Midterms: Trump’s Partial Defeat

The electoral results of the midterm elections in the USA just came out. Several House and Senate seats, as well as governorships were up for election. Donald Trump framed these elections as a “plebiscite” on his administration. From this point of view, he suffered an electoral defeat, which was not, however, absolute, but a partial one.
By: Alejandro Iturbe, IWL, with the collaboration of Florence Oppen
The Midterm elections (which take place in the middle of the four year presidential mandate) are considered a test on the political strength of a president and his administration. A triumph of his party and his candidates strengthens him while a defeat weakens him. If the defeat is too strong, the administration becomes a lame duck because it “advances with many difficulties” (with diminished power) until the end of the mandate.
Trump (and the Democrats) created great expectations for this election, and in fact there was a record in voters’ participation (113 million), turning them into the most important “midterm” elections in the history of the country [1]. Let us remember that it is not mandatory to vote in the USA and elections take place during a business/work day. Workers must request permission from their employees and they often have their pay reduced for the hours not worked. In this context, Democrats managed an important “mobilization” of their electoral base in the great cities.
Why do we say that these elections were a partial defeat for Trump? First, if we add the results obtained by the candidates of both parties, Republicans obtained less popular votes than Democrats did. Second, the GOP lost 26 seats in the House of Representatives, and with this, its majority. Third, the Republicans lost seven state governors. On the other hand, mitigating Trump’s defeat, he held (and even broadened) his majority in the Senate.
In terms of institutional functioning, the fact that each House remains under control of different parties determines a sort of tie. The House of Representatives has the power to initiate legislative proposals or stop proposals from the Executive Power. It may also demand from the President, for example, to make public rent statements or to explain the “Russian scandal” (relations with Putin and his supposed inherence in the 2016 electoral campaign). In turn, by controlling the House of Senators, Trump may stop Democrats’ legislative initiatives and any impeachment (destitution through political trial) possibility, in case Democrats attempt to push it.
A situation of this sort may be solved through a permanent negotiation mechanism that will surely take place in unpostponable matters like the annual budget. However, there is a possibility of institutional paralysis or an impasse. Here, Trump becomes Trump again. He stated that he considered himself a “winner” and when he was asked about the new Democrat majority in the lower House, he answered, “Let them do as they want, I will do as I want” [2].

The Political Content of the Election

Until now, we have referred to institutional consequences of the election results. Let us attempt to outline the political content. The Democrats showed again their prevalence and and strength in the great cities, more industrialized, modern and cosmopolite , like New York and Philadelphia, and they even advanced in others which traditionally vote  Republican, like Houston and Oklahoma City. The Republicans remain strong. They have consolidated in the social strata of their agrarian bases, the small rural cities, and the more conservative cities. [3].
The debates in most campaigns barely approached the needs of the workers and the masses.  Let us remember that Democrats had stopped supporting the spontaneous actions and the mobilizations that took place in the first months of the Trump administration and directed all frustration to the ballot box. Coherent with this policy, they focused their campaign on “retaking the Congress” [4]. In other words, “we must not fight because everything depends on us obtaining the majority”.
It is true that their candidates spoke of the “bread and butter” issues, in other words, the economic problems of the popular sectors, but they did so without relating to the reality of working class people, and the increasing prevalence of poverty. Key issues, for example, minimum wage, racism, attacks on immigrants, police brutality, etc., were barely touched upon [5]. They could not do so because the balance of the Obama administration is very negative in this aspect.
One subject related to social needs was, however, the center of the campaign: the health care reform passed by the Obama administration in 2010, the ACA (Affordable Care Act), which offers a weak public health system for an imperialist  country. Republicans want to overturn it, but they have been thus far unable to do so. Democrats made campaigns  to protect it and expand the fragile public health systems like Medicaid and Medicare. Even their left wing proposed a “Medicare for All” (“public healthcare for all”) , a slogan that has been gaining force. Many workers voted for the Democratic Party candidates for this very reason.
Failing to address the key issues of the most exploited and oppressed sectors, the Democratic campaigns  seemed focused on disputing the minority of the white working class that had voted for Trump in 2016. On his end, Trump and his candidates supported in a favorable economic situation  and intensified their hate speech, with racism and xenophobia, which had shown results in the past elections.
Let’s analyze now some interesting  data regarding the shift of part of the electorate towards the left on matters of racism and discrimination. In Colorado, Jared Polis was elected governor, the first openly gay governor in the entire history of the country. Ilhan Omar (a Somali refugee in Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (born in Michigan to Palestinian parents) are the first Muslim women to reach Parliament . Also, two young women from Native peoples were elected . [6]
We must also highlight the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, from Puerto Rico, who is the youngest woman to enter Congress, with 29 years of age. She represents the far left sector of the Democrats (Sander’s wing), and she publicly identified herself with “Socialism ”. In her campaign, she called “to abolish ICE” (the apparatus that persecutes and represses undocumented immigrants), although she then added that she proposed to replace it with “a more humane police” [7].

