Pulled Back From The Brink: Flatlining Democratic Majority Reanimated By Republican Extremism

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Just a few months ago, the Democrats were headed for a complete bloodbath in the midterms. In July, Biden’s approval ratings hovered around 38%, lower than Trump’s at the same time in his presidency. Democratic leadership cowered in the shadow of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to explain why nothing was getting done.

Biden’s administration has been haunted by the ghost of “Build Back Better,” and all of the crises that drove people to the polls in 2020 remain unresolved. In fact, new crises have been introduced like sky-high inflation and the looming energy crisis.

But now, two months out from election day, in an extraordinary turn of fate for the party consultants and PACs who were projecting doom back in spring 2022, the Democrats’ chances don’t look quite as bleak as they did. However, this 11th-hour semi-resurrection has almost nothing to do with what little they’ve managed to deliver to working people. Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that the Republicans overreached on abortion rights, startling voters who may otherwise have nothing nice to say about the Democrats’ performance to nevertheless urgently prepare to cast their ballots to block a right-wing onslaught. 

While Congressional Democrats’ ability to pass limited reforms like the Inflation Reduction Act and Biden’s limited executive order to cancel $10K in student debt over the summer may provide a small boon in their midterm results, overwhelmingly it’s not their achievements that will blunt Republican chances – it’s the Republicans themselves.

Democrats Rely On Old Standby Of Lesser Evilism

For decades, “lesser evilism” has been the Democrats’ life raft. This is the notion that no matter how pathetic they may be, they’re better than the alternative. This strategy is the political equivalent of selling snake oil. 

It is sold to working people as the only solution to a more and more dangerous Republican Party, and this election cycle proves that it remains the Democrats’ most valuable insurance policy, to the point where they’re even financing the far right in primaries. Even when they fall completely on their faces as they’ve done the past two years, so long as they can bank on the Republicans getting scarier, they’ve got at least half a leg to stand on for the campaign trail.

It is entirely understandable that working people feel motivated to register a vote against Republicans who are determined to carry out a barrage of attacks on our rights. The question on a macro-scale, however, is does this strategy of year-after-year voting Democrat actually prevent the right wing from becoming more dangerous, and will voting alone stem the growth of the threat? The answer is a resounding “no.”

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a key reference point for the cycle of lesser-evilism we’re seeing today. Obama, despite his promises of hope and change, bailed out Wall Street while unemployment and foreclosures wrecked  working class communities, paving the way for the Tea Party’s victories in 2010 and Trump in 2016. As a consequence, the states where Obama defeated McCain by record margins in 2008 are today considered reliably red. Trump has pulled the whole Republican Party even further to the right, paving the way for an even more grotesque set of figures running in this year’s midterms. 

The lesson from the Democrats’ point of view is that despite failing to pass a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, immigration reform, any effective climate legislation, the pro-labor PRO Act legislation, the Equality Act to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, federally codified abortion rights, or any substantial tax on the rich and corporations, you can still win elections. But only so long as the other guy on the ballot is simply too terrifying. 

Just as the course of events from 2008 to now illustrate how the process of lesser-evilism plays out over time, the Democrats’ midterm boost in 2022 shows its logical conclusion and disastrous consequences. 

Republicans Overreach On Roe

The Republicans scored a long-awaited victory with the overturn of Roe. They were finally able to trigger the abortion bans they’d been sitting on for decades and rile up their most fervent pro-life supporters with a victory lap and a taste of power. But they overplayed their hand: by failing to take into account just how unpopular these attacks are to most voters across the country, Republicans will soon find that this “win” will cost them electorally. 

Going into November, we’re seeing an unprecedented spike in women registering to vote, especially in states where abortion rights are most at stake. Kansas voters’ resounding rejection of a ballot measure which sought to decisively deny the right to an abortion in the state constitution was a dramatic demonstration of popular backlash against this attack on reproductive rights.

Whereas the Democrats had previously said it wasn’t “strategic” to make abortion rights a main focus of their campaigns – from their absurd fixation on picking up Republican voters through a “moderate” message – they’re now opportunistically changing their tune.

Since the Dobbs decision was announced, 30% of Democratic campaign ads have mentioned abortion, compared to just 5% of Republican ads. Seizing on people’s genuine fear of the horrific, sometimes life-and-death consequences of abortion bans for women and people who can get pregnant, the Democrats have quickly pivoted to making this a cornerstone of their campaigns – despite not having lifted a finger to codify Roe in advance of the Dobbs ruling or afterward. 

This is not going unnoticed by Republican leaders, a section of whom are panicked about the consequences of their overreach. This panic was shown by the feverish efforts of the Republican establishment to prevent “ultra MAGA” Donald Bolduc from winning the primary in the New Hampshire senate race. This was not for any principled reason, but is precisely because they worry his extremism would threaten their electability.

Many Republicans complained when Senator Lindsey Graham introduced legislation to ban abortion across the country. A political strategist and former Trump campaign aide in Georgia said he is “a little fearful that the way it’s going to be sold to the public could hurt Republicans in the midterms.”

The language in the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe also made clear they are prepared to take aim at other hard-won rights, particularly marriage equality. Fearing the way this could damage the party, over 400 prominent Republicans – including swing state Senate candidates like Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania and Joe O’Dea of Colorado – signed an open letter calling on Republicans to codify gay marriage.

