Now that the Democrats lost all four of the special House elections (or maybe three given the sketchy trustworthiness of voting machines in Georgia) we now know that Trump’s “disapproval” rating that MSNBC commentators have been flogging for months is politically meaningless. Republican voters hate Democrats far more than they “disapprove” of Trump.
Since 1969, when Kevin Phillips wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority,” we’ve seen the GOP successfully flip the once “solid” Democratic South to Republican, and add the Midwest, Mountain states, and in 2016, even the Rust Belt to construct a national majority.
The Ossoff-Handel race in Georgia’s 6th district, at an estimated $57 million, became the most expensive House election in U.S. history. There was a great deal of media coverage on the money angle but little mention of “Citizens United” and how since 2010 it has skewed elections in favor of Republican candidates, or the fact that Ossoff was outspent by out-of-state right-wing SuperPACs.
The more U.S. elections rely on money the more the Republicans win. That’s the reason why Mitch McConnell (then the Senate Minority Leader) was so gleeful when the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United ruling that he went over to the courthouse to attend the announcement. Good Ol’ Mitch knows that this alone was enough to cement a Republican advantage. Our new normal became historic levels of political corruption thanks to the Republican majority on the Roberts Court that will stand for generations.
Throw in the 2013 “Shelby” case, which struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act thereby streamlining voter suppression against African Americans, Latinos and other groups, the five Republicans on the Supreme Court further tilted the playing field in the GOP’s favor. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, people literally died fighting for the Voting Rights Act. And with the rise of Trump, Stephen K. Bannon, and the Pepe the Frog brigades the nation has experienced a resurgence of racist violence. Yet the Roberts Court concluded in “Shelby” that the Obama election proved that the United States has become a racial Utopia no longer needing laws and provisions that ensure African-American voting rights.
But the quest for a permanent Republican majority didn’t stop with “Citizens United,” McCutcheon, and “Shelby;” it coincided with the most scientific gerrymandering of congressional districts in U.S. history. Following the 2010 census, Republican state governments drew up highly partisan districts using “Maptitude” software and other computer programs that target social media profiles and other mega-data to draw partisan boundaries for state and federal districts that will probably remain in place for decades.
It’s highly unlikely that after the 2020 census the state governments of Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are going to be under Democratic control. And since Democrats in California, Washington, New York, and Illinois do not have the guts to gerrymander the way the Republicans did in 2011, it’s also unlikely “blue” states will balance it out by engaging in their own partisan gerrymandering. After the structural changes the Republicans have already made to campaign finance, voting rights, and redistricting the only way the Democrats could retake the House of Representatives would be to a have a Democratic sweep in states where the party is in decline.
It could happen. The “Resistance” appears superficially strong. But once you factor in the built-in Republican advantages of money, propaganda, voter suppression and chicanery, as well as control of the Justice Department and the Congress (with all the benefits of incumbency) the Democrats face a steep climb.
Besides, even if the Democrats by some miracle were able to take the state governments of those Midwest and Rust Belt states that went for Trump in 2016, their majorities would be so slender that they would probably be just as gutless and weak as ever. In fact, gutlessness and weakness you might say are intrinsic to the Democratic “brand.”
They’re gutless and weak because they choose to be gutless and weak. The party leadership, ever since the hapless “Democratic Leadership Council” days of Bill Clinton and Joe Lieberman, want to stay on the sweet side of the banks and corporations and have therefore done precious little for labor unions over the past thirty years. And without strong and growing labor unions there is no “Democratic Party.”
We also learned during the Clinton and Obama years that the Democrats would turn against their own base in a heartbeat. Elevating a bunch of women and people of color (who all went to Yale or Harvard) is a good thing but it doesn’t do much to mend the disconnect that Trump exploited between the Democratic leadership and the 70 percent of Americans who don’t have college degrees, let alone from Harvard or Yale.
It’s ironic (if the word has any meaning these days) that at a time when the Democratic party under Clinton and Obama was growing more diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity (which is a good thing) it grew more homogenous in terms of the class background of its leaders.
A Little Recent Midterm History
The party in power usually loses seats in the first midterm election, which makes the first midterm facing any new administration very important. Midterm elections are base elections therefore it’s incumbent upon the party in power to energize its base going into that first midterm. Republicans know this fact; Democrats pretend they don’t.
So in 1994, Bill Clinton took the Democrats into his first midterm by triangulating against the party’s base by wasting “political capital” on passing NAFTA over the vociferous objections of workers, labor unions, environmentalists, and consumer activists; in short, the Democratic base. Clinton’s centrist bullshit going into the 1994 midterms resulted in a 52-seat Democratic loss, ignited the Gingrich Revolution, and ended up creating the Republican majority that impeached his ass.
Things were far different in the 2002 midterms. This time around a Republican administration that didn’t even win the popular vote faced its first midterm. But did George W. Bush triangulate against his party’s base? Hell no. He and Karl Rove (working with the Republican Congress) in October 2002 forced many of the Democratic leaders, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer, to vote in favor of his war against Iraq even while people representing the Democratic base marched in the streets against it. This betrayal on the part of many Democratic leaders showed cowardice on their part and that the Democrats stood for no principles whatsoever even regarding war and peace. The result was an energized Republican base and a dispirited Democratic one. The GOP held on to its majority in both chambers of Congress. (Going into 2018, Trump and Bannon might seek to follow a similar script forcing a split between the leaders and base of their opponents and the Democrats might sheepishly oblige.)
