Six Points on the Midterm Elections

What should we take away from Tuesday’s election results?

The election is over, or at least almost over — some votes are still being counted in congressional races, and there will be a run-off for the Louisiana Senate seat that the Republican challenger will win.

Harold Meyerson, social democrat and labor analyst, says the country is looking for solutions for an economy that doesn’t “deliver broadly shared prosperity” and the Democrats, like center-left parties around the advanced capitalist world, have not provided those solutions — and that they better soon if they want to win elections. Larry Kudlow, manic apostle of unshackled capital, triumphantly tweets, “Leftward redistribution lurch over. Free-market capitalism, incentives, free enterprise.”

So what really happened and why? Here are a few points, offered as more of a sketch of an answer to those questions than a definitive reckoning.

1. The Democratic coalition’s turnout declined, but not by that much.

Whites represented 75% of the electorate in 2014, up from 72% in 2012. But, despite this small tilt away from the GOP base, Democrats did a bit worse with its “of color” coalition: 89% with African Americans (vs 93% in 2012), 63% with Latinos (vs 71%), and, most surprisingly, only a split with the small, but fast-growing Asian American cohort (49% vs a whopping 73%).

So whites had a bigger share of the electorate and the Republican Party is the default party of white Christian American, i.e., nonsecular/Jewish/Muslim et al, yet the Democrats didn’t excite their base, either. And, after a while, if you can’t get your base to vote, it’s not much of an excuse. It means that the base, for whatever reason, simply isn’t as politically motivated as the other party’s base. That’s a problem.

2. White people tend to vote for Republicans, and it’s even not a close call.

A full 64% of white men voted Republican — the biggest margin since the Reagan landslide of 1984. Among whites without a college education, 64% also voted Republican. White women vote more Democratic than white men, but a majority do not — for example, only 32% of white Texas women voted for Wendy Davis. Single women voted 60-38 for Democrats, which sounds good, but that was their lowest level of support since 1992.

The number of Democratic supporters declines with levels of education, which is arguably a proxy for class (Is a high school-educated contractor who makes six figures “working class” or not? Social scientists disagree as to the answer.) The point is this: since the New Deal order imploded in the mid to late sixties and the great recognitional (as opposed to redistributional) social justice movements of that era reached their peak (Nixon carried 54% of the union vote in 1972), white people have become more tribalized, culturally homogeneous, and ethno-nationalist.

Democrats carry those whites and others with postgraduate degrees, but no other educational cohort. I’ve got nothing against postgraduate degrees — some of my best friends and favorite thinkers have them — but it’s hard to build a broad constituency on the backs of lawyers and humanities PhDs.

3. The base of the Republican Party remains white evangelical Christians.

My “favorite” exit polling of this election has these percentages: 78-20-26; 43-55-74. The first is the percent of white evangelical Christians who voted Republican, Democratic, and their percentage of the overall electorate. The second is the result from the rest of the electorate — in short, Democrats carried the “everybody else” cohort by a pretty good margin. But the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, more than one-quarter of the electorate made all the difference for Republicans. (The white evangelical breakdown was almost identical, by the way, in the last several elections).

To give you an idea how impressive that 26% of the electorate is: the entire polled cohort of “people of color” — blacks, Latinos, and Asians (other “of color” people voted, but too small a group to sample) — totaled 23%. The people who tell you that the Christian Right has faded are wrong. And the Republican Party will never “moderate” (whatever that means) as long as it gets over 40% of its vote from a group that is deeply reactionary (both socially and economically).

4. The right-wing “tax revolt” that began in the seventies still defines the “left-wing of the possible” today.

Voters of all demographics, except the wealthy, support increasing taxes of the rich. (And they support, as we saw on Tuesday even in red states, increasing the minimum wage, which seems reasonable, and doesn’t come out of their pocket.) This is good, obviously, for reasons of generating revenue, increasing equality, disciplining a rogue class of plutocrats, and creating a moral norm of social solidarity.

But a big problem is that non-wealthy voters do not like to pay taxes themselves. They don’t trust the government to use the money in socially useful ways. Or the ways in which the government does use the money, e.g., environmental projects, are too abstract and indirect for voters to concretely apprehend how it might benefit them.

Voters in blue Massachusetts not only elected a Republican governor, but also voted to repeal an only recently passed measure that would have tied the state gas tax to the rate of inflation. Voters in midnight blue Vermont almost defeated the incumbent liberal Democratic governor (who is seeking to implement single-payer heath care in the state) due, in some part, to anger over increasing property taxes.

