Three weeks after the 2018 midterm elections, and with most of the races now settled, a number of larger trends and lessons seem clear.
I’d start by looking at a remarkable result in New York City, on the Republican stronghold of Staten Island, where a Democratic newcomer named Max Rose upset the incumbent Republican to win a seat in the House of Representatives. He won in a district that Donald Trump carried decisively in 2016, one that had not sent a Democrat to Congress in 10 years.
How this happened is instructive.
Rose was not particularly telegenic or charismatic. But he told his conservative constituents they were getting screwed. They already knew that, but he told them why.
It wasn’t because of Mexicans or immigrants. It was, he said, because the economic system is rigged to benefit special corporate interests and the extremely wealthy. He told them that because of government policies, they were getting the short end of the stick, and that what is needed is better infrastructure and stronger unions.
He talked about what mattered to them: oppressively long commute times and the opioid crisis, which is destroying lives on Staten Island. And he criticized the incumbent congressman for taking money from the company that manufactures OxyContin.
Rose didn’t lecture people, or shame them, or tell them not to be bigots or hostile to immigrants. Rather, like Franklin Roosevelt in the ’30s, he focused on their local problems, and proposed real solutions.
And they responded, in a way that astonished most New York liberals, who had long seen Staten Island politically as their local version of rural Alabama.
But there was something else at work too. Rose’s arguments probably wouldn’t have been enough to get him elected five years ago. The additional factor now is demographic change: new people with different politics, driven by affordable housing no longer available in Manhattan or Brooklyn, who had moved to Staten Island.
That phenomenon ― demographic change ― also drove electoral developments in Texas and Georgia. What we have now in this country is the political struggle reflected by these changes. The story everywhere on Nov. 6 was of growing, college-educated, ethnically diverse populations in expanding urban and suburban areas versus declining, rural, nearly uniformly white populations with no more than high school education and limited, fading economic opportunities.
The latter, used to being in the majority, voted like their lives depended on it, because of their dread that they are facing an inevitable process of being replaced by “the other.” They have always been there, have felt that fear for a while, but now Trump has given voice and leadership to their fears, as he rails against the same things they dread.
Of course, they are being pushed to the margins not by “the other,” but by economic changes that are eliminating their jobs. Encouraging them not to dread what is engulfing them only increases their dread; that is why the blue politics of coastal “progressives” only drives them closer to Trump, and why their support for him remains invariant, no matter what he says or does that outrages the rest of us.
Their fears are not imaginary. They are like the Luddites in England at the dawn of industrialization. The world is phasing them out, they know it, they feel powerless to stop it, and all the advocacy of people like us only exacerbates their fear and their despair.
Trump has nothing remedial to offer them, of course, nothing to ease their plight. In fact, his policies make it worse. But he gives voice and legitimacy to their fears, their resentments and their frustration, which Democrats have long since stopped doing.
Just as Hitler had no economic remedies to offer those in the Weimar Republic who had been ravaged by inflation and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, so Trump has nothing to offer his base economically. But just as Hitler identified with the simmering resentments of ordinary Germans, raged against their plight, devised scapegoats and promised to restore “greatness,” so Trump has arisen to rage against the forces his base believes are closing in on and destroying them. He promises them restoration and they love him for that, even as he plunders them.
When the marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted “We will not be replaced” last summer, and when Trump responded by saying there were “good people on both sides,” that was what was going on.
Meanwhile, our side of the political divide mostly just sneers at Trump’s voters and calls them racists. Many of them surely are racists, as were many who voted for FDR four times because he saved them economically.
This is a dangerous time, because the demographic and economic forces that are closing in on Trump’s voters are what propelled him to power. But those same demographic forces are expanding the electoral power of our side. What happened in Staten Island ― and in Georgia, and in Texas ― is moving our way.
Trump probably represents the political death rattle of those populations as they decline. But the politics of death rattles are treacherous, because in the short term they strengthen politically what is fading away economically and sociologically.
Scapegoating works, as it did in Germany in the 1930s; the politics of resentment works; demagoguery works. And in the absence of anyone on our side offering sympathy for the plight of these fading populations and policies that ameliorate their plight, they will remain vulnerable and responsive to scapegoating “the other” and to the politics of hate and bigotry ― in a word, to demagoguery.
When that happens, someone will always arise to exploit it and use it like a ladder to climb to power. That someone was Hitler in Germany in the ’30s. And that someone is Trump in America now. He is not Hitler, but he is as much the result, not the cause, of the political plague afflicting us.
The question now is how much the plague will destroy and how permanent the destruction will be before demography overtakes it.
The danger is too great to sit back and trust to demographic forces. A politics must arise that not only fiercely defends the principles and practices of liberty, democracy, equal rights and remedial justice, but also finds a way genuinely to be sympathetic to the plight of the obsolescent; to identify their real, not their imagined, enemies, as Max Rose seems to have done; and to offer policies that ameliorate what is happening to them and remedy what ails them.