The Democrats’ Dilemma

The result of this election, as we saw, was a partial defeat for Trump and a tied situation that may lead to an impasse or institutional semi-paralysis. As we see it, this fact is a new episode in the slow crisis process of the North American political regime, which we have analyzed in several previous articles. [8].
This system is based on alternation of power between two bourgeois imperialist parties (Democrats and Republicans), which are based on different social and political strata amongst voters (with an intermediate sector that oscillates between both) . The Republican Party entered a deep crisis after the failure  of George W. Bush’s imperialist project. Today the party is divided in three factions , and it had to accept Trump’s prevalence (an outsider with his own team) over the more traditional sectors .
The Democrats represent a coalition that includes labor , social movements , and minorities , under the leadership of a bourgeois imperialist sector. Their “moment of glory” was Obama’s election. The failure of his administration to solve real issues of the workers and the masses wore down the political capital of the DP, which was expressed in the 2016 defeat. The defeat in turn created a political crisis in the party, with emerging electoral breaks to the left and class struggle episodes outside his control. Let us remember that Obama had very hard policies on immigration, and before the 2008 crisis, he rescued big banks and great enterprises in detriment of the masses’ needs .
Its crisis is slower and less explosive than that of the Republicans. Democrats are still capable of stopping or postponing mobilization processes and co-opting leaderships . Now they have received a little electoral and institutional breath (although less than they expected), and they could even win the 2020 Presidential election. They avoided the deepening of their own internal crisis and managed to stop the bleeding, but they have not solved it yet.
There was a great debate within the party: to either adopt a more moderate profile and focus on the economy , to dispute Trump’s electoral bases, or to go farther “left” and take on very deep issues like male chauvinism, racism, immigration, LGBT+ rights, etc . Recent electoral results do not end this debate (there were triumphs and defeats for both sectors ). As a reflection of this situation, the “leadership crisis” will continue for the next presidential election. A political analyst joked saying “there are 7,000 Democrats that think they will be presidents [in 2020]” [9], although this same analyst says that there are six possible candidates that are highlighted, with different profiles . In this context, most of the current Democratic leadership is inclined not to radicalize their program and take  a more conservative  approach.

The End of the “American Dream”

This process of slow political crisis of the bourgeois democratic regimes is linked to a deeper social and cultural crisis: the end of the so-called “American Dream”, the idea that anyone, independent of their social/economic origin, “with hard and honest work”, could gradually improve their economic conditions and ultimately become whatever they wanted to be. This dream began to agonize since the early 1980s, and it is now definitely dead [10]. Poverty and even misery grow in the country. Millions of workers are unable to guarantee their family’s livelihood with their wage; there is a growing number of people living in the streets; the cost of health is prohibitive, and so on. This reality is even tougher for Black and Latino communities, not only on social-economic grounds. Immigrants are persecuted like criminals, and police officers, murder black youth with impunity. This is the reality of capitalism, even in the wealthiest country in the world.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats (the two parties that express different  imperialist and corporate sectors ) are able to end this social crisis. Although their speeches are different (one is “popular ” and “democratic”, the other reactionary), both parties will only worsen this situation (as they have already done so in the past). This is the deepest reason for this slow regime  crisis and the possibility of the institutional impasse to deepen it.
Workers and popular sectors  cannot expect anything  from this regime , nor these two parties. It is necessary to face this economic-social reality with struggle, particularly each decision by Trump’s administration that worsens it. Just as their  measures originated in male-chauvinistic hatred and against immigrants  (like the threat of shooting thousands who make up the march of Central Americans who want to enter the country). One must not follow the “siren song” of the Democrats who say, “We will return in 2020 and solve everything”. We need to organize now to fight for our needs, and build our working class organizations: our labor unions, our community groups of grassroots struggle, and above all, a political party for the working class.


[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/record-voter-turnout-in-2018-midterm-elections/
[2] https://www.lavanguardia.com/internacional/20181107/452787057260/trump-pierde-gana-elecciones-legistalivas.html
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/06/us/elections/results-house-elections.html?action=click&module=Ribbon&pgtype=Article
[4] See  https://litci.org/es/menu/debates/las-armadillas-del-foco-los-democratas-retomar-congreso/
[5] Ibídem.
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/us/politics/election-history-firsts-blackburn-pressley.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&fbclid=IwAR3zDjfai7J3bqK2EEIgmvuvdyPovrC2orV7b81tOK-DQeEhZM9cxYrmWME
[7] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/06/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-is-now-the-youngest-woman-elected-to-congress.html
[8] See for example, International Courier magazine n.° 16 (January, 2017).
[9] https://www.dn.pt/mundo/interior/democratas-de-olho-em-2020-5693084.html
[10] See https://litci.org/es/menu/mundo/norteamerica/estados-unidos/sueno-americano-ha-muerto/

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