Democracy is on the Ballot – watershed US midterms this week.

On Sunday 30 October, a watershed run-off election was held in Brazil where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) narrowly defeated incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro 50.9% to 49.1%. There was a lot at stake in this election, not least the lungs of our planet, the Amazon forest. In the four years of Bosonaro’s presidency, more than 34,000 square km of the Amazon rainforest disappeared. The return of Lula to power in Brazil certainly will not fix everything, but another term of Bolsonaro would have been a devastating defeat in the fight against climate change.

On Tuesday 8 October, another critical election will take place, this time in the northern part of the Americas, the United States midterms where control of Congress and Senate will be determined, along with elections to State Legislatures and for State Governors.

Historically there are two common trends with mid-terms:

  1. Turnout is significantly lower than in presidential elections
  2. The party with control of the White House usually performs poorly

On point one, turnout has historically been lower for midterm elections. For example, in 2008 President Obama on a platform of hope won by a significant margin with a voter turnout of 57.1%. Two years later in the 2010 midterms, voter turnout was just 40.9% and the Republican Party took back control of Congress. This was at the height of the Tea Party movement pushing the Republican Party to the right. Much of Obama’s “hope” agenda was blocked by this newly energised rabid right-Republican Congress. Had everyone who came out to support Obama in 2008 once again returned to the polls 24 months later (and 22 months after his inauguration) he may well have achieved more.

But this is the second point, whichever party controls the White House, tends to do poorly in the mid-terms. The exception to this was President George W Bush in 2002, who the September 11 Terror attacks were able to keep control of both houses, a situation that continued until his second mid-terms in 2006. Most other Presidents, Regan, Bush Senior, Clinton and Trump all lost midterms to the other party.

President Biden “Make no mistake, democracy is on the ballot for all of us”

The US Constitution is designed so that the LegislativeExecutive, and Judicial branches of the United States government are kept distinct in order to prevent abuse of power. Whilst there is much wrong with the US Constitution, the theory behind the separation of powers is a good one. The problem is, in a First Past the Post two Party system choices are limited. The temptation is to give whichever Party is not in control of the White House control of the Legislature as a check and balance. But what if that other Party ignored scientific advice during a pandemic causing death and misery to millions? What if this other Party is anti-democratic and refuses to accept it lost the previous election and encourages its supporters to turn to violence? What if, rather than being the ‘Grand Old Party’ of the Conservative American right, the Republican Party of 2022 has become a Party of deranged Trumpians where truth and evidence are out and hate-fuelled rhetoric is in vogue? Is allowing a party like this to control the legislative branch of government, either by voting for them or by staying at home really preventing “abuse of power”?

The Judicial branch of government should of course be separate from the Legislative and Executive branches, but is this really the case in the US? The decision in June 2022 to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalised abortion throughout the United States, was the result of Republican Presidents appointing socially conservative judges and Republication Legislatures doing their best to block Democrat Presidents from appointing liberal ones, as Republican Senators did in 2016. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose the decision to overturn Roe V Wade, manipulation of the constitution by the Republican Party has meant the Supreme Court has a socially conservative majority which can be used to undermine abortion rights in the US.

It is easy to be dishearted by the US political system, indeed I have previously argued in relation to Gun Control the following:

The United States is further held back by a Constitution that is cumbersome and difficult to change. Trying to bring about any sort of serious change to allow Gun Control in the US, something that polls suggest a majority of Americans support, would require a change to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. How can the US Constitution be changed? It requires 2/3 support for a proposed constitutional amendment in both the Congress and Senate (see above about how these houses are NOT representative). On gaining this, it then needs to be approved by the legislature of 34 of the 50 US states and then ratified by 38 of the 50 states (again the smaller conservative states get a much greater say than larger ones). A full explanation of this can be seen here.

The US election – why sometimes voting for the lesser evil is right

In the above article I went on to mention Trump appointing anti-abortion Supreme Court Judges and that with the “country’s highest court is so clearly partisan, again a system protected by the constitution means one can have little confidence in this country’s justice system.”

