The Democrats did not just win the House of Representatives. They swept to a majority with a new politics, new kind of campaigning and a new set of people who reflect the rising electorate in America: educated, diverse and socially liberal. But though the Republican Party lost, Donald Trump won.
Everywhere he campaigned in the Senate race, he boosted turnout – not just via the rhetoric of race hatred, the dehumanisation of his opponents, and celebration of political violence, but by getting all these themes pumped out via the echo chamber of Fox News, local radio and the social media.
These two facts will shape American politics, not just for the next two years but possibly the next decade. The Democrats won big where they went left, where they fielded women, people of colour and, above all, people of principle. The Republicans won where they could leverage gerrymandered boundaries, laws designed to suppress the black vote, and above all where they could still mobilise the Trump base.
This is repeatedly and wrongly described by the BBC as “blue collar”. It is, more accurately, the small-town, rural middle class. Less educated for sure, but with its attitude to race, misogyny and life fatalism as the defining characteristics, not its income. We know this not from figures from last night, which are too recent to crunch, but from every academic breakdown of the 2016 vote.
Commentators from the political centre, both here and in the US, will spend days hand wringing over what this means. And so they should. It signifies – in a far clearer way than Trump’s victory in 2016 – that American politics is permanently polarised along the following lines: white racism versus diversity and tolerance; countryside versus city; studious ignorance versus education; fatalism versus hope.
People who voted Republican last night did so knowing they would strengthen a president who wants to undermine the rule of law, command troops to open fire on refugees and lock three-year-olds up behind razor wire. There was no Hillary factor: even the most venal, corporate Democrats had to put on a left face – and the sheer vivacity of the non-venal, non-corporate candidates energised the entire Democrat campaign.
You could not cast a ballot in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional district against the Democrat challenger Richard Ojeda while believing he represented Wall Street. The Marine veteran is a tough-talking, local plebeian radical who throughout his campaign attacked corporate interest. Ojeda led a working class left wing fight-back against the Republicans in the coal and timber country, aligning himself with a teachers’ strike and flaying pharma companies who’ve fuelled the area’s opioid epidemic.
His opponent, bison farmer Carol Miller, campaigned for burning carbon, against gun control, for building a wall to stop migration, and for making English the “national language”. But most of all she achieved her 22,000 majority by aligning herself with Trump. Ojeda, said her ads, would put a thumb in the eye of President Trump.
So where the Republican vote held up, and delivered Senate victories, it was not about Facebook, or about Russian money, it was about sheer unadulterated white supremacy, misogyny and the deliberate destruction of the earth’s biosphere.
The good news is that, even on the unlevel playing field of the US electoral system, such forces can be beaten. They can be beaten in 2020 if – and it’s a big if – the corporate cabal who run the Democratic National Committee learn the lessons of last night.
They are that – with or without Sanders himself – the politics and campaign methods of the Bernie movement worked. In Texas, where Beto O’Rourke only narrowly missed unseating incumbent Ted Cruz, mass canvassing, voter registration drives and, above all, deep engagement techniques drove turnout high. Elsewhere, the same kind of effort took Democrat challengers to within one percentage point of unseating many more incumbent Republicans.
Any idea that by standing black, female and even Muslim candidates, or being strong on issues of race and class, the Democrats risked “polarising” politics unnecessarily has to be thrown out of the window on last night’s evidence. American politics are not just polarised, they have become in many places – just as in Northern Ireland – a headcount in the culture war. More precisely, the culture war between xenophobic authoritarianism and the 21st century networked individual has become a political battle that only one side can win.
The Democratic strategy that must flow from that is, however, not straightforward. In the first place, the 2020 presidential election will be fought amid not just gestures and showmanship, but dramatic real actions by a president prepared to stigmatise the judiciary and attack the rule of law. The Democrats need, above all, a candidate who with the personal resilience to survive that battle.
The left is often so immured in its own agenda of fairness that it forgets this simple fact about politics in the age of networked communication: you need a communicator, who uses simple words and ideas naturally – or is prepared to employ advisers who will drill such instincts into them. This has to happen before the primaries, not after them.
Next, because in a high turnout-era elections are won by getting some people to switch sides, the Democrats need someone who is prepared to reach across the front lines of the culture wars and – as Jeremy Corbyn did in June 2017 – campaign almost against their own party’s obsessions. That person cannot be publicly steeped in Wall Street cash, nor a self-aggrandising dweeb from Silicon Valley.
While they’re looking for the right candidate however, the Democrats face a more immediate choice: how to play things in Congress. On the principle that if you visit a surgeon they will suggest an operation, it is likely that, as the new Democratic caucus assembles, its old leaders will suggest compromising with Trump to avoid antagonising his mass base any further.
It would be sensible if it could work – but it will not. He will declare war on the House majority and they should reciprocate, but cleverly. The issues they fight on have to be ruthlessly prioritised: they have to resonate in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio first, and Brooklyn and Austin, Texas, last.
The enlarged progressive caucus among Democrat Congress members should test its strength by deposing Nancy Pelosi in short order, and installing a new leader prepared to empower and listen to the left and centre left.
But the strategic task for the Democrats goes beyond this. Last night was belated evidence that the “rising American majority” thesis of pollster Stan Greenberg is basically correct. Educated people, single women, ethnic minorities and millennials will soon, together, form an unbeatable demographic majority. Sure, there are Trump supporters among all these groups, but what holds most of them to the President are varieties of insecurity, which intelligent politics and a generation of honest, dedicated politicians can address.
The task is not to weld the Bernie movement into an alliance with Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The challenge goes much deeper. It is to weld the interests of liberal, tolerant, diverse and educated America into an offer to a chunk of people for whom all these labels do not apply, and break them away from Trump.
The hard way to a renaissance of American liberalism and openness lies through confrontation with the reactionaries and their defeat: not just via the elections, but via derigging the voting system and judiciary. The smart way lies in discovering, as Ojeda did, language that can reach across the divide.
Finally, it’s worth remembering, as late as the 1990s it was a political truism that the US was a conservative country, where the Democrats to have any chance of winning, had to pander to southern white racism, and to eschew all rhetoric of social justice or opposition to imperialist war. Thanks to inspirational political leaders – such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in Brooklyn, Beto O’Rourke in Texas or Lizzie Fletcher, who took the normally Republican suburbs of Houston where George W. Bush cut his teeth – that time is over. Don’t be downhearted that Trump rallied a few tens of thousands of racists to keep the Senate. In the long run, to borrow a phrase from Keynes, that America is dead.
Update: a line in an earlier version of this article mistakenly implying that Republicans “gerrymandered” the Senate has been removed. Senate seats are allocated on a per-state basis, so Republicans are limited in their gerrymandering to House of Representatives elections only.