AND WHY IT’S NOT TIME TO CELEBRATE
The 2022 Midterms are nothing to celebrate!
The exhausting 2022 midterms are almost over and I wanted to offer just some surface observations at this point. I’m sure this election will be forensically raked in the next few months by folks who make a living doing so. It’s not my intent to steal their thunder. I fear, however, that there’s a lot of pressure on the experts to draw exactly the wrong conclusions from the outcome.
From the beginning of this campaign, the discourse on the left and center hinged around this election’s potentially dire consequences. This midterm election may have been the fulcrum upon which the United States tilted from a marginally and nominally democratic society to one in which the pretext of democratic government was abandoned in favor of a right-wing “proto-fascist” authoritarianism.1 It’s not the first time such rhetoric was attached to a midterm election. I’ve always felt that such claims, “this is the most important election in history…” were too hyperbolic to be taken seriously.
This year, however, there was significant evidence to indicate that there was more substance to the standard get-out-the-vote marketing. The right wing had embraced an anti-democratic Big Lie designed to sow doubt in our democratic process. Furthermore, this movement advanced acolytes to run for office and get themselves into positions by which they could undermine future elections to ensure a more amenable outcome in 2024. Looking at this cynical positioning it was impossible to conclude that, if successful, this movement could render future elections irrelevant. Elections under the supervision of such Big Lie conspiracists would be nothing more than ritual performances designed to legitimize one-party Republican rule. The right-wing hero Victor Orban is the model.
It’s possible that this concern was overblown…
…but we just don’t know. Did we just dodge a bullet? Is there another bullet right behind? These questions need to be answered one way or the other.
Not Time to Celebrate
First, from the media and from political operatives there is this collective sigh of relief. Biden did not get the “red wave shellacking” that everyone expected this time last year. Yes, Republicans will likely take the House and may even squeak out a small majority in the Senate. In State-wide races, Democrats did fairly well mostly because Republican candidates were simply awful. In many cases, Democrats essentially chose their own adversaries straight out of the far-right rabbit hole. This was a strategy many of us lost sleep over. I’m on team Let’s Not Do That Again!
So, it looks like Republicans, despite some gains, will not be in a position to threaten democratic government.
Look, in 2016 a second-rate conman famous for amorality, scheming and scamming everyone in his orbit, and…well…firing people, should never have even gotten close to the White House. Instead, yes due to a quirk in our absurd electoral process, he became f**king President of the United States! That fact should always remain with us until some serious reforms are put into place to keep something like this from ever happening again.
As it stands, control of the Senate likely hinges on a race between an intelligent, admirable, and competent Democrat and a delusional, impossibly incompetent Republican in Georgia. That Herschel Walker could win the GOP nomination, let alone force a man like Raphael Warnock to a draw in a swing state shows that our politics may not have gone over the cliff, but it’s flailing for balance on the edge.
This election reveals that the political right is not just a conservative or a nationalist movement. It is rabidly anti-liberal. Anyone off the street could run for office against even the most sensible centrist and, upon winning the GOP nomination, is positioned to win the election…no questions asked.
This isn’t just an embrace of right-wing dogma. It’s a rejection of the liberal status quo that we have come to take for granted as the American way. That representative democracy is a core pillar of that liberal status quo should give us pause.
The bottom line is that not losing as badly as predicted against the lunatic fringe is nothing the celebrate. Democrats, if they are to save themselves and even the nation, need to do some serious reflection.
Useful Reflection Requires a Clear Mirror
Democrats have a history of taking a good, hard look in the mirror after political disappointments and routes and drawing exactly the wrong conclusion. So I have little faith that this time will be any different.
My fear is that this “not so bad” performance will be used as a justification to continue the Manchin/Sinema way of politics. In other words, political atrophy to the point of obsolescence.
This concern is two-fold.
If Democrats are to save themselves and, in turn, restore the nation to at least a semblance of sanity, it will have to demonstrate that people are better off with a sensible government making sensible and forward-looking policies.
With a congress divided between a largely milquetoast Democratic Party and a mouth-frothing obstructionist Republican Party, sensible government and forward-looking policies are not an option.
That means that Democrats will have to come up with policies that are overwhelmingly popular and then take command of the discourse behind these policies before Republicans are able to “death panel” the issue with their FoxNoise constructed blather. Progressives, liberals, and moderates need to be so excited about the concrete policies that Democrats are bringing forward that they are looking forward to the signing ceremony. When the bills fall to a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and/or are voted down in the House, or watered down to obscurity by Manchin/Sinema, every Democratically held megaphone needs to be amped and aimed at telling everyone who is responsible for their not having access to health care, child care, education, decent roads, good paying jobs, clean air. Democrats need to name names and point. “You’d be able to afford to send your kids to college, but they f**ked you!”
