It’s time to get real about how bad the upcoming US election could be. We are facing a political disaster with implications possibly even worse than the 2016 election. The Democrats have a good chance of losing the midterm elections, badly. The Senate and House races look dire, and even in Democratic-leaning New York State, where I live, we could get a far-right governor.
There are a few reasons we could cite for this looming horror. US politics is so polarized that power flip-flops back and forth between parties in an almost-predictable cycle of anger and rejection. As well, many Americans, including myself, haven’t done enough to help defeat the Right. There hasn’t been enough organizing in some places. (I haven’t received a single call or text urging me to phone bank — or even vote! — for the Democratic incumbent governor, nor have I seen any canvassers.)
The Democrats have also lacked a strong economic message, either about their accomplishments or about their plans. Democrats and progressives have been spectacularly dismissive on issues that matter to people and the messaging has been awful, not to mention the optics of drinking champagne with fancy donors while Americans line up for food banks. I’ve written about those problems here and in Jacobin.
And in a stunning piece of idiocy, the Democratic Party funded extremist Republicans thinking they would be losers in the general, and now, not surprisingly, it looks like some of those loons will win.
Unfortunately, though, the problem is worse, and harder to fix, than any of that. The Republicans are poised for victory because our whole society is falling apart in ways that mainstream Democrats are structurally ill equipped to address.
Crime is a real problem in some cities, and to dismiss it by claiming it’s exaggerated by right-wing media is not an adequate response. In New York City, all crime has increased dramatically since 2019, the last prepandemic year (in the case of murder, the most consistently reported and frightening crime, by 35 percent). Over the past year, murder hasn’t increased – small mercies – but all other major felonies are up 24 percent. The Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, is leading Trumper Lee Zeldin by an astonishingly thin margin mainly for this reason, and she could lose.
All that mainstream Democrats seem able to do, in response to Republicans’ blaming humane reforms (in the case of New York State, ending the cash bail system), is to backslide and agree that the reforms are the problem. It’s a stupid reaction, because if Democratic policies were to blame, why shouldn’t voters concerned about public safety try the Republican law-and-order approach?
The Democrats’ problem is that the way to make our society less vulnerable to this sort of crisis would be to provide more public care on many levels. Communities need more sports and other after-school programs for young people. Our schools need more resources for mental health care.
More important, everyone needs less of the terrifying precarity that is driving us mad. Families need more security: good jobs, income supports, higher wages. Everyone needs a home, whether that means comfortable and safe public housing or secure, rent-stabilized private housing. But we don’t provide any of that, and as a result one in ten New York City public schoolchildren — one in ten — are homeless. The Democrats’ response? Cut the school budget.
Mental illness and economic precarity are two of the leading correlates of crime, and neither can be addressed cheaply. That means problems like this can’t be solved by leadership still wedded to the 1 percent. With their big donors in the real estate industry and the boss class, the Democrats can’t address human needs at a scale that might make inroads in problems like crime.
What’s more, the general societal breakdown of which crime is the most widely reported symptom is playing out in many other ways. Antisocial behavior of all kinds has increased — including kinds that Republicans don’t really care about one way or the other, like domestic violence and dangerously reckless driving. The difficulty that service sector employers are having finding labor is partly due to customers being so rude to workers. (Exploitation by bosses is a bigger problem, but widespread assholery is a sign of breakdown of the social contract.)
And people are not only being cruel to others: self-destructiveness, too, is heartbreakingly widespread. Last year suicide rates increased after two years on the decline. Death by drug overdoses spiked dramatically in 2020 and then again in 2021.
Our society is unwell, and mainstream Democrats, committed to business as usual, can’t provide the care that it badly requires. Americans were already alienated, anxious, and distressed. But the pandemic, combining horrific mass death with social isolation, as well as rendering many public institutions, most egregiously schools, unusable for way too long, destroyed some terribly precious remnants of a social fabric.
None of this is Democrats’ fault more than Republicans’. And it’s true that at the national level, the Democrats at least made serious gestures at funding public goods through the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as lowering some prescription drug prices — more than they get credit for. But it hasn’t been enough, and many voters don’t want to reelect the party presiding over what feels like a comprehensive social meltdown.
Then there’s the issue people mention most to pollsters, by a wide margin, even more than crime: inflation. With critical basics like food, gas, and rent increasing alarmingly and often unpredictably, people worry about how to provide for their families. When I walk around my neighborhood, I see lines around the corner for church food pantries.
Far from being Joe Biden’s fault, inflation is a global phenomenon. In fact, a recent Ipsos survey found that it had been the number one concern all over the world for six months. Biden is not president of Turkey, where inflation reached 79.6 percent in July. But all the other signs of social breakdown here amplify the distress and anger people feel about rising prices.
Crime, social breakdown, and economic anxiety can be solved in only one way: through sustained, long-term investment in public goods and human flourishing, and the sense of connectedness and social responsibility that comes from living in a society that cares about you. Our public goods and sense of social connection were frayed before the pandemic, but over the past few years, they’ve been worn away even more, and it is a crisis.
Parents with children in public school — an institution that all but ceased to function throughout 2020 and 2021 — have been especially likely to turn on the incumbent Democrats. The Republicans have punitive and semifascist appeals to fall back on, but the Democrats are in a bind: they’re supposed to be the party of regular people, but they’re also wholly beholden to the rich.
So, when they can’t get everyone to care enough about the Republicans’ unpopular positions on issues like abortion, they’re screwed. And they may not be able do that this year.
There’s no quick fix here. I’d love to credibly argue that the Democrats could address this problem by running more Berniecrats and democratic socialists against Republicans in red and purple districts, and perhaps, again, for president. We have every reason to believe that more democratic socialist policies would produce a healthier, safer society, with a less-anxious public, thus making far-right politics less appealing.
But unfortunately, we don’t have the deep electoral experience and massive local presence that might allow us to say that in the United States as it is currently constituted, the democratic socialist message would win over conservative or swing voters any better than the centrist one. The wistful slogan, “Bernie Would Have Won!” will take some years of effort to turn into a consistent and reliable truth.
That means that, whatever the outcome on Election Day, there is no magic bullet: the solution is to fight the Right, build working-class institutions, and continue to strive for a mass base for socialism. These are dark times, but we do know what to do.