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Politics is About Power: Assessing the 2018 Midterms

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Image left: Ilhan Omar; Image right: Rashida Tlaib

These notes were the basis for a presentation to the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild on November 8, 2018. This piece was originally posted on


Politics is about Power. One of the positive things about this moment is that the question of power has moved central to discussion on the left. Not just how to speak truth to power, or how to protest those in power, or pressure those in power. Rather, how to take chunks of power from those who have it now and get it for the exploited and oppressed. I haven’t seen that on the scale of today since 1960s, when the question of a path to power was put before the left in a different way. The differences are important, but the main thing is that radical discussion is again focused on finding a path to power. That’s the context of our discussion tonight.

Elections are also about power. They are a barometer of the relative strength of different social and political forces, and within certain constraints, they can shift power. The constraints vary. Sometimes the outcome of elections can shift things only in the tiniest of ways; other times they have big consequences. In this just-completed election, and likely even more so in the one in 2020, the stakes are quite high. There are three inter-related reasons for this.

Special danger of Trumpism

First is the special danger posed by Trump and the GOP which under him has been captured by white nationalism and is permeated by the politics of racial and imperial revenge. Of course, Trumpism is not some fluke; reactionary anti-democratic blocs anchored in white supremacy have been common in U.S. society because of deep structural factors – a country founded on the genocide of the indigenous people and the enslavement of people of African descent. But if Trumpism represents a pattern in U.S. life, it is also something new. In the context of demographic change, the decline of U.S. global hegemony and failure of the economic model that has dominated the U.S. since the Reagan administration, it is a turn from dog-whistles to bullhorns and an attempt to put in place a semi-apartheid authoritarian system. There’s debate on the left about what Trumpism does and does not have in common with classical fascism, but little debate that this is something different and extremely dangerous.

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The second reason, flowing from the first, is that the country is polarized to a degree not seen at least since the early 1960s and more likely since the Civil War. White nationalism’s capture of the GOP has meant that racial polarization in the country and partisan political polarization all but totally overlap and reinforce each other. Add in geographic polarization, and the way media has evolved to the point where different sectors of society use all but completely different sources not just for analysis but for basic facts, and the chasm is even more severe. These and other factors rooted in political economy and the shifting power relations in global politics also mean that the ruling class itself is more divided than it has been in decades. The battle between the Trump and anti-Trump camps has squeezed out middle ground and past patterns of so-called bipartisan cooperation. It is now take-no-prisoners trench warfare.

The third factor, especially important for us in this room, is that within the anti-Trump camp there is a surging social justice motion rooted especially in communities of color, and among youth, women and the LGBTQ community. A host of progressive organizations of different types threw themselves into the electoral fray in ways not seen in decades or longer. More on this later if I have time, but for a quick sampling:

The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), with its strong base among Latinos and African Americans, went all out in the most populous red state this year. TOP deployed at one time 575 staff, reached 882,000 voters, knocked on 300,000 doors, was key in flipping two congressional seats and electing three DAs – including in Dallas – to put Texas squarely on the map in the fight against mass incarceration. The progressive state table in Florida, which includes groups ranging from the Dream Defenders to Florida New Majority and SEIU, pushed through Prop 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people. This is the largest since expansion of voting rights since Voting Rights Act of 1965. The collaboration between the Working Families Party and New Georgia Project in Georgia, the leadership in sectors of Stacey Abrams’ campaign by people out of the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice section, the fact that the National Domestic Workers Alliance deployed the largest independent field operation in that state – all this energized young voters, re-energized veterans of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and strengthened the emerging Black-Latino alliance, laying the basis for future wins if Stacey Abrams doesn’t pull it out this time. Add to this the work of Our Revolution, National Nurses Union, Color of Change, fast-growing Democratic Socialists of America chapters, the Movement Voter Project and others across the country. Efforts like these are not just the left wing of the possible, they are expanding the range of what is possible.

Mapping the contending forces

Against that backdrop, my charge tonight is to offer a starting point assessment of the election results and their consequences to kick off what is sure to be a continuing discussion. To do that I will say a little about the character of the main forces that went into battle; then talk about results, concentrating on the national level. I will note trends among different sectors of voters, and the new balance between both the Trump and anti-Trump camps and, within the latter, between the corporate and the social justice wings. And finally wrap up with some speculation on what things will look like going forward.