Unlike Republicans, however, the Democrats do not have their own media structure. There is no FoxNoise for the Democratic Party. Nor should there be. Somehow, the Democratic Party, without its own media apparatus, will have to make technocratic policy sexy enough to catch the media’s eye. They’ll have to make sure that everyone knows that “this computer chip factory comes to you courtesy of the Democratic Chips and Science Act 2022.” Here are the Democrats who made it possible. Here are the conservatives who voted against it. Here’s what it’s doing for America and Americans. You’re freakin’ welcome! This kind of Mead Hall boasting is not a particularly well-honed skill in the Democratic Party. Democrats tend to get their vote and move on to the next with nary a peep until election day when they try to get voters to “remember that time we got you that chip factory.”
Furthermore, the Democratic Party will have to call out the so-called “moderate” Democrats as well as Republicans who stand in the way of progress. Sweet-talking the Manchin/Sinema branch of the party is a failed strategy. Knowing this, I predict the Manchin/Sinema wing will take credit for “how well” the Democratic Party did in the midterms. They’d have a good argument. Manchin and Sinema are largely responsible for the Party’s performance a few days ago. That, however, should be understood as a condemnation, not bragging rights.
The bottom line is that there are some really popular policies out there, most of which are progressive. People of all political stripes want to see these policies enacted–in many cases, even conservatives. Democrats need to pursue these policies loudly and proudly without equivocation.
What About the Republican Looking Glass
The other side of the Democrats didn’t lose so badly narrative is that Republicans did not win as big as they should have. The much-vaunted Red Wave that was supposed to wash over the Biden Administration simply did not happen. All of the pieces were there. There was the taken-for-granted tradition that the President’s party often loses support in the midterms. This is especially true when the President’s approval ratings are painfully low. Inflation is creating economic stress. And, of course, there’s the ever-present cacophony of right-wing noise pounding “DOOM! DOOM! DOOOOOM!” whenever a Democrat is in office. Yet, with all of these factors in place, Republicans underperformed.
I suspect that when the analysis comes in, the reason for the GOP’s underwhelming gains was mostly two-fold.
First, the predictable loss of Roe v. Wade was a wake-up call2 for liberals and centrists as the possibility of the far right passing Handmaid laws at the state and even national level became imminent.
Secondly, the right-wing wackadoos that won the primaries in the GOP were sufficiently scary to encourage Democratic and centrist turnout. As Mitch McConnell pointed out, in the Senate, “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
Yes, President Biden is not particularly popular overall, but he is popular with Democrats. The trick was for Biden and the Democrats to turn out the vote during the midterm. Democrats of late have not been particularly deft at midterm turnout. Fortunately, Republicans did most of the heavy lifting on that score. Otherwise complacent, apathetic voters may not be willing to turn out for your milquetoast candidate as opposed to the other party’s milquetoast candidate. But when it’s milquetoast vs. the Zombie Apocalypse…you’ll get turnout against the Zombies.
On this score, I have two related questions. First, will the Republicans learn from this and start pruning the fascists from their party? There are plenty of Republicans who would like to take this moment when the orange gleam appears to be fading to reclaim their party from the far right. Might this be the crack in the Teflon armor of he who shall not be named?
We’ve seen this movie before.
Republicans thought they had their moment after January 6th. The GOP elite joined hands in a momentary flash of personal courage and condemned the President for leading a mob against the capitol. Remember Kevin McCarthy saying, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” Yeah. That lasted all of about twenty-four hours, tops. A couple of weeks later he was kissing the ring at Mar-a-Lago. His cowardice was emblematic of the party as a whole. Those few who had the temerity to act against the Orange Don found themselves Lizcheneyed. Thus far, compliance with the MAGA bloc is the only way to survive in the erstwhile Party of Lincoln.
This begs the question, can the Republican Party afford to learn the necessary lesson? The MAGA wing of the party did not just emerge. It was cultivated in response to the collapse of the W. Bush Administration. The core of the MAGA electoral strategy comes from the willingness of the right to primary moderate conservatives. Consequently, MAGAs own the GOP primaries. As it stands, the Republican Party needs the MAGAs to be competitive. It’s a vicious cycle. Moderate conservatives can’t win the primaries, but MAGAs may be losing their luster in the general election. They may not be able to purge the MAGA wing unless they are willing to endure significant electoral losses and build from scratch.3 Is the party willing to do that? I find it hard to believe.
The Way Forward and the Elephant in the Room
The ultimate question here is, what is the way forward? As night follows day, progressives can expect that the so-called moderates will clamor for more so-called moderation. That’s just how the party works at this point. By moderate, they mean is a kinder, gentler Neoliberalism than that offered by the conservatives. Maybe there’d be some incentives for companies to do the right thing. Let’s include some market-based approaches to clean energy. Okay. Okay. Maybe we can subsidize some insurance to expand health care. Maybe we can approve some windmills in exchange for that natural gas pipeline
This has been the Democratic playbook since the rise of Reagan. It amounts to…let’s just be a little nicer than right. We’ll protect Medicare, Social Security, and Abortion in a pinch. What more can you expect?