This is possible, but not if the Democrats stay huddled in their blue bubbles, continuing along the misbegotten Clintonian path, or comforting themselves with the thought that they are more virtuous than those “deplorables.” If we do stay in those bubbles, then this year’s victory in the House will be wasted, ineffective and short-lived.
For now, as the results of the Nov. 6 election sink in, there is much to be encouraged about.
Most importantly, Democrats took the House back. That was the single result we had to have, because the political consequences of the Republicans holding their majority in the House would have been disastrous. And it was not a narrow victory: Despite gerrymandering, Democrats have gained at least 38 seats and may end up with as many as 40, providing a comfortable margin.
But it is a victory that only buys time; what matters now is what we do with it. The Democrats have to do more than wreak vengeance on Trump. They must of course uncompromisingly resist his forays into authoritarianism and bigotry, but even that is not enough.
They must also identify the real problems facing us, including those facing many Trump voters, and propose coherent policies that will address those problems. They must not only oppose, not only resist; they must govern. Or at least offer a vision of what governing means.
Secondly, Democrats took back seven governorships and hundreds of state legislative seats. This is where political change starts, where political careers begin, where election districts are drawn, voting rights determined, and elections supervised. This is what the Democrats, focused more on national politics, ignored for too long, and where the extreme right began organizing many decades ago. Even though Democrats narrowly lost the governorships in Florida and Georgia, the fact that black candidates came as razor-thin close as they did in those states is inspiring. But only if we take it as a beginning, something to build on, and not just as a moral victory.
And Democrats did take the governorships in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the three states that gave Trump his Electoral College victory. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Kris Kobach in Kansas (!) went down, and in the wake of Beto O’Rourke’s remarkable run in Texas, there were many wins down-ballot.
These state-based victories are very significant ― but again, only if we consider them a first step, and do not relax.
In what may have been the most significant victory next to winning back the House, we won a referendum in Florida restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people who had been barred from voting because of prior felony convictions. Most of these people are black, and many of the convictions, probably the single largest category, were for nonviolent drug offenses, like possession.
This was no accident, because the use of criminal convictions, often for petty, nonviolent crimes, arose in the Deep South immediately after the 15th Amendment was passed to give former slaves the right to vote. The South’s reaction ― to use the criminal law and felon disenfranchisement to essentially nullify the 15th Amendment ― spread throughout America and became traditional.
And that tradition persisted, unique among Western democracies. By 2000, all but two states had such laws, and 30 percent of black males in the states of the former Confederacy were barred from voting as a result. In Florida, in 2000, hundreds of thousands of people were barred in an election that determined the presidency by 537 disputed votes.
The drug war, supported by Democrats as well as Republicans (fiercely supported by President Bill Clinton, for example, and by virtually all Democrats in Congress), accelerated this process. In 1968, before President Richard Nixon launched the drug war (almost certainly as a means to target and disenfranchise black people in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965), there were only 200,000 people in federal and state prisons, combined, for all crimes. But by 2000, there were 2.4 million people behind bars, and the largest single category reflecting that increase was nonviolent drug offenses.
Over 80 percent of those convicted for these offenses were black and Latino, although black and Latino people use drugs in no greater proportions than whites. As a result, over 6 million mostly nonwhite citizens were barred from voting. And although there has been significant progress in overturning or moderating those barriers in other states, the state of Florida, with its pivotal role in presidential elections, was not among them. Now it is.
Those 1.4 million newly re-enfranchised voters will have to get organized, registered, and so on. They will have to turn out.
The re-enfranchisement reform is not self-executing. But even adding several hundred thousand voters, many of them black, to the Florida rolls could transform that state from a perennial red/blue toss-up to a reliably blue zone. Florida ― and the Electoral College map ― may never be the same. This amendment passing in Florida is one of the less discussed results of the 2018 midterms, but it could be the most significant in terms of national politics and the 2020 presidential election.
So there is, in my view, much to be encouraged about. But the Nov. 6 victories were only a small step, a way of forestalling disaster. There is much work still to be done.
The midterm results indicate the direction of that work: away from blue-bubble moralizing, away from centrist complicity; toward equal rights and remedial justice and toward a reborn focus on the economic problems shared by most Americans.
It may not sound possible to do both, to stand fast for equal rights and also for economic relief for all those who are suffering, but it is. Fifty years ago, Robert Kennedy appealed strongly and successfully to both constituencies. But no major national politician since has effectively emulated him. We need to get back to where he was heading, and go there.
We can do it. We must do it. It is morally the right thing to do, and it is the best political strategy. The results of the last election have given us the opportunity. We dare not squander it.
Ira Glasser was the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1978 to 2001.
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