a multitrillion-dollar bailout for Wall Street, no health care reform, no serious financial reforms whatsoever, record unemployment, and political gridlock that will be with us for years to come.
If Leopold truly believed that Obama would lead liberals out of the wilderness, he certainly missed the fact that Obama was more of a pro-business, “centrist” politician than the radical conjured up in the fantasies of the likes of Glenn Beck. But millions of Democratic “base” voters share Leopold’s sense that Obama hasn’t produced the reforms he promised, while embracing policies like Bush’s “war on terror” and the Afghanistan war that they abhor.
Michael Hais, writing for the New Democrat Network (NDN) blog, explained how this may play out in November:
Actually, however, it is not what independent—or even Republican—voters do that will determine what happens in this November’s elections. It is what Democrats do, or perhaps not do, that will be decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, a significantly greater number of voters now identify with or lean to the Democratic Party than to the GOP. Second, only a relatively small number of politically uninvolved and disinterested voters are independents that are completely unattached to either of the parties. As a result, the big election story in 2010 will be the extent to which the large plurality of Americans who call themselves Democrats shows up at the polls this fall, and not the voting preferences of unaffiliated independents or Republicans.
Hais notes that long-term demographic shifts, including the development of a much more multiracial population and the overwhelming support among the youngest voters for Democrats, predict a long-term Democratic majority in the country. Moreover, he reports the results of an NDN poll that shows a “solid majority of Americans prefer a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy (54 percent), rather than a government that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible (31 percent). Three-quarters of Democrats (76 percent), and just over half of independents (52 percent), favor an activist government, while 60 percent of Republicans want a laissez-faire approach.” In other words, if the Democrats manage to tap into that sentiment, they can win in what is “a country that is anything but center-right.”
That’s the nub though. However “expansive” the Obama agenda—and however much the Democrats want to use the boogeyman of Tea Party hordes running the country after November 2—they can’t get around the fact that the core supporters of mainstream liberalism feel that the Obama administration has not measured up to its rhetoric of “hope” and “change.” And Obama and the Democrats have only themselves to blame for that state of affairs.
The Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, including, for a period of time, a 60-vote majority in the Senate. They had the potential to reset mainstream politics for a generation. Yet, with the Obama administration in the lead, they mainly assumed the role as savior of the corporate system that was teetering on the edge of the economic abyss in late 2008 and early 2009. Even though the Obama administration was not the originator of the massive bailouts of the Wall Street banks and the likes of AIG, it assumed the role as chief defender of those programs.
Since then, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to placate business and its right-wing critics while ladling out thin gruel to its most fervent supporters. Obama stiffed environmentalists when he endorsed the GOP’s “drill, baby, drill” solution to offshore oil drilling—only a few weeks before one of those offshore oil rigs caused the largest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. For supporters of immigrant rights, the Obama administration has mouthed rhetoric in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform” while indefinitely postponing legislation, and deporting more immigrants than George W. Bush’s administration did. Obama has dragged his feet on ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against gays in the military, despite overwhelming support in the public and even among the military brass to get rid of it. On top of this, the Obama administration has escalated war in one country (Afghanistan), and is still committed, despite claims of withdrawal, to a sizable military presence in the another (Iraq).
The administration may have hit its lowest point in July when, in response to a completely fabricated “controversy” stirred up by the right-wing media, it pressured the Agriculture Department to fire Shirley Sherrod, a Black department official whom the right falsely accused of racism. Even though the administration reversed itself and the right-wing fraud was exposed, the conservatives know they have Obama’s number. They know they have the administration on the run. And the administration has demonstrated that it won’t even stand up for someone like Sherrod, whose background is deeply rooted in the 1960s civil rights movement.
If Obama and his top advisers are looking for explanations for why their supporters aren’t more fired up about the midterm elections, they should look in the mirror.