It’s up to us on the left to convince the party that the future lies in the Democrats becoming a progressive party rather than a Neoliberal party with a progressive caucus. The Manchin/Sinema way leads to the Democratic Party going the way of the Whigs.
The problem is that the Democrats turned their backs on the urban and rural working-class long ago. Everyone knows it, especially the urban and rural working class. It will take radical change and consistent legislating and communication with the electorate to bury that reputation. Allowing Manchin/Sinema to water down progressive legislation in the interests of the investor class does nothing to dispel the notion that the Democrats are still playing Neoliberal ball.
President Biden can brag all he wants about how he’s the most progressive, most labor-friendly president since FDR. That’s not a particularly high bar. We need an FDR…if not a Henry Wallace! We need Card Check and other legislation that makes it easier to form a union. We need publicly funded tertiary education, college, university, and tech and trades. We need a public option at the very least if we can’t get single-payer. We need sensible gun legislation. Most importantly, we need to end the countdown to planetary ecological collapse.
Which leads to the elephant in the room. Joe Biden.
Look, we just can’t have a second Biden administration. We just can’t. It’s not about his age…except it kinda is. It’s about his generation and what they represent politically…milquetoast, status quo politics. There are swaths of Gen Z, the Millennials, hell, even my own increasingly arthritic GenX generation who look at the current geriatric Democratic Party and simply cannot relate. It’s time for the old guard like Biden, Pelosi, and yes, Bernie and Warren, to step aside and make room for a younger cohort. A party that does not develop its youth is doomed to fade away with its elders.
Frankly, I’d like to see President Biden go no more than another year…and resign. Let Kamala Harris take the helm and see what she can do. She would be the first woman president with a very real chance to become the first woman elected president. I’m not necessarily a big Kamala fan, but at least it would be a passing of the torch to a new generation and bringing new fire to the Democratic Party that younger people can look to for inspiration, much as they looked to Obama.
I’m sitting in the middle of DeSantis central. I spend every day with young people ready to vote and ready to participate in the political process. These young people are progressive. They know their futures are at stake. They are open-minded, multicultural, and tolerant in ways that my generation was only ever able to aspire. And Democrats are doing almost nothing to reach out to them.
I was talking to one voting-age young man. He told me he didn’t vote. He didn’t want to vote for DeSantis, but he didn’t know enough about the alternatives to feel confident filling in the bubbles. Yes, I live in a very conservative district. Perhaps Charlie Crist and the Democratic Party didn’t feel it was worthwhile to spend money campaigning in my neck of the woods. Consequently, they abandoned these young people. And the young people know they’re being abandoned. That’s not a way to secure the future of the Democratic Party.
As it stands, our politics is mired in a desperate conflict cycle. On one hand, we have a robust and energized party of authoritarians intent on dismantling American democracy. On the other, we have an anemic party whose only recourse is to pry people from their apathy to come to the polls and stop the authoritarians from dismantling American democracy. This is a system that cannot hold. Either the authoritarians will suffer a debilitating loss that knocks them out of the political discourse for another couple of generations, or the Democrats will stumble and fail to turn out the vote enough that the authoritarians have the opportunity to take charge.4 Which outcome is more likely?
- For a while now I’ve eschewed the terms “proto-fascist” or “semi-fascist”. I see these terms as copouts. It’s like saying someone is “proto-pregnant” or one has a “proto-cancer”. It diminishes the import of what is happening to the conservative movement in the United States. For many years I believed that accusations of fascism directed toward the conservative movement were rhetorical overreach. Even with the rise of the Orangemanbaby I was skeptical. Since then, however, I’ve changed my mind. The demagogic focus of the movement, the mobilization of violent para-militaries, and the blatant attacks against the foundations of the liberal order have since convinced me that what we are witnessing in the Republican Party is a bonafide fascist movement. Using terms like “proto-” or “semi-” fascist may be a recognition that this is just one of many influences in the larger right-wing movement, and that its grip is not complete–yet. However, I believe the only way to confront fascism is to start by calling it by name. So, I have.
- It’s too bad this wake-up didn’t happen in 2016. I can’t help but think about all of the liberals who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton because of emails or Wall Street speeches or they just didn’t trust her. Well, here we are. Hillary would have had three Supreme Court vacancies to fill, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s. We could have had a six-to-three centrist court. Not optimal, but better than what we have.
- Frankly, this is what they should have done after Bush II. Instead, the party decided to shortcut their reflexive look in the political mirror by animating the most monstrous element of the conservative movement.
- This only has to happen once. Imagine if Roe had not been overturned this year. Would the Red Wave have been avoided?