In 2010, Barack Obama faced his first midterm so of course he did all he could to energize his party’s base, right? Not. He appointed Arne Duncan Secretary of Education who continued the teacher bashing Bush policies of “No Child Left Behind” thereby discouraging just about every public school teacher in America (a feminized profession and among the most reliable parts of the Democratic base). Obama also did nothing to help the millions of underwater mortgage holders who got scammed. Instead, he followed the advice of Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner to use foreclosures as “runway foam” for a safe landing for Wall Street. Obama didn’t jail one Wall Street financial officer even after they ripped off workers’ pensions and brought the whole economy down. He also escalated the war in Afghanistan with 30,000 additional soldiers. The Democratic base limped into 2010 with the predictable result being the “shellacking” of losing 63 House seats that followed. Obama became a lame duck the day John Boehner was sworn in as Speaker of the House.
In 2018, like 2002, there’s a Republican president who lost the popular vote facing his first midterm. We’ll see how Trump and Bannon play this out. One thing is certain: unlike the last two Democratic presidents they’re going to do all they can to fire up their party’s base over the next sixteen months.
This history suggests a kind of Kabuki dance where one party (as if prearranged) purposely stumbles to worsen its chances because its leaders have more in common with their opponents than their own base.
We’ve grown far too accustomed to hearing Democrats constantly apologize for their “San Francisco Values” (one of the areas of attack against Jon Ossoff). Instead of standing by their support of government as a force for social good, or their calls for an economy that serves the interests of the vast majority of working people, or their desire for banks and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, and so on, they turn against (as Ossoff did) a $15-an-hour minimum wage and universal health care.
When was the last time you heard a Republican politician apologize for his or her worldview? Even with a pussy-grabbing con artist as their party’s leader they apologize for nothing.
The “Resistance” has so many structural hurdles to jump. The gerrymandering alone has guaranteed that the Republicans control the House of Representatives probably for the next 50 years. And the Senate is terrible because vast windswept states with more antelope than people, like Wyoming, Idaho, the Dakotas, and Montana, will always have their two senators thumping their bibles and trashing Big Gov’mint. With a little voter suppression in the cities, college towns, and liberal suburbs the Republicans can easily win in states like these and will continue to do so.
George W. Bush and now Trump have shamelessly stacked the federal judiciary with far-right ideologues from the Federalist Society. Good Ol’ Mitch has been working overtime on stacking the federal bench with little media attention. Like the Roberts Court, we’ll see countless lower courts rule in favor of corporations over consumers, environmentalists, and workers. It’s a fait accompli.
All of these neat Republican tricks – flooding the political system with money, partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, stacking the judiciary – have already restructured the “playing field” of American democracy in favor of oligarchy. By the time Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Good Ol’ Mitch get done the country is going to be in deep doo-doo.
It’s kind of ironic (if we can use that word anymore) that the GOP has also garnered a marked advantage in Internet savvy and social media propaganda. As we learned in 2016, the Republicans are expert at using firms like Robert Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica and others to target voters through social media and marketing techniques to tailor specialized propaganda directly to voters based on household on-line behavioral data.
The guys who founded a lot of the cool stuff about the Internet like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg thought they could help humanity in some little way by their efforts. Ha! Instead they’ve turned over a powerful molder of public opinion to oligarchs and plutocrats, authoritarians, white supremacists, and neo-fascists! (Sometimes I think American democracy would be better off if we never moved beyond rotary phones and bulletin boards.)
And it’s foolish to think we can turn to liberal billionaires to save us. As far as “progressive” politics go (although I prefer Tom Steyer over Robert Mercer) there’s not a lot of difference between liberal and conservative billionaires. A billionaire is a billionaire – about as far removed from the lives of the average American worker as a newly discovered life-form on an exoplanet a thousand light-years away.
Today, the Republican Supreme Court is poised to turn the whole nation into a “right to work” country. That means that not only workers, but consumer activists, environmentalists, and civil rights advocates are all going to be pushed back on their heels as corporate power further consolidates. The only thing we can be certain of after Trump signs a budget is ever larger pockets of extreme poverty growing throughout the country and levels of income and wealth inequality worse than we’ve ever experienced as a society. Welcome to the new normal.
Another bummer is that we’re just one mass-casualty attack away from a police state. Although corporate media will never broach the topic virtually all of the terrorism we see today in Europe (and coming soon to a neighborhood near your) is blowback from decades of misguided bipartisan imperial policies.
“But, but Obama got elected . . .” you might say.
Yes. But he was elected before “Citizens United,” “McCutcheon,” and “Shelby;” before the partisan gerrymandering and Kobach’s voter suppression; before the Mercers, fake news, “alternative facts” and Pepe the Frog. And long before anyone in their right mind thought Trump could ever become president.