The midterms re­vealed the power of par­ti­san­ship and white­ness

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - An­drew Gawthorpe

The ex­pec­ta­tions we carry into elec­tions al­ways make it dif­fi­cult to ob­jec­tively as­sess their out­come. Be­fore the midterms, Democrats hoped for a blue wave that would de­ci­sively hand them the House and per­haps more, while Don­ald Trump was poised to de­clare vic­tory what­ever the out­come. The morn­ing after, the re­sults looked mixed, with nei­ther side able to claim a sweep­ing vic­tory. How, then, should we un­der­stand what hap­pened?

Most im­por­tantly of all, the Democrats took con­trol of the House. They won the pop­u­lar vote and, for the first time since 2008, in­de­pen­dent vot­ers – who aren’t af­fil­i­ated with ei­ther party – backed the Democrats, and by a siz­able mar­gin. Democrats also won im­por­tant Se­nate and gu­ber­na­to­rial races in states that will be key to beat­ing Don­ald Trump in 2020, such as Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia, and Wis­con­sin.

Demo­cratic con­trol of the House should fi­nally see the leg­isla­tive branch emerge as the check and bal­ance on the ex­ec­u­tive which the con­sti­tu­tion in­tends it to be. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will no longer get a free ride from Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans who had no in­ter­est in shin­ing a light on its abuses of power. Key com­mit­tees will also pass into Demo­cratic con­trol. The House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, which Repub­li­cans have used to ha­rass law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in­ves­ti­gat­ing Trump and his as­so­ciates, will now have a Demo­crat as its chair.

That the Democrats have not won an even larger share of seats in Congress is largely due to ger­ry­man­der­ing, which gives Repub­li­cans a built-in ad­van­tage in the House. But in the long term, last night’s re­sults will also help to re­store fair­ness to Amer­i­can democ­racy. Florida over­turned a Jim Crow-era vot­ing ban af­fect­ing 1.4 mil­lion felons, in­clud­ing nearly 25% of the state’s African-Amer­i­can adults – the great­est ex­pan­sion of vot­ing rights since the civil rights era. Mean­while, key state-level wins will give Democrats the chance to re­draw dis­tricts and undo ger­ry­man­der­ing.

Yet the elec­tions were not the stun­ning re­pu­di­a­tion of Trump and the Repub­li­can party that many lib­er­als, pro­foundly dis­turbed by the na­tion’s tra­jec­tory, had hoped for. A party that has ripped chil­dren from their par­ents at the bor­der and put them in cages, has stolen a ma­jor­ity on the supreme court, and has looked the other way as nepo­tism, au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and chaos have taken up res­i­dence in the White House hardly suf­fered a cat­a­strophic night. It avoided a com­plete rout in the House, made gains in the Se­nate, and won im­por­tant gov­er­nor­ships in Ohio and Florida.

That it man­aged to do this is down to two fac­tors that con­tinue to de­liver votes into the Repub­li­can col­umn. The first is the power of par­ti­san­ship, and the se­cond is the power of white­ness. Ac­cord­ing to an exit poll by CNN, fully 94% of Repub­li­cans voted for Repub­li­can House can­di­dates. Mean­while, white vot­ers went for Trump by a 10% mar­gin. Among older whites and whites with­out a col­lege de­gree (of­ten a proxy for con­ser­va­tive racial at­ti­tudes), the mar­gins were even starker.

These fig­ures show that the thor­ough re­jec­tion of Trump­ism that the Democrats have been hop­ing for – and which might con­vince his party to change course – has not ar­rived and is not likely to ar­rive soon. Trump’s coali­tion has eroded some­what, but it will be clear to both the pres­i­dent and party strate­gists that Repub­li­can par­ti­san­ship and white iden­tity pol­i­tics are still in­tox­i­cat­ing po­lit­i­cal forces.

Most wor­ry­ingly of all, the vot­ers they mo­ti­vate seem im­per­vi­ous to rec­og­niz­ing – or sim­ply do not care about – the broader threat to Amer­i­can val­ues and democ­racy that the Repub­li­can party of to­day rep­re­sents. After ev­ery­thing it and its leader have done in the past two years, it seems hard to imag­ine what it might do in the next that will fi­nally cause a rift with its ad­her­ents.

“This is not nor­mal” has be­come a catch­phrase for those out­raged by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s daily af­fronts to hu­man de­cency, the rule of law, and good gover­nance. But it looks in­creas­ingly like the Amer­i­can pol­i­tics of the last two years is the new nor­mal. For so long as Repub­li­can vot­ers con­tinue to treat Trump and his party as nor­mal po­lit­i­cal forces to whom the or­di­nary rules of par­ti­san­ship should ap­ply, as op­posed to out­liers who pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the Amer­i­can sys­tem of govern­ment, change can­not come. Par­ti­san­ship even makes ac­count­abil­ity be­fore the rule of law con­tro­ver­sial – exit polls showed that 54% of vot­ers, in­clud­ing 73% of Repub­li­cans, view the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

Given that the Repub­li­can party failed to re­ceive a stun­ning re­pu­di­a­tion that might force it to change course, it seems in­evitable that it will in­stead dou­ble down, us­ing the power of par­ti­san­ship and white­ness to cover its sins and con­sol­i­date its base. The mes­sage of the midterms is hence not only that 2020 re­mains com­pet­i­tive. It is that a much deeper prob­lem, the con­tin­ued march of one of the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal par­ties away from Amer­ica’s ideals and to­wards its dark­est im­pulses, re­mains no closer to be­ing solved.

Pho­to­graph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

Sup­port­ers of Ted Cruz re­act at his midterm elec­tion night party in Hous­ton.

Pho­to­graph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Repub­li­can sup­port­ers cheer after Iowa’sRepub­li­can can­di­date for gover­nor wonre-elec­tion.

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