Yet, as flawed and in desperate need of reform as the US political system is, it is still paramount that all eligible voters turn out to vote. The initial response from US voters to the Supreme Court decision appeared to be a backlash. In traditionally Republican voting states of Alaska and Kansas, Democrats made surprise gains. The coming mid-term elections could be an opportunity to send this message on a national level, but polls suggest there are several senate races which are tight and there is a projected national swing to Republicans. Of course, like all elections, there are many factors at play, but turnout will be a significant factor.

As already explained, mid-term elections generally go against sitting presidents. In the case of Biden, he faces low approval ratings due to the state of the economy, which is hurting incumbent governments globally and the lingering backlash from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Biden has a track record of being gaff-prone, often making silly comments and going off script. But in terms of delivery, in the last 22 months, the United States Government has done surprisingly well. Since January 2022, Democrats and the Biden Presidency have achieved the following

  • Rolled out the $1.9 trillion COVID relief deal, rolled out the COVID vaccine and got control of the virus unlike Biden’s inept predecessor
  • Got both Congress and Senate to approve the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package which drastically increased investment in the national network of bridges and roads, airports, public transport, national broadband internet, as well as waterways and energy systems.
  • Made serious commitments to stopping climate change and unlike his predecessor ordered all government agencies to immediately halt the financing of new international carbon-intensive fossil fuel projects, and instead work towards clean energy use.
  • Has reduced the US unemployment figure from 6.3% under Trump to 3.9% today.

The current cost of living crisis and high inflation are hurting the American people, and it is understandable that there is anger at the US Government and the political and economic system that has allowed this to happen. But allowing the Republican Party, in its current state to control the Legislative branch would be a terrible mistake.

Let’s be clear, we are not just talking about a typical centre-right political party, which let’s be honest tends to dominate in liberal democracies. Whilst the politics of serving the wealthy elites and opposing progressive reforms are distasteful enough, in 2022 the US Republican Party is an entirely different beast. Trump and his allies now control the Republican Party with many mid-term candidates now saying the 2020 election was “stolen” and dismissing the Congressional hearings into the January 6 insurrections as a “kangaroo court.”

Last week Nancy Pelosi’s husband was the victim of a violent attack, a symptom of the increasingly volatile mood in the United States. The intended target of the attack was Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, something that should be quite shocking to anyone who supports democracy. The response from the Republican Party was a mixture of silence, baseless conspiracy theories or in the case of Donald Trump Jr, mockery.

Earlier this week, Bolsonaro supporters took to the streets of Brazil refusing to accept the election result. Bolsonaro initially made no comment on the loss and has only grudgingly accepted that Lula will be the next President. This is straight out of the Trumpian playbook and is incredibly dangerous and divisive. In the US, given historical trends in US midterms and recent polling, it is likely that the Republican Party will make gains. Yet there are already signs that if results do not go their way, several Trump-aligned Republican candidates cannot commit to accepting the election result. There is no evidence that 2022 was stolen, in fact, quite the contrary it was in fact Trump who threatened the Governor of Georgia and demanded he finds him votes and made other false allegations about the 2020 election. These false claims resulted in the violence in Washington on Six January 2021, and it is appalling that Republicans have learnt nothing from this shameful episode. This alone should be reason enough to turn out and vote next Tuesday.

These are deeply troubling times and the stakes could not be much higher. Mid-term elections are a time to send a signal. In response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Trump has described Putin’s actions as an “act of genius.” In light of this, what message does it send voting Trump-aligned Republicans in charge of Congress? Trump continues to deny he lost the 2020 election, or accept responsibility for his part in the violence on Capitol Hill on January 6 2021, should people who condone these actions be given a majority in the Senate? Given the recent decision to overturn Roe V Wade, should Republicans be allowed to control many state legislatures and block women’s right to choose?

At a campaign event last week President Biden said that in these mid-term elections “democracy is on the ballot”. This is absolutely true, and the outcome will be decided by those who show up to vote.

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