The US midterms: protest voting or conservative revival?

What can we expect from today’s election results?

It's been a long and a noisy election – and today, as voters across America go to the polls, there's been no let-up in the campaigning, from rallies to radio phone-ins and those incessent negative ads. Only Delaware was spared a 30-minute ad from the Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell: her team left it too late to buy network airtime, and the public access channel that was supposed to run it just plain "forgot". Twice.

President Obama, who's been staying put in the White House since the weekend, called in to four radio shows and taped an interview for American Idol's Ryan Seacrest, hoping to boost Democratic turnout in a handful of key battleground states.

In his place, out on the ground, Michelle Obama has been stumping alongside the embattled Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, in Nevada, pleading with voters to be patient about the pace of change, before heading to Pennsylvania to lend support to Rep Joe Sestak in his tight Senate race.

And Bill Clinton, who seems to have been everywhere in the past few weeks, was back in Florida – in case the Democrats' Alex Sink can slip through in a two-way Republican fight.

But – unless all the polls are suddenly proven wrong, and barring any last-minute surprises – today's election looks like producing the worst results for the Democrats in at least 60 years.

Some pundits have cautioned that this may not turn out to be the expected Republican rout – but according to the latest Gallup poll of 1,539 likely voters, the GOP has built up a 15-point lead.

The survey predicts Republican control of the House of Representatives is "highly likely" – the party needs 39 seats to take over, and Gallup says the party's gains could be "anywhere from 60 seats on up". Thirty-seven seats in the Senate are up for election this year: Rasmussen Reports predicts that the Republicans will pick up 25 of these – not enough to take control of the upper house – but GOP leaders are already talking confidently of "finishing the job" in 2012.

Dozens of races are considered too close to call. Some early signs could come from the first polls to close tonight – with key races in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York pointing to the size of the Republican sweep, though it'll be several hours before the outcome of some crucial seats is clear.

There are plenty of senior Democrats in danger – not Reid, who's neck-and-neck with the Tea Party's Sharron Angle in Nevada – but even Massachusetts Rep Barney Frank, who is facing an unexpectedly tough fight. Another surprise upset could come in Arizona, where the staunchly liberal Raul Grijalva could fall to the 28-year-old rocket scientist and Christian conservative Ruth McClung, whose mother is running her campaign.

And six Democratic governors are at risk, too vulnerable to the white working-class voters who probably backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries, and who now seem likely to switch parties altogether – or simply stay at home.

It's all such a far cry from the euphoria that overwhelmed Washington just two years ago: the queues of excited people who waited hours to cast their vote, the sense of belonging, of making a difference, of a moment in history.

But if the people clamoured for change back in 2008, they're demanding it again now – albeit change of a rather different kind.

Now the grind of hardship, their uncertainty about their jobs, the fragility of their trust in Washington to make it all better – all of this has turned people against the man who once promised so much, and who is now slated (fairly or not) for delivering so little.

Part of this backlash is only to be expected: in times of economic troubles, the party in control gets the blame. And history shows that not only does America expect to have a divided government, in which a different party controls the White House and Congress – most people actively prefer it.

Many independent voters, suggests the pollster Mark Penn, are planning to vote Republican today to achieve just that, a sign that they are "extremely dissatisfied" with what this particular Congress has been doing. Never mind Obama's approval ratings – take a look at how unpopular the pols on Capitol Hill have become. It ain't pretty.

So, rather than some kind of mass conversion towards conservative values, we could view this as a vote against the guys who happened to be in charge during the most challenging economic crisis in living memory.

But the president must take the blame for this much at least: the gaping "enthusiasm gap" that means so many Democratic supporters simply won't bother to show up at the polls. Whether it's been a mixed message, an elitist message, or no clear message at all, Obama has signally failed to sell his agenda to the nation. The man whose own personal narrative was so compelling has consigned his first two years in office to narrative oblivion.

Instead, the wider story of this election has yet to emerge. What has been the real impact of the Tea Party – and how big will its future influence be? How quickly can the Democratic Party – and the president – regroup and recover? And, after all those billions of dollars spent, did money persuade that many people to change how they voted?

All of these questions are waiting for answers. Not least for those planning the next election campaign – the race for 2012.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.