Democrats hold off Trumpist Republicans

Letter From America

Teachers striking in Massachusetts

Amidst talk of werewolves and vampires, Paul Garver reports on the US mid-term elections which saw mixed results for the Republicans

My last comment on the role of democratic socialists in US politics appeared in Chartist 318 (Sep/Oct ’22). Now, the runoff election for the US Senate seat held by Democrat Ralph Warnock in Georgia has confirmed the conclusion on the mid-term 2022 elections, when the predicted Republican tsunami did not happen. This non-event is noteworthy, because normally, the mid-term elections under a new US President – particularly one with such low polls ratings as Joe Biden – result in major gains for the opposition party. Every seat in the House of Representatives was contested, and one third of the US Senate. 

Democrats lost four House seats from New York and four from Florida, in part due to the ineptitude of state Democratic parties. In New York, the leadership was too preoccupied with its futile effort to stop the rise of its own democratic socialist wing to note that the real threat came from redistricting marginal seats to the benefit of Republican challengers. In both states, the Democratic Party officials panicked and tried to compete with Republicans in ‘tough on crime’ messaging. Voters deluged by similar messaging from both parties naturally chose the harder Republican messaging, with its unsubtle racist overtones. But when all the votes were counted in other states, most incumbents from either party were re-elected to office. The net result was a small shift from a slender Democrat majority in the House to an equally slender Republican majority, which will have slightly greater capacity to block progressive legislation emerging from the Biden administration.

Similarly, with the single exception of Pennsylvania, Senate seats were unchanged. Although there were promising challenges, mostly from progressive Democratic African-American candidates to Republican incumbents in so-called “purple” or “swing” states, none succeeded in the end. The Republicans also tried to defeat Democratic incumbents in purple states that appeared vulnerable. They failed, in part because the Trumpist MAGA wing selected marginal candidates committed to election denial or other types of craziness that alienated swing or independent voters, including women concerned about their right to choose. In Pennsylvania, the MAGA Republican candidate, a smooth-talking phoney TV “doctor”, lost to John Fetterman, a tattooed maverick with an appeal to white working-class voters throughout the state, who prevailed rather easily despite suffering a near-fatal stroke that impaired his ability to speak or debate. Fetterman had been an early Bernie Sanders supporter in 2015, and will likely bolster the small left presence in the Senate.

The most threatened Democratic incumbent in the Senate was the Rev’d Ralph Warnock, pastor of the same African-American Baptist Atlanta church as Martin Luther King, Jr. To try to oust him from office, Donald Trump personally recruited Herschel Walker, an African-American who had been a famous American footballer for the University of Georgia. Walker ran a surreal campaign. He often did not seem to know what office he was running for. His platform, other than absolute loyalty to Donald Trump, was non-existent. He opposed abortion, but had to admit that he had financed the abortions of three of his former “girlfriends”. In several campaign events, he compared the different traits of werewolves and vampires, which he appeared to think were different species of humans. 

On runoff election day, this abysmal candidate gained the usual massive majority of votes from white Republicans in rural areas. His lead only disappeared when votes from Atlanta and smaller cities with African-American and liberal voters were counted, and Warnock won with  51% of the vote, a margin of under 100,000 voters.

There was massive spending on both sides of this election. The Warnock campaign raised and spent more on advertising than the Walker campaign, mostly from small donations and liberal organisations. Much ‘dark money’ flowed to the Walker campaign from far-right donors. All the massive outside campaign funding probably cancelled itself out, mostly annoying and alienating voters, who had experienced the same deluge in 2020 and a month before in 2022. But long lines of voters in Atlanta – required after various voter suppression measures enacted by the Republican legislature – demonstrated that African-Americans in the South, inspired by the original civil rights’ movement, remain vested in their right to vote. It is precisely for that reason that voter suppression efforts directed at African-American and youth communities remain the bedrock politics of Republican parties in the South. The Supreme Court of the United States, now dominated by a 6-3 hard-right majority, seems ever more inclined to agree to such antidemocratic measures, even to the extent that it may allow state legislatures to overrule the outcomes of popular elections they do not like and install their own delegations to the electoral college to vote against candidates elected by the people of their states.

In Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan and elsewhere, massively funded political advertising from both sides enriched media outlets and ad promoters without delivering a net edge for either party. The essential difference between Democratic successes in these states and failures elsewhere were the quality and extent of the ‘ground games’ for educating voters and mobilising them to vote. With mail-in ballots increasingly supplanting in-person voting, this increasingly goes through phone banks, email, tweets and various other social media, offering out-of-state supporters a direct role in addition to contributing money. 

Progress is painfully slow. By my count, the next House of Representatives should have ten reliable members of the Squad (soon, I hope, renamed and reorganised into a more coherent grouping) instead of the current six. That is only ten out of 435, though joined by some reliably progressive Democrats on most issues. In the Senate, we can count on Bernie Sanders, to be joined by other progressives from time to time.

Finally, good news about the accelerating pace of serious worker organising in the USA, not only at Starbucks cafes and Amazon warehouses, but throughout other industries like freight railroads, airlines, and gig drivers. In the last few months, there have also been large scale unionising drives and strikes at academic institutions, schools, hospital chains and media outlets. Teaching fellows and other student assistants voted for union representation at more large campuses in the Boston area within the last few months. Teachers have staged and won illegal strikes at Boston area school districts. Finally, reform candidates, some from the growing academic division of the UAW (now more accurately called the United Automotive and Academic Workers Union), are just now winning new democratic elections to seats on the UAW’s International Executive Board. 

These organising drives and campaigns are generally bottom-up, controlled by the workers themselves, but often coordinated by and facilitated by established union leaders and democratic socialist organisers and supporters. Most of these newly organising are young, energetic, imaginative and seem to be engaged for the long term, although there inevitably will be disappointments and setbacks ahead. Not quite a wholly new working class, but a newly activated segment of that class that is relatively well educated, open to democratic socialist ideas and unwilling to accept austerity and powerlessness.

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