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Midterms 2018: What they reveal about the state of America

Image: Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

As the dust begins to settle upon the latest episode in the absurdity of contemporary global politics, one can’t help but think: what does it all mean to Europe, to the future of American global leadership and to the presidency of Donald Trump. These elections were undoubtedly a victory for the Democrats, seizing the house after eight years in the wilderness. However, the idiosyncrasies of the American system meant this year’s senatorial election was essentially impossible for the Democrats to win, defending seats in states overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, this was not the overwhelming “Blue Wave” predicted by commentators as the polarisation of American politics was abundantly on show, with Democratic prospects for 2020 looking rather grim.

For a national picture, the Democrats won by 4.5 percentage points in congressional races (for comparison the Tories won the 2017 election by 2.4%) but for that cost, have flipped roughly 35 seats from Republican to Democrat (13 seats are still to be called). This is enough to give the Democrats a slim majority in the House of Representatives and will at least give them one tool to combat Trump’s legislative agenda, with him firmly controlling the upper house, the executive and the judiciary (the latter since the successful nomination of Justice Kavanaugh.) These seats primarily came from suburban districts such as Northern Virginia, Kansas City and Atlanta, upon which George W. Bush built his electoral victories. However, in return, the congressional Republicans strengthened their hold on rural and poorer white districts, illustrating the excessive polarisation between central and peripheral areas in terms of political ideology. Importantly, even though the Democrats took control of the House, the last ‘wave’ election of 2010 saw the Republicans seizing 63 seats, a set of losses which have still not been entirely overcome. That election was seen to be a referendum on Obama, and if this election was truly a referendum on Donald Trump, then he has been far more successful than one might imagine from day-to-day European news broadcasting. 

While Democrats held onto senatorial races in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which were crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory, they are highly likely to lose Florida to the Republicans, and have already lost in Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana. For that, all the Democrats gained was Nevada and possibly, Arizona. These results teach us a far wider lesson about the state of politics and what may happen in 2020. The states which Democrats flipped have a rapidly growing Hispanic population, while the states they lost have large populations of white, working-class and economically suffering voters. Thus, the state that provides an eclectic mix of both – Florida, is on a knife-edge. Unfortunately for the Democrats, and fortunately for Trump in 2020, there are more electoral votes in white-working class areas like the Rust Belt than in the burgeoning cosmopolitan ones. It is this rather intractable problem that has given the Republicans a bigger majority in the Senate for at least another two years, allowing Trump to have all his cabinet nominees approved and the potential Supreme Court nominees ratified. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, with the most ever female candidates elected and a number of progressive policies were approved by ballot initiatives. Beyond that, the first Muslim congresswomen (Tlaib Omar), first Native American congresswoman (Haaland Davis) and first openly gay male governor (Jared Polis) were all elected.

So what does this all mean? Most importantly, it means that after two years of investigation for foreign collaboration, trade war, deeply unpresidential statements, as well as constant feuding within the White House, Donald Trump has not lost the confidence of his core electorate. Simultaneously, it demonstrates that Democrats have not yet found the appropriate tactic or demographic emphasis that will allow them to unseat him. As many commentators have stated, the race for 2020 has now begun and in the endless march of politics that was unleashed by the 2016 contest, it only looks to be another highly contentious and divisive race. This, in my opinion, is all part of a wider, deeper polarisation that can be found across the world, where previously flexible democracies, where unflinching ideology had previously been associated with the extremities of right and left, have now been thoroughly infiltrated by dogmatism and lack of common sense even in the political centre. From the marchers of the People’s Vote in London, to Tories willing to throw over their own leader, to Russians denying their government’s crimes, to Eurocrats unwilling to accept resistance against ‘ever closer union’, common sense and an acceptance of variability in ideology is seriously on the wane, leaving the result of our democratic processes solely to demographic factors and the idiosyncrasies of individual electoral systems.