First, the Trump camp. Beginning in the 2016 election campaign, and accelerating since Trump was inaugurated, those Republicans critical of Trump have either been pushed out or brought into line. The GOP has been transformed from a conservative party into a party driven primarily by white nationalism and authoritarianism. The current program of the GOP is “whatever Trump says.” Trumpism has been financed and anchored by right-wing billionaires and sectors of capital rooted in the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex. It is also rooted in the most racist layers of white middle-class and working-class people, and those gathered in white Evangelical Churches. The glue keeping the less-well-off sectors within the coalition is the narrative of “hard-working white America as victim of globalist elites, dark-skinned barbarians and uppity women.” Trumps approval ratings going into the voting hovered around 38-40%. There are potential fissures in this cross-class alliance, but going into the 2018 balloting they were all but completely undetectable.

In contrast, the anti-Trump camp is larger – up to 60% – and much more heterogenous. While over-simplified, it is a good first-cut assessment to see it as divided into two wings. The first is the corporate or so-called moderate wing. Anchored in financial and hi-tech capital and encompassing much of the country’s foreign policy and cultural elite, this sector is opposed to Trump because they see him as an unreliable guardian of a system that has served them well. To be sure, many in this sector believe that the naked racism, misogyny and general bigotry that spews from the Trump camp is morally wrong as well as counter-productive. But their main concern is to get back to things as they were: ‘America was always great’ is their counterpoint to Trump’s slogan of MAGA.

The progressive wing of the anti-Trump camp – what has generally been termed the resistance – opposes Trumpism from a whole other standpoint. For this sector, which ranges all the way from humanist liberals to big sectors of the revolutionary left – the problem is that Trumpism represents an especially dangerous threat – a clear and present danger – to the drive for major progressive change that much needed in this country. Bernie Sanders campaign galvanized an important portion of this sector in 2016, though his weaknesses on issues of racial and gender justice meant he failed to attract many of those most interested in change among women and peoples of color. But in the wake of Trump’s victory, the partisans of change whoever they supported in 2016, or if they sat it out, have coalesced into an energetic resistance that has driven the anti-Trump effort from the moment of the first Women’s March up to November 6.

There is a complicated relationship between these wings. They fought like hell against each other in many primaries and when squared off against each other in the general – we saw a vivid example of that right here in the Bay Area in the Buffy Wicks vs. Jovanka Beckles contest. But they hung together in fight vs. Trump. More about that later.

A changed power balance

Turning to the November 6 results: They tell us a lot about the relative strength of the Trump camp and the two wings of those opposed to Trump, and what has and hasn’t changed since 2016.

Here are the bottom-line results as of today (November 8):

The Democrats captured the House, as of this evening there is a swing of 30 seats, probably will end up with more as vote counting is completed. They needed 23.

The GOP kept the Senate. It stands at 51-46 now, with three races still to be called.

Democrats flipped 7 governorships, the GOP flipped none. The Democrats now have 23 to GOP 27.

Democrats scored some gains in state legislatures flipped 6 houses in four states and gained seats in many others, in the 300 to 400 seat range.

Adding it up, one activist put it this way:  “We didn’t win what we wanted to, but we won what we absolutely had to.”

Gains in actual power, however, do not match the relative number of voters in each camp. In total House vote, Democrats beat the GOP by 7%. When the GOP won by that amount in 2010, they took 60 seats.

In the Senate vote, the Democrats beat the GOP by even more, 12%. But the GOP gained seats in the Senate rather than lost them.

This puts us face to face with the racist, undemocratic structure of the U.S. electoral system. It was built into the original Constitution to protect slavery and be a bulwark against change driven from below and has continued ever since. It is biased toward small states and characterized by gerrymandering and voter suppression. Disenfranchising people has always been part of U.S. history. We should recall that of 400 years on this continent and 200-plus years as the USA, even formal legal equality in voting for African Americans has only existed for 50 or so years. And that gain started being chipped away at starting about five minutes after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

And the last few years the GOP has taken voter suppression efforts to a new level.

There is also the basic structure of the so-called “two-party system”- which really should be termed a two-ballot line, state-sponsored electoral system. That system forces us to fight in an unfavorable structure for insurgent politics compared to a parliamentary system. There is a long discussion to be had about how this works and what it means for radical electoral efforts, perhaps we can get into that during the discussion period.

The disparity between the voting numbers vs. the actual allotment of seats is also apparent when we look at breakdown of votes by sectors. Exit polls are not completely reliable, but they are the best guide we have. And they show a shift from red to blue in virtually every sector. And some shifts are very important for long range strategic thinking.

