There was no Republican wave. But the US’s march to the right continues – more likely now under the banner of legislative sabotage than outright insurrection (I write with key House races undeclared).
With US inflation at its highest for 40 years (8.2 per cent), the two parties adopted classically asymmetric strategies: the Republicans fought on the economy and culture wars; the Democrats mobilised young people and women to defend democracy and reproductive rights. To mainstream strategists, it looked suicidal for the Democrats. “Don’t fight the culture war” has become the accepted wisdom of centre-left politics.
But a glance at the exit polls from the Senate race in Pennsylvania, where the Democrat John Fetterman beat the right-winger Mehmet Oz, shows that – for women at least – fighting the culture war has become obligatory. While men split 56/43 for Oz – who bizarrely claimed “local political leaders” should have a say in women’s decisions on abortion – women split 57/42 the other way, delivering a Democratic gain.
Across the US, a combination of outrage over the Supreme Court’s attack on abortion rights and fear for the future of democracy appears to have mobilised women, minorities and the young despite their cynicism over Joe Biden’s administration and the usual midterm weariness. And that is because, for women, the culture war and economic justice have become inseparable. Borrowing terminology once used by the US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, we could label the Democratic fightback a “reproductive political shock”.
In 1996, who was also a professor at Berkeley, Yellen co-authored an economics paper attributing the decline in shotgun weddings to the sudden availability of abortion and contraception. She called it the “reproductive technology shock”, claiming that while it had liberated some women from dependence on husbands they didn’t want, it had also led to a “feminisation of poverty”. And while the socially conservative implications of Yellen’s paper were controversial, the effects of the reproductive shock can be seen across American society.
After Roe vs Wade legalised abortion, female participation in the US labour market surged from the low 40s to 60 per cent – before falling back to the mid-50s due to the long-term impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Since the 1960s, women’s wages have surged from 60 per cent of median male earnings to 83 per cent. Meanwhile, the percentage of women gaining college degrees has risen from 6 per cent to 39 per cent in the same period – overtaking the male percentage in 2014.
That’s what American conservatives were trying to reverse when they overturned Roe vs Wade: not just a clawback of the right to abortion and contraception, presaging a wider attack on gay rights and civil rights, but an actual economic counter-revolution.
Last night’s fightback (8 November) by the Democrats shows that millions of working-class American women – above all young women – understood this. Their ability to avoid a lifetime of enforced economic dependency, to better themselves through university education and to narrow the gender pay gap are all thrown into question by the attack on Roe vs Wade. Meanwhile, a new generation of progressive, feminist Democratic politicians – often, though not always, on the left of the party – have refused to stick to the scripts recommended by pollsters.
The result, however, still leaves US democracy in a perilous place. Though the Trump-backed insurrectionists had a bad night, Republican politics has moved firmly towards the far-right agenda of men such as the Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
The Republican advance in the House of Representatives was contingent on the widespread gerrymandering of boundaries in their favour, which has continued since 2020. The Supreme Court remains poised for further attacks on human rights. And the Biden presidency looks even more stalled than it did before.
So what can American progressives do? The first thing is to realise that it’s the US constitution itself that has turned America into the most fragile of the G7 democracies. The vaunted separation of powers, the federal system, plus the First and Second amendments have created the conditions for a politicised judiciary, a paralysed legislature, widespread voter suppression and cultural rejection of democratic values. Essentially, the First Amendment gives you the right to mobilise for insurrection and the Second the right to arm yourself in preparation.
Recognising the possibility of civil war, or a series of low-level state failures, is something most parts of progressive politics just don’t want to do. Like the textbooks of university politics degrees, which still describe how the system is “supposed to work”, they regard the new partisanship, the fusion of right-wing populism with actual fascism, as an aberration that will go away by itself.
On the contrary, it will likely be a permanent part of US politics and society until the boomer generation that combination primarily chimes with passes, and until key structural reforms – to media ownership, the constitution and corporate power – fundamentally change the game. That is because what’s undermining American democracy is not some mass psychological idiocy: it is quite simply a superpower in decline, whose elites – Republican and Democrat – have failed to understand the cause of the decline, which is the sclerotic nature of the free-market economic model they created.
In each wave of resistance staged by the Democrats, avatars of a new kind of politics have appeared: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams (who lost last night but created a platform for further advances in Georgia), Beto O’Rourke in Texas and now Fetterman in Pennsylvania.
Fetterman, the former mayor of a rust-belt town, hailed his election as a victory for “protecting a woman’s right to choose; raising our minimum wage; fighting [for] the union way of life; healthcare as a fundamental human right… Standing up to corporate greed… and standing up for our democracy.”
In a rational world the Democratic Party would metaphorically “bottle” this as a recipe for victory in 2024. But the national party still trades on its coastal elitism, its innate conservatism about economic justice, its fear of popular mobilisation.
The stakes between now and the presidential election are high and pose clear strategic choices. If Trump is eclipsed by DeSantis as the figurehead of right-wing populism, then the Democrats need to fight on the positive agenda that Fetterman laid out. The Biden administration needs to be renewed with political street fighters, not technocrats. And Biden himself will need to wield maximum presidential power in defence of both democratic institutions and economic justice.
Last night showed that what wins is authenticity and connection with working-class, female and ethnic minority groups, respectively, from which a winning coalition can be built. I now doubt that Biden can do that – and according to exit polls so do 70 per cent of voters.
A charismatic, competent, female politician, with working-class roots and a record of achievement in office is the kind of figure the Democrats should seek to build on the bruising stalemate they achieved in the midterms.
[See also: Donald Trump’s comeback has stalled]