Bailouts and deficits
It’s very likely that the massive government backing of the financial system saved it from meltdown, but that is cold comfort for the majority of Americans who continue to suffer high unemployment, loss of retirement wealth, and a massive foreclosure crisis. Obama and the Democrats legitimized massive government spending without changing any of the neoliberal assumptions about the aims to which that spending was dedicated. Even though the stimulus bill passed in February 2009 was the largest single spending measure ever passed, it was underpowered from the start.
As critics like liberal economist Paul Krugman pointed out at the time, the stimulus plan was too small to lift the economy out of its deep hole. And the administration trimmed it further in a largely futile attempt to win “bipartisan” support for it. Unemployment continued to rise under Obama, feeding the public perception that “government” and “government spending,” was ineffectual. If the crisis of 2008 had discredited neoliberal nostrums, the continued crisis of 2009 and 2010 appeared to discredit liberal, “big government” solutions.
Today, the administration now proclaims the necessity of “deficit reduction,” “entitlement reform,” (aka, cutting Medicare and Social Security), and austerity. While this largely reflects the administration’s attempt to carry out big business’s agenda, the White House claims that it is only responding to public concern about the growing federal budget deficit.
But this is a self-serving, and incorrect, reading of the public mood. Polls showing “the deficit” as the public’s “number one problem” tend to reflect what the Washington elite and the media have already defined as the main problem facing the government, according to research by political scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro.
What’s more, “When people are talking about the deficit and being concerned about the deficit, that’s really a metaphor for a whole lot of things in their mind: It’s about debt to China, it’s also about the waste of government money as far as they’re concerned, it’s about bailing out big corporations while their jobs are lost,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim.
In other words, public concern about “debt” and “the deficit,” like public concern about unemployment, is really a reflection of the general economic crisis—and the sense that no one in charge, either in Washington or in Corporate America—cares much about how ordinary people are suffering. Official liberalism, which once at least appeared to stand on the side of “the people,” seems incapable of mustering much passion for ordinary people. It’s nothing short of scandalous that the Republicans could filibuster an extension of unemployment benefits for two months, causing misery for millions, without the Democrats being able to make them pay for it politically.
The Democrats may think that they’re the “responsible” party for Corporate America that’s more concerned with “solving problems” rather than with engaging in “class warfare.” But this sort of pragmatism, like embracing “border enforcement” as part of comprehensive immigration reform, only allows the GOP and the far right to shift the political debate even further to the right. To continue with the example of immigration, the Democrats’ support for border enforcement opens the door to greater repression. Worse, it creates an atmosphere where the far right can legitimize even more extreme policies, like denying U.S. citizenship to children of immigrants born in the United States.
The need for an alternative
The missing element here has been a movement from below to pressure the Democrats to act on an agenda that responds to ordinary people rather than to bankers and big business. For much of Obama’s term, the leading liberal organizations—like the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and the Human Rights Campaign—have played “good soldiers” in trying to carry out the White House’s agenda. As a result, there has been no sustained national effort to give voice to millions facing economic devastation today.
Despite their grave disappointment in Obama and his administration, liberals and much of the Democratic base will grudgingly vote for the Democrats in November, if only because they fear the GOP alternative. But simply ratifying the political status quo isn’t the way to fight the right. It’s the status quo itself that has to be challenged.
A “One Nation” march on Washington, D.C., for jobs and justice, called by the NAACP with several major unions on October 2, has the potential to show the political establishment that real popular sentiment doesn’t lie with the Tea Partiers and the deficit hawks. With an eye on the electoral calendar, October 2 organizers no doubt hope to shake the Democratic base from its lethargy.
Whether the march and rally will be successful in electoral terms is anyone’s guess. But if it gives local activists the chance to work together to build networks that can express working-class and antiracist demands, that will be a positive outcome. This will be necessary because, whatever happens in November, working people will face a much more concerted attack on their living standards and rights next year. We will need to build the kind of organizations that will meet that challenge.
Even if we can build organizations to fight effectively for working people’s demands, we will continue to find ourselves facing the same Hobson’s choice between “terrible” (the GOP) and “not as bad” (the Democrats). As long as there is no political alternative to the left of the Democratic Party, activists will always face this rotten choice. The time to build that kind of an alternative is long overdue.