For the Old Mole Variety Hour 8 November 2010.
What to make of last week's midterm elections? Well that's a big question, but the big story has been the shift of the US Congress to Republican control and the GOP gaining ground in the Senate. Then there's the question of the vaunted year of the woman, which turned out to be a bust, so to speak, and the increase in the influence of Latino voters. Closer to home, Oregon voters passed an increase in mandatory minimum sentences for repeat DUI and sexual offenses, and, more locally, defeated a measure to fund upgrades to Tri-met bus service.
Nationally, there's the question of the Democrats' failures. While some mainstream outlets have suggested that this is a result of their having moved too far left, the media watch group FAIR debunks this on several counts, noting that Democratic-leaning voters tended not to vote this time, and the editors of the Nation magazine argue that "The public was alienated not because of Obama's overreaching but because his team hasn't fought aggressively enough against well-funded and entrenched interests." They write, "By rescuing instead of reforming the big banks, the White House economic team, led by Wall Street–tainted Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, ceded populist energy to the Tea Party and its corporate funders. The inadequacy of the president's recovery program, largely a result of concessions to the GOP, became a political and economic catastrophe for the White House." In this view, the Democrats lack the courage of their liberalism. Alan Maass, writing in Socialist Worker, suggests that "The Republicans' semi-populist rhetoric is one important factor behind the success of their campaigns in the congressional elections this month."
Billy Wharton in Counterpunch laid some of the blame on Citizens United, noting that "This was the first election since the Supreme Court decision that reversed the limits on corporate campaign donations by affirming corporate personhood. The money did certainly flow in 2010 and it served to shape the outcome of at least some of the elections." In contrast, my comrade mole Bill Resnick suggests the electorate has moved rightward not because the Democrats lack the will to challenge their corporate funders, or the wit to frame the issues persuasively, or the wherewithal to build popular understanding and support for a new New Deal, or the wisdom to have focused on creating jobs rather than squandering Obama's political capital on a compromised health bill. Instead, he suggests they quite reasonably fear capital flight from local districts.
Given the apparent death grip that neoliberal capitalism has on the political system in the US, then, it's not surprising that voters are disillusioned. As Billy Wharton writes,
Save the moralistic homilies about the duty of people to vote. The American people get at least one part of the problem. There are no significant choices offered at the ballot box. There is a basic agreement between the Democrats and Republicans over issues ranging from budget cuts, to free trade, to military strategy and expenditures. No amount of well-financed public relations can effectively dress up this agreement as difference. The American voters know this, so they stay home.
Similarly, Paul Craig Roberts, also in Counterpunch, suggests that
Jobs offshoring, . . . has merged the Democrats and Republicans into one party with two names. . . . American manufacturers moved production for US markets offshore to boost profits and shareholder earnings by utilizing cheap labor. . . . Angry voters take their anger out on incumbents. . . .
Policies, however, will not change qualitatively. Quantitatively, Republicans will be more inclined to more rapidly dismantle more of the social safety net than Democrats and more inclined to finish off the remnants of civil liberties. But the powerful private oligarchs will continue to write the legislation that Congress passes and the President signs. New members of Congress will quickly discover that achieving re-election requires bending to the oligarchs’ will. . . .
Americans . . . are angry. But the political system offers them no way of bringing about change. They can change the elected servants of the oligarchs, but they cannot change the policies or the oligarchs. . . .
The control of the oligarchs extends to the media. The Clinton administration permitted a small number of mega-corporations to concentrate the US media in a few hands. Corporate advertising executives, not journalists, control the new American media, and the value of the mega-companies depends on government broadcast licenses. The media’s interest is now united with that of the government and the oligarchs. On top of all the other factors that have made American elections meaningless, voters cannot even get correct information from the media about the problems that they and the country face.
As the economic situation is likely to continue deteriorating, the anger will grow. But the oligarchs will direct the anger away from themselves and toward the vulnerable elements of the domestic population and “foreign enemies.”
That's from Paul Craig Roberts in Counterpunch. Within these overall trends there are some local ripple effects and contradictions. Fear of capital flight can't directly be tied to local voters' support for increasing mandatory minimums and reluctance to financially support public transportation, any more than it can explain, say, Obama's reluctance to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But patterns of scapegoating do presumably contribute to a willingness to deal harshly with a perceived criminal class, and to express hostility to unions. The Oregonian suggests the vote against funding Tri-met may have been fueled not just by a reluctance to add to tax bills in a tight economy, but by an envy of unionized drivers and mechanics reluctant to give up their good benefits. Rather more perversely, it may express anger at cuts to Tri-met routes.
On the gender agenda, a few high-profile Republican women candidates had led some to see this as a new year of the woman, but Emily Bazelon at Slate calls it the Year of the Backslide, given that women seem to have actually ended up with decreased numbers in the US House and Senate. Sarah Seltzer on Alternet notes the problem of sexism directed at female candidates, but that naming the sexism as such seems to defuse much of its negative effect on the candidate's chances. And Amanda Marcotte reminds us of the vacuity of simplistic identity politics, highlighting the contradictions of candidates who laid "claim to feminism while denouncing most feminist ideals."
Still, some elements of identity politics may have the power to mobilize voters. Scapegoating seems to have backfired in Nevada, where the increase in Latino voters, reported in the New York Times, helped defeat Sharron Angle in Nevada and preserve Harry Reid's Senate seat. That vote might have been a response to campaign ads targeting undocumented immigrants and portraying Latinos as scary criminals. Another ad, encouraging Latinos to stay home and not vote, seems to have encouraged turnout.
Still, though resistance to the worst of the oligarchy and the right wing can help us go backwards less fast, what we ultimately need is something else. Sean Sheehan, in a review of the work of philosopher Alain Badiou on the Monthly Review blog, points out that "if post-modern capitalism and . . . politics is accepted as the only game in town, then the other possibilities are simply not seen even though they are inherent in the situation." What we need, in contrast, is "the belief in, a commitment to, a world not run for private profit."