Monday, November 24, 2014

The 2014 Midterms: Everybody Knows


Since miscalculating the likely outcome of the 2006 midterm elections I have avoided discussing American electoral politics on this blog, apart from a snarky comment about the 2010 midterm elections. The 2014 midterms, which generated massive victories for the Republican Party at the state and federal levels, have also generated so much commentary that it almost seems unnecessary for me to add anything. I agree with The Hill and Juan Cole that the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate is unlikely to last, since the party will be contesting more than twice as many Senate seats in 2016 as the Democrats. It also seems unlikely that the Republicans will capture the presidency in 2016, partly because voter turnout will be higher among young people and minority groups (it can hardly be lower than it was this year, at 36% overall), mainly because the Republicans' anti-labor stance and reactionary social policies have effectively locked their forthcoming candidate out of states with 257 Electoral College votes.

The more troubling outcomes of the 2014 elections, in my view, are less visible ones. First, Republicans won control of more state governorships and state legislatures, increasing the number of each in their hands to 31 state houses and 68 of 99 state legislative chambers. As John Oliver points out, state governments pass ten times as many laws as the constitutionally straight-jacketed U.S. Congress, and now that it is even more firmly in the saddle at the state level, the GOP, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, will ride Democrats and social progressives “very hard.” Second, campaign treasurers and political action committees spent nearly four billion dollars on the 2014 elections, the largest figure ever spent on a non-presidential election in the United States. There is a connection, though not an immediately obvious one, between this figure and low voter turnout. Robert Reich points out that many younger and minority voters probably stayed home because high unemployment made it difficult for them to see what either party could do for them, and since many Democrats ran listless center-right campaigns to please their corporate backers. That same economy has, as most of my readers know, dramatically increased the wealth of the top 1% of Americans, and many of them have used that wealth to support candidates (mainly conservative) and policies that will line their pockets and suppress overall voter turnout. 2014 thus represented another milepost on our road to corporatist oligarchy.

Can progressives fight such trends? Not easily. Overturning the Citizens United decision with a constitutional amendment would help limit rich people's influence over elections, but federal constitutional amendments are hard to pass – the last one to pass both Congress and the states did so in 1971 – and I think it unlikely though not impossible) that one so inimical to the interests of lawmakers would succeed. In a previous blog post I suggested that progressives should focus on winning state elections, since that was where so much important legislation was passed, but I believe these are even easier to manipulate than federal elections, and oligarchs like the Koch brothers are happy to pour money into gubernatorial and legislative races. One must instead take action against the root cause of the problem, which is the maldistribution of wealth in the United States, and against its causes: incipient debt peonage for much of the 99 percent, the erosion of public education and infrastructure, the persistent belief – a lie since the 1970s – that the economic benefits of hard work accrue to anyone other than the rich, and the continued growth of massive industrial and commercial monopolies. Some of these causes we can only address through public action, but others we can at least begin to remedy through voluntary action.

That doesn't mean we can skip voting, of course, just that we can't assume it's enough.

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(And, yes, the subtitle of this post refers to this classic song.)

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