Voters in blue Maryland badly defeated the Democratic lieutenant governor seeking the top job, in large measure because of a rebellion against increased taxes driven by the Democratic incumbent, particularly an environmental fee nicknamed the “rain tax.” And in Kansas, after months of hearing about how Gov. Sam Brownback had destroyed the public sector of the state by massively slashing taxes for the rich, voters still returned him to office by a 4% margin.

The county needs another $1.6 trillion or so in revenue per year to fund what political scientist Lane Kenworthy calls “social democratic America” and approach OECD median levels of revenue as percentage of GDP. (I know this is a socialist magazine, but that wouldn’t be bad for starters, would it?)

Some of that is going to have to come from people whose incomes are under the top 1%, just as it does everywhere else. But America, in part founded on a tax revolt, still doesn’t like taxes, and when the government screwed up the Obamacare rollout, they were reminded why they don’t like taxes.

5. Republican control of state politics will banefully influence the country for years to come.

Republicans control completely — governor’s office and state legislatures — twenty-four states as of this writing. Democrats control just seven. The rest are divided between the parties, including in quite a few states we think of as Democratic or liberal leaning.

Federalism permits states to undermine humane, democratic and economic national norms. In the Obama era, we have seen a systematic, nationally funded and organized right-wing project, paradoxically enacted state by state, to limit union rights; restrict reproductive rights; suppress the votes of minorities, the poor, and young people; and redistribute tax burdens down to the working class from the wealthy.

State-level conservative elites ruthlessly implement these programs, even as they also receive national support from the Koch brothers and other billionaires. State legislatures also gerrymander congressional districts, perpetuating Republican control of the more small-d democratic of the two houses of Congress.

The failure of the Democrats to not only make inroads in Republican parts of the country, but to fully control what are allegedly their own states and regions of strength is the difference between the cohesive movement of cultural and economic reaction maximizing its minoritarian power and a heterogeneous party unable to generate the same kind of movement-level energy and strategic assiduousness.

6. So is Meyerson right or is Kudlow right? Or is neither of them?

We must first acknowledge that many voters don’t understand the structures and details of politics. They don’t understand that the separation of powers in an age of parliamentary parties makes “divided government” unlikely to generate much public policy at all — and so they repeatedly vote for it anyway.

More than 40% of them, in fact, don’t even know, at any time, which party controls the houses of Congress. So even though elites are often malign, it doesn’t mean “the people” are always wise. Still, they are the only people we’ve got, so we’ve got to work with them and do our best to organize them.

We can dispense with Kudlow’s delusions pretty quickly. Older people do not want some libertarian desert, and certainly do want to keep their welfare gerontocracy of social security and Medicare. Anger at government for not working for their benefit is no indication that voters prefer untrammeled capitalism. Issue exit polling indicated that voters were moderately liberal not only on the minimum wage, but also climate change and path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Based on number five, it would seem that Meyerson makes a strong point: Democrats need to act like, at the least, a party of leftist populism in order to galvanize its core constituency of the young, single women, and people of color, increase turnout, and more fully resist the GOP extremists. The problem is that while this is the right thing to do normatively, there is no particular evidence it would be that effective politically. The Democratic senators who got beat ran ahead of Obama’s approval percentage in their states. And a lot of them got killed.

It’s not the 1930s anymore — white people in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas despise anything that reminds them of the national Democratic party, which they already think is socialist as it is. They don’t want it to move left, they think it’s grotesquely left enough.

It was craven for Alison Grimes to not even say whether she voted for Obama, but there’s no social science or historical evidence that would indicate most Americans are intensely interested — as a matter of voter-motivated preference — in greater union bargaining rights, redistributive public programs, and the taxes that would be needed to pay for them.

Government is not assumed to be the vehicle for the collective aspirations of the American people, but, rather, a highly problematic institution (which it is!) that can cause as much harm as it does benefit. The long path dependency that social security and Medicare have is no guarantee that voters want to risk initiating such paths for new policies and redistributive programs.

It would be great for Democrats to try such a social democratic program, at the least, in the Midwest — a centrist Democrat, Mary Burke, lost by a solid 7% to a union slayer, Scott Walker, and Walker took 34% of the union household vote, too. We don’t even know what will “work” in a place like Wisconsin. Good policy should be promoted, and maybe it will lead to good politics.

But most of the country doesn’t want to move to the left. And perhaps, as historians Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore argue, the entire New Deal era was itself a historical anomaly, which temporarily masked the deep American divisions over race and religion, and suppressed for a time a fetish of individuation at the usual expense of social solidarity.

So the news is not good, but it shouldn’t be that surprising either. The struggle is long, and as a much-loved and maligned social democrat once put it, “steady work.”