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How the US mid-terms could kickstart a new era of progressive reform

By making so many voters angry, Trump will succeed where Clinton failed—and get Democrats to vote
April 18, 2018

Get yourself into a totally different mindset when you try to understand this year’s US mid-term elections. Congressional elections are, of course, no rare thing. They happen every two years, and when the White House is not up for grabs, the President can normally expect a bit of a bruising. But this time around, we can look out for something more significant.

November’s vote will almost certainly kick off a new progressive era of reform, much like the cluster of elections, starting with the 1910 mid-terms, which launched America’s first progressive era.

A new American majority has been growing now for some time. It is composed of black people, Hispanics and Asians, unmarried women and millennials. Already by the 2012 election, these Americans collectively comprised 53 per cent of the electorate, rising to 54 per cent by 2016, and by 2020 this majority should reach 56 per cent. What I labelled the “rising American electorate” was poised in 2016 to form part of a progressive coalition with the growing number of well-educated suburban voter and college-educated women, while also running respectably with white working class women. That coalition should have readily defeated Trump and put Democrats in power.

If only Democrats had understood their post-financial crisis moment—and their own base. But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton believed that, because Trump had offended so many of these groups, demographics alone would bring victory for the Democrats.

They believed that group identity and a sense of being shut out of life’s opportunities would motivate voters, along with their anger at the deadening political polarisation and gridlock in Washington. These assumptions had long encouraged Democrats to—in that celebrated British phrase—keep calm and carry on.

Right back at the moment when he first catapulted to national fame at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama memorably told the crowd that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there's the United States of America.” It was an optimistic speech focussed on inequality, on the need to invest in education and to remove barriers to entry at the top. He never gave up on this upbeat, one-nation tone.

Hillary Clinton also took these ideas into her 2016 campaign. She spoke about the importance of “breaking barriers” and prioritised “women and people of colour” over all other groups, and famously focused on “the glass ceiling.” She finished the campaign calling on each group to reject the divisive politics of Trump and to vote for unity. Like the young Obama of a dozen years earlier, she was always determined to be positive rather than angry.

But Obama and Clinton failed to understand what was happening in America and the deep, persistent resentments caused by the financial crisis after 2008. Their own constituency of voters—and the US public more broadly—was incensed by the continued corporate dominance of American life. They were disgusted by over-paid CEOs who had betrayed their employees and their country, and by the corruption of Wall Street and Washington that rigged the political game, even as wages and wealth had crashed for most Americans. Obama bailed out the banks and auto industry and guaranteed the bosses’ bonuses, but did nothing for homeowners. Nobody went to jail.

The 2010 off-year elections—the first after Obama and the Democrats came to power—produced a Tea Party wave that shaped all our politics nationally and locally for nearly a decade.

President Obama called on voters to turn against the GOP and to help him keep moving the economy in the right direction. Roused Republicans consolidated their conservative voters by making the 2010 mid-terms the last chance to stop Obamacare. They made the election about Obama, a multi-cultural America, and a new government entitlement programme for the growing population of minorities.

Democrats lost among white working class voters in 2010 by 64 to 34 per cent, and by a similar margin among white seniors. They also failed to dominate sections of the vote where they should have cleaned up. Republicans won over 40 per cent of votes among millennials and unmarried women. Critically, turnout in these groups dropped or stayed flat in comparison to previous mid-term years.

Tea Party Republicans dominated in Congress. The Republicans won two-thirds of the governors’ races and 62 per cent of the state legislative chambers. The boost this gave to the Tea Party helps explain why Donald Trump won the nomination six years later—he got his strongest support with Tea Party Republicans, buttressed by Evangelicals.

But the Trump victory in 2016 and his Tea Party Republican style of government has now done what Obama and Clinton failed to do. It has galvanised the rising American electorate and college-educated women. Already, white working class women, dismayed by Trump, have allowed Democrats to pick up state senate seats in rural Wisconsin and steel-country Pennsylvania.

All the ingredients that gave the Republicans a 2010 Tea Party wave are poised to produce a Democratic 2018 wave, with similar implications for Congress and state and local offices. These are the building blocks of a durable majority.

In the 2017 special elections, as well as in our most recent national polls, support for Democrats has reached over 90 per cent with African Americans, 65 per cent with Hispanics, 67 per cent with unmarried women and 75 per cent with millennial women. For all of them, the battle with Trump and Tea Party Republicans has made clear what they believe, what values are at stake and how much politics matters.

There is also a widening enthusiasm gap: 85 per cent of Democrats strongly disapprove of Trump, but only 50 per cent of Republicans strongly approve. In states like Virginia, that gap in enthusiasm, combined with near unanimous Democratic support for Democratic candidates and straight ticket voting, nearly gave Democrats control of the legislature in 2017.

In the coming November elections, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be put to a vote, along with 34 Senate seats, 36 State governorships and numerous other smaller local positions. The Democrats have now taken a nine-point lead in polls for the congressional vote and forecasters now put the probability of Democratic control of the House at 65 per cent. Speaker Paul Ryan has just announced he will not seek re-election.

The coming wave could wipe away the Tea Party wave and counter-revolution. And that will mark the beginning of a new era of reform.