This gets to the core of the crisis in the Republican Party: the Trump wing has succeeded in consolidating the party around itself, giving oxygen to more and more reactionary forces within it. While this has led to a hardening of the Republican base, it’s also alienated more moderate Republican voters who will not cosign the most extreme conclusions of the party’s right-wing. The national attention to the avalanche of state attacks on abortion, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and others like it, and the targeting of trans people – while leading to a winning streak for the most belligerent right-wingers in primaries with a narrow electorate – is proving to be a double-edged sword as it’s resulted in a fearful mood among voters around just how severely their lives and rights could change under Republican rule. 

Runaway Republicans

With a few exceptions, Trump loyalists and insurgents from the right fringes of the party dominated the Republican primaries. Backing from multiple Republican political dynasties and millions of dollars of corporate money could not stop Senator Liz Cheney’s crushing defeat in Wyoming. 

Many of these insurgents are proving to be real liabilities in the general election. Mitch McConnell cited “candidate quality” on his party’s end as the main factor protecting Democrats against all-out Republican overwhelm this November. 

The Democratic Party, rather than campaigning around plans to deliver desperately-needed relief to working people, is banking on these runaway Republicans to deliver them a victory in November. 

They’ve even campaigned for some of these most reactionary figures in the Republican primaries in order to ensure they have a smoother path to victory in the general. They have poured $53 million boosting MAGA-aligned, anti-choice Republican primary candidates.

It’s a dangerous game for Democrats to consciously amplify and normalize far-right ideas in an effort to win a few seats this election cycle, especially if their ideas can pose as anti-establishment alternatives to the pro-corporate ideas of mainstream Democrats. This was precisely the Democrats strategy in 2016 when they amplified Trump, hoping he’d be easier for Hillary Clinton to beat.

Furthermore, the Democrats funding a right-wing insurgency poses an active threat to the immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and workers who live in Republican strongholds that the Democratic Party abandoned long ago.

The Democratic Party’s election strategy of repeating “Hey, at least we’re better than those guys!” only works if “those guys” keep getting worse, which as we’ve painfully been forced to watch in recent years, has real consequences for millions of working people who bear the brunt of their vicious attacks. This is why corporate Democrats fund fringe Republican candidates, even if this risks channeling populist anger at the political establishment into scapegoating immigrants, women, trans people, and social movements like Black Lives Matter.

And for what? Out of all this gambling from the Democrats, propping up extremely reactionary individuals as a boogeyman to win elections, what is the most likely outcome? At this stage, it seems that the Democrats can hang onto the Senate in November, but will in all likelihood lose the House. This means a divided Congress where, because of the deep partisan divide, it’s extremely difficult to imagine how anything meaningful can get passed in the next two years.

Of course, we have to be conditional about these estimations. With the possibility of a major recession being triggered in the near future, things could still go belly-up for the Democrats in the final weeks before the elections. If this happens, and they do not offer far-reaching solutions to dig working people out of the hole, we could see a return to the forecast that prevailed earlier in the year.

Workers Need Our Own Political Party

With the options presented to us each election cycle, it’s no wonder nearly 100 million Americans didn’t bother to cast a ballot in the 2020 election. There is an innate understanding that, no matter how much the political players get shuffled around, workers are still left holding the bag by both major parties. 

Of course, there have been politicians who have broken through that despair and inspired people to get active in the political process – most famously Bernie Sanders. Both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns served as lightning rods for the working class and young people fed up with the domination of corporate politics and desperate to fight for a program to take on the billionaires.

But unfortunately, Bernie and the left-wing Democrats elected in the wake of Trump’s election have completely failed to “transform the party” as they purported they would. As Socialist Alternative has warned for years, any attempt at a “left takeover” of the Democratic Party is doomed to fail. Even the most well-meaning politicians cannot overcome the political, economic, and structural barriers the party has erected to keep the left in its place.

AOC went from saying in early 2020, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” to claiming he had “exceeded progressives’ expectations” just one year later. This is the dismal end result of fighting to take over a party that is built to defend the interests of the bosses rather than working people. 

Ultimately, we need a real choice in the political process. If beating the increasingly reactionary right requires a left- wing alternative, then we will have to build that alternative outside the confines of the Democratic Party.

With a likely showdown between a listless Biden and an increasingly unhinged Trump in 2024, we need to begin building a new political party for working people and the oppressed that can serve as a genuine counterweight to the extreme right. 

Rather than getting endlessly swallowed up by the Democrats, as we’ve seen happen with countless labor struggles and social movements, the left and labor movement need to urgently begin the project of constructing a new political party that is completely independent of big business. 

This is of course not a project that can be completed overnight, but it’s one we need to initiate as soon as possible to resist the cycle of lesser evilism getting even worse. There are steps we can take now to begin this process. For example, we can launch campaigns in the unions demanding an end to the practice of using members’ dues to send blank checks to Democratic Party campaigns. 

Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America can commit to running all future candidates as independents rather than on the Democratic Party ballot line. These campaigns should be democratically accountable to the organization, with common political platforms that are discussed and debated by members. 

With inflation eating away at our already meager paychecks, climate disasters becoming seasonal realities, and the growth of an increasingly dangerous right wing, we can’t afford to wait to begin building a working class political challenge to the politics of the rich.

Regardless of the outcome in the midterms, unless there is a major factor like COVID forcing them to act, it is unlikely that either major party will be prepared to do much of anything to make life better for working people. So we need to build a working class movement, and political force, strong enough to become that factor.