There couldn’t have been a more true-to-form home stretch for the election campaign than the furious crescendo of rhetoric and violence that has swept through America in the last days before the midterm elections. The rhetoric has never been more frenzied, and the connection has never been clearer between the over-the-top Trumpian demagoguery and the violent actions of the “forgotten” who were radicalized by the obsessive, paranoid conspiracy mongering and the normalized hatred which has become a fixture of contemporary politics. All this is part of the president’s cynical calculation to drive enough people to the polls, by triggering their fear and disgust, to fight back a “blue wave,” or at least an expected Democratic return to form in the midterm elections.
Traditionally, US midterm elections tend to give more seats to the party opposed to that of the incumbent president: this has happened in 18 of the last 20 such elections, in which the opposition has gained 33 seats on average. This would be all the more expected this year, as one can predict a reaction by voters that would be commensurate to the level of conflict that Trump has injected into the country. It is, in any case, imperative for the Democrats—if they want to have any hope of breaking the absolute Republican monopoly on the presidency, legislature and judiciary—to give again a voice to that America which gave three million more votes to the current president’s opponent two years ago.
To take control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats need to gain at least 24 seats—a plausible scenario, given that 48 races are considered to be in play, and 25 Republican representatives are running in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential elections. Nonetheless, many of these races are within the margin of error in the polls, and the possible scenarios include the Democrats making a clean sweep and the Republicans holding their majority. After their collective failure two years ago, no pollster dares to give anything other than a cautious take, pointing to the now-established gaps dividing the electorate: the elderly, men and whites on Trump’s side, and minorities, women and young people on the side of the opposition.
It’s still an uphill road for the Democrats, because of the institutional barriers that—even physically—favor the already-consolidated Republican power.
In the first-past-the-post majority system of the US, it is in fact possible to draw the electoral districts in such a way as to preordain the outcome. “Gerrymandering” is the term for the administrative shenanigans employed to obtain more districts that will give seats to the party in power, since the districts are drawn by the local officials in each individual state. The GOP, though it represents fewer citizens overall, controls no less than 34 state governments. In 26 of these, Republicans hold the governor and both chambers. This administrative hegemony has been crucial in ensuring an electoral district map that is highly favorable to Republicans. By gaming this system, it is possible to partially neutralize the decisive democratic majorities in large cities, and make a larger number of votes count for less as long as they are geographically concentrated.
It is no coincidence that a fundamental part of the political program of the GOP is to limit voting in various ways, to counterbalance the demographic trends that are putting the Republican Party and white America in danger of becoming a permanent minority. Measures to obstruct voting as much as possible are part of the plan (under the official pretext of fighting the imaginary specter of widespread voter fraud). In recent years, especially in various southern states, a series of measures have been adopted to limit minorities’ access to the polls: the continuation, in essence, of the segregationist policies that had been addressed by the Voting Rights Act of 1964. That law, a victory won by Martin Luther King’s movement, has been weakened by the Supreme Court recently, and is being specifically targeted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In this climate, the militaristic fiction told by Trump about a Democratic conspiracy to water down the legitimate votes of citizens by importing illegal immigrants is taking root all too well, and is leading to outbreaks of deadly violence, as we saw in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. The Trumpist “eugenic” plan, based on the implicit notion of restoring a favorable racial equilibrium, finds its perfect expression in his proposal to repeal birthright citizenship, the American ius soli, which Trump hurled like a Molotov cocktail in the midst of the electoral campaign. To fight all this, Democrats hope that they can reactivate the components of what used to be the Obama coalition.
On Tuesday, we will see whether any of the 52 percent of white women who voted for Trump in 2016 will have changed their minds after two years of The Donald, after #MeToo and after the fight over the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and whether there will be a significant change in the women’s vote. Furthermore, it will also be essential to mobilize millennials.
The young people of the “Parkland generation” have already shown that they are able to create a national movement, as they did with the campaign for gun control. Organizations such as Power California now want to make sure that the new political awareness translates to an effect at the polls.
“Here in California, 70 percent of young people under 25 are non-white,” Luis Sanchez explains. “They could make up a third of the electorate, and now, under Trump, they have a very clear idea of the consequences that politics can have on their lives. There is an energy that hasn’t been felt since the fight for civil rights, and an awareness that the future will depend on the next two elections.”
Brought together by the digital and multiethnic culture of nowadays, the young people who are going to vote for the first time are living in a world where gender and racial integration are victories already won, and are also very active in the battle for the environment, which is inching closer and closer to a full-scale emergency.
They are the face of a possible post-Trump America, if such manages to emerge. For the moment, the problem is overcoming the endemic absenteeism that traditionally characterizes young people, particularly in non-presidential years (when they usually have a turnout significantly below 50 percent). Since the summer, Power California has registered 50,000 new voters, and a higher turnout is likely to favor the Democrats. To stop the populist tide, however, it will also be necessary to effectively communicate in the rural districts far from the big cities, and to make inroads in the Trumpist strongholds of the hinterlands. And not just in the flyover states—even in Democrat-dominated California, for example, there are half a dozen Republican-held congressional districts that could prove crucial to taking back the House.
These are mostly rural districts, especially in the Central Valley, the agricultural hub dominated by powerful agro-industrial interests. The population of this dusty region, 500 kilometers long, between Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento, is predominantly Hispanic, but its politics has always been Republican (here, characters like Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee and notorious Trump shill, are the norm).
Today, in this region that was historically the home of Cesar Chavez’s farm labor movement, organizations like 99 Rootz are working to mobilize young Latinos who might help to “flip” at least three Trumpist-held seats. This is why Crissy Alavarez, 18, has been working the phones after school at their small office in Atwater for four weeks now, to convince young people of her generation to go vote. In many cities, walk-outs will be staged on Tuesday, i.e. strikes by high school students aiming to allow those of eligible age to go to the polls: “The kids are the voice of immigrant families, in which parents often can’t vote,” Sanchez says, a veteran of the Chicano struggles of the ‘90s in Los Angeles and Berkeley. “We try to give them a connection to the tradition of political struggles.”
This work of grassroots reconstruction is necessary for the Democratic Party to hope to build a political culture capable of fighting exploitation and Trumpist degradation.
Many of the young people working for 99 Rootz are part of the 800,000 “Dreamers,” the young people who grew up in America as “illegals,” amnestied by Obama and now facing possible deportation under the Trump regime. These midterm elections can also be framed as a clash between ethno-supremacist and multicultural forces.
In order to hold on to power, Trump is now pursuing a dangerous scorched-earth strategy that aims to stoke the flames of conflict every day and further “militarize” the country’s most retrograde impulses, by giving symbolic form to white fears. For example, by mobilizing military troops for an imaginary clash with the dispossessed marching to the US from Central America, which will only ever take place in the fevered imaginations of his followers.
Reactivating the anti-immigration psychosis is a diversionary maneuver by Trump, a distraction from the themes of inequality, globalization, climate, technology—themes which must be addressed by post-modern governance, and which are being catastrophically ignored by the retrograde impulse of nationalist-populism (while the Left is also showing a crisis of identity in this regard). For all these reasons, the midterm elections will be a crucial test that will say a lot about the future prospects of both the country and the world.