Will Hutton: A new progressive US is slowly taking shape
The advances made by liberals last week render Trump’s talk of all-out victory absurd
O’Rourke made liberalism popular in Texas of all places – and he almost won
has been a dark two years in Britain and the US. The future had seemed to be captured by the worst of the Anglo-American right, a populist, anti-foreigner, anti-EU, ultra-libertarian, anti-common decency alliance that extended from Donald Trump via Nigel Farage to Jacob Rees-Mogg. They were the masters now. If you believed in anything progressive, forget it.
Tuesday’s midterm elections in the US did not lift the pall, or so it seemed at first glance. Trump insisting on “a near-complete victory” in the hours after the polls had closed when the Republicans had lost control of the House of Representatives was vainglorious overclaiming, but it was not wholly stupid. The immediate consensus was that the hoped-for Democrat wave had turned out to be little more than a ripple. They had not won as many seats in the House of Representatives as they hoped, while the Republicans seemed to have consolidated their grip on the Senate. Where Trump had campaigned hard, the Republicans had won. The odds of him being re-elected in 2020 had shortened. Progressive politics was dying.
But look again a few days later and the story is very different. More Americans turned out to vote in 2018 than in any midterm election since 1966 – and more than 10 million more of them voted Democrat than Republican. As the late counts come in, the Democrat tally of gains in the House will top the targeted 30, including what seemed like improbable wins in Republican strongholds in well-heeled suburbs. This is the strongest rebound in recent decades and in an election year when the economy is booming.
The picture in the Senate is also much more mixed than it seemed on Wednesday morning. The Democrats held Montana when it seemed lost, they took Nevada and at the time of writing are ahead in Arizona. In Florida, the race is so tight both for the governorship and Senate that there will be a manual recount. Sherrod Brown won Ohio, a state that went for Trump in 2016, by a stunning 10% margin. The three states that handed Trump the presidency – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – now all have Democrat governors. Texas, one of the most conservative states, was only narrowly held with Beto O’Rourke falling just short against the Republican incumbent. For Trump to call this a near complete victory is fatuous.
O’Rourke’s campaign was particularly illuminating about what is happening in the US. He’s an across-the-board progressive with openly liberal commitments: universal healthcare; an assault on misogyny; pro-immigration
(it makes the US strong); for accountable capitalism and gun control; and in favour of ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. He was even against the militarism of US foreign policy.
His cause seemed hopeless. He spoke in favour of black American NFL football players who had taken the knee when the national anthem was played (“There is nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights”), courage of a high order in Texas.
But from an unpromising start
– a couple of friends and a rented car – his candidacy caught fire. He campaigned in every one of Texas’s 254 counties and through his website portal ActBlue raised a stunning $70m. By the end, he had recruited 25,000 volunteers; 71% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for him, along with 39% of “Anglo women” – the most conservative in the US. He made liberalism popular in Texas of all places and came within a whisker of winning.
It is a pattern reflected across the US. Symbolically, Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the confederacy and the ultraconservative city, fell to the Democrats. Almost every city and large town in the US is now controlled by Democrats; 60% of women voted Democrat. The rightwing view is to mock as liberal fads “political correctness”, the #MeToo movement, greens, climate change, the young’s embrace of the view that gender is a continuum, respect for other cultures, the growing trend for vegetarianism. Instead, let’s hang ’em, shoot ’em and fuck ’em – vote for Trump in the US (and Brexit in Britain).
But the message of the midterms is that this is not what the vast majority of Americans believe in or want. The majority culture so far has been denied its full expression by the US electoral system. Rural conservative states such as Wyoming and North Dakota, with fewer than a million voters, return the same number of senators as urbanised California with 40 million people.
Add the gerrymander of creating artificial districts with Republican majorities and suppressing the votes of blacks and ex-prisoners and the pro-conservative bias is near complete.
Yet the nearest the US has to a national election where those preferences can be expressed is in the House of Representatives. It now looks more like the US than ever – emphatically controlled by O’Rourke-style liberals with a record number of women, of whom two are Muslim. California and New York are now fiercely Democrat, as are the young, African Americans and Latinos. They enlist social media, not in centralised hothouses and data farms, but in myriad individual networks. They are the future, rejecting wholesale Trump’s rhetoric and values. They and O’Rourke’s charisma could carry the country, making inroads into the rural and smalltown US that its political system so privileges.
As in the US, so in Britain. This is where our culture is settling too, masked by our overwhelming rightwing media. Brexit, contrary to Jeremy Corbyn’s defeatism, can be stopped. A “people’s vote” would capitalise on the same trends and save Britain. All we need is the Labour party to wake up – and back it.
Ilhan Omar celebrates with one of her supporters after winning Minnesota for the Democrats.