I will flag a few key numbers from the exit poll results for 2014, 2016 and 2018:

  • African Americans remain the most progressive voting bloc in the country: 90% of African Americans and 92% of Black women voted Democratic this year, roughly the same as in 2014 and 2016.
  • Voters under age 44 shifted from GOP to Democrat by 8 percentage points from 2016. The biggest shift according to other evidence was in voters under 30.
  • The biggest shift was among Asian Americans, a point particularly important for us here in California: Asians shifted red to blue by 12 percentage points from 2016 and by 28 points from 2014.
  • Lower income voters shifted to the Democrats by significant margins while the GOP held steady among those earning more than $200,000 a year. Voters earning less than $30,000/year shifted by 10 points R to D from 2016 to 2018; voters between $30,000 and $50,000 shifted by 5 points and voters between $50,000 and $100,000 shifted by 6 points.

These last figures – the breakdown by income levels – is a sign that a politics which combines the fight against class exploitation with insistence on racial and gender justice has a future in this country if we do the necessary hard work.

Still, the Trump alignment held fast. Democratic turnout increased tremendously, but so did GOP turnout. It was a ‘base election’ – and both sides turned out their bases. Note that this is a big change from 2016. Then the GOP had a near monopoly on grassroots energy with the Tea Party grassroots mobilizations, while the corporate Democrats ran a lackluster campaign for Hilary. And though most progressive groups advocated a vote for her to defeat Trump, there was little enthusiasm and nothing like the voter engagement and mobilization efforts conducted this year.

Polarization will get sharper

So, the upshot is there was a reasonable sized blue wave. But not a tide that swept the Trumpists away or weakened their determination to pursue their agenda. Democratic control of the House puts some check on their capacity to push through legislation. And the gain in governorships means the threat of a reaction-driven Constitutional Convention is off the table for the near future, something that the GOP was aiming for if it could get trifectas (control of both legislative houses and the governorship) in 33 states. (They had 26). But Executive Branch power is huge in this country’s imperial state.

And polarization is likely to be even sharper in the next two years than it has been since 2016.

For one thing, in the make-up of elected bodies the polarization is sharper.

The GOP Senate and House delegations are both farther to the right and more tied to Trump. Dissidents to varying degrees – McCain, Flake, Corker – are gone. One-time critics like Graham have fallen into line. The Freedom Caucus in the House will have more power in the GOP Caucus. Everyone in the GOP added their voice to or fell in line behind the last few weeks escalated hate campaign: the demonization of the caravan, migrants in general and the attack on birthright citizenship; the despicable racist smears of Abrams and Gillum; the announced desire to rule that trans people do not exist; the use of conspiracy theories from the nakedly racist right.

And likewise, on the Democratic side, the House and Senate caucuses are farther left. Defeat of centrist Democrats like Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp and the wave of progressives who won in the House moves the center of gravity of Democratic elected officials at the federal level to the left.

And at the state level the chasm and polarization are now all but totally complete. Post-election there is only one state in the country where two Houses of state legislature are divided – Minnesota. It’s the first time in 104 years that’s been the case. Thirty state legislatures are totally GOP, 18 totally Democratic. Minnesota is split, Nebraska is the only state with just one legislative house and its members are technically non-partisan.

Trump’s remarks and actions after the election will further exacerbate polarization. After a nod to bipartisanship (which Nancy Pelosi did as well, sparking anger in the progressive wing) he then attacked the press and threatened his opponents. Trump fired Sessions and appointed a loyalist toady to be Attorney General in his place, which many see as the forerunner to a constitutional crisis over the Mueller probe. And above all, there is the Trumpists’ summation of the result: “Racism and voter suppression works!”

So, there will be no break in the Trump/anti-Trump confrontation

Social justice wing vs. corporate democrats

I will turn for a minute to assessing the relative strength of the contending wings on the anti-Trump side, and the nature of relationship between them. It’s complicated.

There were many bitter battles in primaries that pitted corporate backed candidates against progressives. By and large, once the general election came around, both sides focused on beating the GOP in contests against GOP opponents. On the corporate or moderate side, there was nothing like what happened when George McGovern won the Democratic nomination vs. Nixon in 1972. Then big chunks of the party establishment sat it out or tacitly supported Nixon, including hawkish George Meany who was head of AFL-CIO. This time during the run-up to the general election there were some attacks on progressive candidates, the harshest ones from Zionists who hit hard at Ocasio-Cortez and others who support Palestinian rights. These attacks are signs of their near-panic at the fact that the combination of hard work at the grassroots by activists promoting BDS and Palestinian rights, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ever more obvious embrace of Trump and other right-wing nationalists around the globe whether they are Jew-haters or not, is having an impact on public opinion. There are leaps forward in pro-Palestinian sentiment especially among young people and in people of color communities. But the Zionist attacks did not gain generalized establishment momentum and did not lead any significant number of people to defect to the Trump camp.

