America has just finished another midterm election, and the results were overwhelmingly in the Republicans’ favor. The GOP picked up a majority in the Senate and strengthened its majority in the House, holding more seats there than they have since 1928 with 248. Republicans were also given a great deal of control in state legislatures and governor’s offices.
This, predictably, has led to fretfulness in liberals. Many are reading the huge Republican victory as a rejection of the policies of President Obama. That’s certainly a big element. But what the election results really signify is a population that is utterly confused and desperate for a solution. Public approval for elected representatives and the way the country is moving remain at dismal lows, so it’s not hard to imagine that any change must be for the better. Republican victories are as much a reflection of the left’s disillusionment as they are of the right’s continued mobilization.
Actually, the elections ought to be regarded as an embarrassing low point in our democracy, regardless of which party came out victorious. Across the nation, perhaps hundreds of thousands of legal voters had their poll access restricted in Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Georgia and others. More money was spent on the 2014 midterm than on any other in history, with each party raising hundreds of millions of dollars and the parties, as well as outside agencies, spending billions on advertising. Nearly 230,000 Senate ads aired on television and left no indication of who funded them. The whole election was just one massive hustle, like seeing which party can sell more cars – it’s about the furthest thing imaginable from people democratically organizing and choosing their country’s direction.
Cable news coverage of US elections is always a spectacle. Dramatic music plays and newscasters sound serious and urgent. The results come in across every news network and website in real-time, with everyone trying to beat everyone else with the most up-to-the-minute revelation. “Shocking” numbers pour in from podunk precincts around the nation and the anchors can hardly contain their excitement. It’s as though the elections are the Kentucky Derby and the whole nation is a betting parlor.
Like all other elections, the 2014 midterms were played up by the media as representing some kind of crucial, game-changing tipping point. But it’s just hype for ratings. In reality, elections are a fairly banal reshuffling of the country’s middle management. Imagine the US as a corporation. You can keep who you like and throw out who you don’t, but that isn’t what drives the company – there are mission statements, a board of directors, shareholders, and innumerable other interests it’s beholden to. Similarly, US policy is not driven by our elected representatives; it’s filtered through them from the big financial interests that are truly in charge. Our role as citizens isn’t to question these mechanisms; we just work here. Elections are held for the sake of our morale.
Still, the national endorsement of increasingly medieval Republican policies is troubling, particularly with respect to reproductive rights, voter rights and the working poor. But it isn’t as though the 2014 election had no progressive victories: In Washington, voters passed a gun control law mandating universal background checks; all four minimum wage initiatives on state ballots passed, even in “Republican-dominated states which all elected Republican senators alongside the initiative;” and Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. all passed referendums to decriminalize marijuana.
Sadly, President Obama has already pledged a centrist agenda moving forward. It’s bizarre that he can be so naïve as to think the next two years with a GOP majority will be productive; every inch of progressive principle Obama is willing to surrender further disillusions the left and emboldens the GOP to demand even more. If Democrats were more willing to embrace their liberal base and lay out a meaningful agenda for addressing climate change and austerity, more liberal voters would have turned out for the midterms.
To the American political class, there are only even-numbered years. Much of the media’s coverage has already shifted to what’s going to happen in 2016. But little is mentioned of 2015, or indeed the whole two years between elections. Democrats are no more interested in your welfare than Republicans – they’re only interested in their own political aggrandizement. Anything the ordinary citizen might get out of the deal is practically incidental. Anyone who is displeased with the election result, yet plans to simply wait for the next election to do anything, is failing to understand just what a democracy is and how it should work.
Elections have never really been the way forward. It wasn’t the election of Lyndon Johnson that made the Civil Rights Act possible, it was the tireless work of activists and community leaders. Any sitting president would’ve been forced to do the same thing. Look at Richard Nixon – a Republican created the EPA in response to swelling public outcry over environmental concerns. The EPA is corrupt to the point where it’s practically worthless, but it’s there at all because of the work of activists, not politicians – and certainly not business and financial interests.
It’s disappointing that, in an America where the curtain is pulled back on the billionaire chess masters of our political system, people think endorsing one side or the other is sufficient political involvement. Citizens should organize, hold meetings and teach-ins, demonstrate, agitate leaders, debate issues, and then and only then, vote for representatives of their own choosing. Unfortunately, too few of us have time for that – and that’s the secret to the success of the powerful in maintaining their status quo. For as long as democracy in America is constrained to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. one day every two years, it won’t matter which party is in charge.