Mike Rotkin reviews the outcome of the national midterm elections and finds muted, but real, reasons for a happy holiday season. The midterms turned out well for Democrats — putting off what he describes as “the terrifying prospect of a House of Representatives controlled by a supermajority of election and climate change deniers, gun fanatics and anti-feminist, LGBTQ+ bashers.” But losing the House will have consequences, and the tight races in many states don’t bode well for the future, he writes.
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We are clearly justified in issuing a collective sigh of relief at the final November 2022 election outcome. Somehow, we managed to stop short of the full apocalypse that appeared to almost every reasonable person as the inevitable result.
Democrats retained the Senate and even gained an additional seat with the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Sen. Joe Manchin’s and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (now an independent) ability to totally limit Democratic Party progress on important economic, social, and political issues will be somewhat diminished, but not abolished (since there are two of them).
The terrifying prospect of a House of Representatives controlled by a supermajority of election and climate change deniers, gun fanatics, and anti-feminist, LGBTQ+ bashers and “American Taliban” adherents was muted by the slim majority actually achieved by the Grand Old Party. The reality of what happened to the predicted red wave is well captured in the newspaper cartoon of a fat elephant on a surfboard in a puddle of water.
The sudden pressure off of the heart and lungs of America is bolstered by the fact that the biggest losers in the midterm elections were the sorry lot of candidates forced on the Republican Party by Donald Trump’s endorsements. And, perhaps most worthy of note, was the defeat of virtually every national candidate who would have been elected to offices in control of future elections and who were clearly committed to replacing the will of the voters in their states with their own electoral desires.
But our joy at the outcome has to be tempered by the knowledge that we still will have a Congress that will be capable of stopping any Democratic Party initiative to address the problems of our nation.
Rather than finding ways to address big issues of election reform, employment stagnation, inflation, a crumbling infrastructure and an educational system that now lags behind even many developing countries, we will face countless news cycles dominated by investigations into Hunter Biden’s laptop, Benghazi, baseless attempts to impeach President Joe Biden, and whatever else the fertile mind of Marjorie Taylor Greene can conjure up.
No doubt we will face unnecessary periodic crises over the absurd requirement that we raise the national debt ceiling in order to pay our creditors and keep our entire financial order from collapsing. As in 1995, when Newt Gingrich first played this silly hand, it might be averted as the American public realizes that the immediate consequence would be the failure of the government to send out Social Security checks or keep the national parks open.
But this Republican-controlled House includes enough truly stupid and crazy members to actually carry out the threat.
It also is sobering to remember that we still have a Supreme Court dominated by a majority of relatively young judges who still have long terms to serve and who will methodically march us backward in time with respect to civil rights, social justice and government regulatory capacity. The latter will be made more frightening when tied to a Congress that will be incapable of providing the White House with the regulatory authority that the court will begin to require of it for actions related to election reform, gun control or climate change legislation.
Our joy at the outcome of the midterm elections must also be tempered by the awareness of how close the races were in so many of the contests. It’s clear that still close to half of the American electorate supports Trump or Trumpism.
Even if fear of the Trump base seems to be abating among a slowly increasing and cautious number of Republican Party leaders who appear to be willing to speak out about the harm his endorsements did to the outcome of the midterms, and even if Trump appears to finally be facing some legal consequences for his illegal and even traitorous attacks on democracy and the U.S. Constitution, it is not obvious by any means that he will not be the Republican candidate for president in 2024.
Although we have managed to avoid the apocalypse, we are still living in a pre-apocalyptic world.
We will not be able to escape from the constant fear, poet William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.
Our situation did not improve; it just didn’t get worse as quickly as we had feared.
All of this is undergirded by the critical, but little known, fact that real wages have been falling in the United States since 1970. Between the end of World War II and the end of the 1960s, most Americans experienced an increase in real wages, or the value of goods and services their wages would purchase in the marketplace.
This led to optimism about the future. In their own lives, and, more important, in their expectations for their children, Americans fundamentally believed the world would become a more friendly and supportive place for themselves and future generations. Even those who rioted because the progress was slower than they had been led to expect believed that things were improving and that they had at least some basis for confidence in their government and their community.
Despite the periodic booms and contractions of the economy, the overall trend was so positive that by the end of the 1960s many college-educated youth began to wonder if they couldn’t somehow live a life free of the constraints of getting and holding a regular job. It was this, much more than the growing parental permissiveness, so often cited disapprovingly by conservatives, that fed the unrealistic expectations of so many of the flower children of the age of Aquarius.
And that growing parental permissiveness was itself reinforced by the rising level of real wages over this extended period.
But starting in 1970, to a certain extent initiated by a systematic planned economic slowdown supported by economic advisors to the wealthiest sectors of the United States, Japan and Europe, real wages began to fall. It is this long-term fall in real wages that has played the key role in the rise of the abandonment of the Democratic Party by large sectors of the working class, who then ultimately shifted their allegiance to more conservative social movements and demagogues like Donald Trump, religious and secular cults, and other forms of political irrationality.
As so many of Trump’s supporters have indicated, they don’t support him because they believe he will actually fix things, but at least he is an avatar for their feelings about a system that doesn’t seem to recognize their pain and despair about the way things are going.
With the success of his large infrastructure bills, Biden has done a surprisingly good job of beginning to address the issue of economic stagnation and falling real wages, but the outcome of the midterm elections and the loss of the House of Representatives to the Republicans suggests that there will not be any progress providing average Americans reasons to walk away from their economic despair and political irrationality during the next two years and, perhaps, for many years yet to come.
But I’d rather be living in a pre- than post-apocalyptic world, so I’ll count my blessings.
Mike Rotkin is a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lifelong union activist. His most recent piece for Lookout, “Santa Cruz elections turned out well for pragmatic progressives,” ran Dec. 15.