And on the progressive side, while obviously there was less enthusiasm in social justice groups for campaigning for moderates than for candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Stacey Abrams or Andrew Gillum, in federal and most state races virtually every organization with a mass base threw down to beat the GOP whatever the character of the Democratic candidate. This was for two reasons. First, mass-based social justice groups saw the urgency of defeating the GOP to gain space for further work. As one activist put it, “corporate neoliberalism is horrible, but white nationalist authoritarian fascism is worse.” And second, they saw that working as part of the array of organizations and grassroots energy turning out against the GOP was the best way to build relationships, expand their base and gain strength for the next round. Those that threw down gained some ability to affect the votes of the Democratic candidate if she or he won and built greater capacity to support or field a better candidate next time around.

Still, even as the corporate and progressive wings hung together in races against Republlcans, there were contests characterized by nasty fights between the two wings. We saw some right here in the Bay Area in the Buffy Wicks vs. Jovanka Beckles contest for a State Assembly seat, and in Libby Schaaf’s bid to be re-elected Oakland mayor facing two African American women progressive challengers: Cat Brooks who has long been a stalwart of anti-racist policing battles in Oakland, and Pamela Price, who in the spring had challenged Alameda County’s longtime incumbent DA running on an “End the New Jim Crow” platform. In both these races, the muscle and money of the corporate Democrats, especially from the real estate industry, was mobilized against us. This too is going to be a feature of the next few year’s battles, especially in the “blue states.”

And those are going to be tough fights, as the defeats we suffered in the Beckles-Wicks and Schaaf-Brooks-Price campaigns here in what is considered a very progressive area indicate. The corporate/”centrist” Democrats should not be underestimated. They have money and experience, they are positioned, they have a base. They are not going to be dislodged easily, either from their dominance of the Democratic Party or in other spheres of political action and civil society much less the economy.

Still, the fresh energy and dynamism lies with progressive wing. Demographic trends are also headed in our direction (though gentrification, which we are fighting tooth and nail, is changing previous patterns of population distribution as Blacks and Latinos are being pushed out of urban centers while white professionals largely in the tech sector move in). The strength and sophistication of our organizations have grown by a lot in the last two years. There is widespread motion for groups to break out of silos. Organizations that previously played only the “inside game” are turning out for demonstrations and even civil disobedience, while groups that previously shunned electoral efforts have thrown themselves into electoral battles. And as I noted at the beginning, almost everyone in the social justice world has started to discuss the issue of power and how to get it in new ways. In the years before Bernie’s 2016 campaign, we had virtually nothing going at the national level. Now the social justice forces are a national player. We are much farther along than we were two years ago, but we have a long fight ahead.

Three final takeaways

I will wrap up with these final takeaways.

  1. The battle between the Trump and anti-Trump camps is going to be even fiercer in the next two years. It will take place over just about every political issue: There will be fierce fights over immigrant rights, health care, police abuse, reproductive rights. As climate change becomes more and more a matter of today rather than tomorrow the fight to label the fossil fuel companies the enemy of all humanity and make drastic changes in energy policies must move to the fore. The fight for peace and internationalism and against militarism – arguably the weakest component of the current resistance – must be strengthened. Revitalizing the labor movement is crucial. And more.

Trump is going to keep ginning up his supporters. We must be prepared to deal with violence coming from that quarter.Battles over all these issues and more will have to be fought on the level of winning hearts and minds and shaping public opinion, in the electoral arena; in the streets; on the picket lines, and in the courts. 2020 is going to be even more important than 2018. We need to not only win but win big enough so that Trump cannot challenge the legitimacy of the results.

  1. We will have to constantly grapple with and recalibrate a strategy that simultaneously builds the broadest possible front against Trumpism and steadily increases the strength of the social justice wing.

Build our own organizations

  1. To carry out #1 and #2 above, we need to build our own organizations and strengthen alignment and cooperation between them. This is crucial not just for 2020, but for a longer fight against the extreme racist right, and for emerging with clout if and when that specific enemy is pushed back to the margins. We must do our best to prevent the repeat of past times where, after the broad cross class coalition that was absolutely required to defeat the main enemy of their historical moment accomplished its task, that coalition broke apart and the ruling class component was able to push the progressives out of the game. We saw this when the combination of Klan terror and disenfranchisement of African Americans rolled back Reconstruction. We saw this when McCarthyism crushed the left which had emerged as a power via the mass struggles of the 1930s and anti-fascist campaigns of the 1940s.

Today we are experiencing the height of the backlash against the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s. We need the broadest possible front to defeat it. But we need to come out of that victory with the social justice forces, organized and maximally unified, holding enough power at the local, state and federal levels that we cannot be shoved back to the margins. Rather, we need to be strong enough to use that positioning as a platform to move toward more advanced stages of struggle against the system that undergirds all forms of exploitation and oppression.