By Gary Broderick; article originally appeared in RVA Magazine
Progressive yard signs are visible throughout my neighborhood of Church Hill, declaring “Black Lives Matter” and “Hate Has No Home Here.” Those signs help to foster a sense of community; there’s comfort that comes from feeling that our neighbors are interpreting this moment in our country in similar ways. However, there is a danger of mistakenly assuming those shared assumptions are broader than they actually are. There’s a danger in thinking “everyone must view Trump’s election as a big mistake at this point.” From that assumption, it follows that Sen. Tim Kaine will easily defeat Corey Stewart, the candidate who says he is “more Trump than Trump.”
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School just released a poll of 802 likely voters that suggested a 23-point lead for Kaine. More reason to relax, the logic goes.
That’s what the conventional logic says. But if we step outside the bubble of Richmond, we start to see warning signs. My phone died last week, and in order to get a replacement, I headed to the Mechanicsville Verizon store. Stewart signs, big and small, lined the streets of my drive, prominently placed in front of homes and businesses.
It was a good reminder that Stewart has supporters, and that he represents a certain right-wing populist base that will show up politically. There is more of us, yes, but is that enough?
We have to overcome undemocratic structural barriers that exist as part of the legacy of systemic anti-black racism.
Towards building a progressively governed Richmond and nation, we cannot simply live with a Kaine victory; we need a full-scale repudiation of the Trumpism that Stewart represents, and that means a victory with as wide of a margin as possible. But, we should not get ahead of ourselves; as progressives, we should not assume it’s in the bag.
Hillary Clinton was expected by most pollsters to win. Those pollsters were wrong. However, equally relevant for us, it isn’t simply that we can’t put too much faith in the polls, it is also that Clinton lost the election despite winning the popular vote. Superior numbers did not matter.
With the midterms on the horizon, it’s a reminder that the fact there is more of us is not sufficient. We have to turn out in races that we have historically stayed home for. Further, we have to overcome undemocratic structural barriers that exist as part of the legacy of systemic anti-black racism, and that has often been put in place by lawmakers elected on those years we stayed at home.
There are two political forces in our country with a direct interest in political minority rule: one, the white nationalists who recognize the changing demographics of the country, and who tremble in fear at the prospect of a country that isn’t majority white; and two, corporate elites who want their taxes low and their profits high, and as a result seek policies in diametric opposition to the interests of the majority who want and need fair wages, environmental regulations, and well-funded public schools, housing, and transportation.
President Donald Trump is uniquely dangerous, precisely because he has the ability to unite these two different political forces into an aggressive political coalition with a shared agenda and strategy.
However, the Trump coalition’s ability to be successful is premised on two interrelated things: wide-scale voter disenfranchisement and low-voter turnout. That is why we have the ability to defeat Trump and Trumpism by turning out, doing the work to turn others out, registering voters, pushing for restoration of voting rights, and fighting against voter suppression efforts.
Turnout in the Nov. 6 election may very well be the deciding factor in whether we win the future or get defeated by the past.
Donald Trump and the politics of the 19th century
There has always been a white nationalist minority which existed as part of the conservative coalition in the USA. During the Obama administration, key elements of this conservative, racist minority became emboldened. They could not accept that an African American had become president of the US—not once, but twice—and they wanted to do all that they could to reverse his legacy, even policies from which they benefited.
Donald Trump, always politically ambitious and demagogic, seized on the moment. Watching the growth of the Tea Party movement that challenged virtually every reform advanced by President Barack Obama, Trump decided to go deeper into more dangerous terrain. He fanned the flames of what came to be known as the “Birther Movement,” those who suggested that Obama had never legitimately been a US citizen. Despite all evidence, Trump continued to ring the bell of birtherism. The real objective was to say, in coded words, that it was inconceivable that a Black American could (or should) become president of this country.
Trump’s 2016 campaign for president was noteworthy on multiple levels. His opening argument, that Mexicans were bringing crime to the US, ignored the reality of declining immigration and also the fact that immigrant communities commit demonstrably less crime, and are more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators.
Or consider Trump’s attacks on Muslims and the suggestion that Muslim-based terrorism was the main threat to the US. What is worth noting is that since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the main form of terrorism to threaten the US has been right-wing, white supremacist terrorism.
Trump has been carrying out a well-crafted approach of divide and rule. He, and the corporate interests that he represents, want to ensure that they can move a very reactionary agenda that will reverse the victories that we, the broader American public, have won over the course of the 20th century. As one political theorist put it, they seek to take us back to the era of William McKinley and of the Spanish-American War.
Is the problem just Trump?
I wish that I could say that the problem was only or mainly Trump. After a while, people will tire of him and he will go off into retirement. But the challenges that we face—and that will be represented in the midterm elections—are much deeper.
As I mentioned, there are two very nefarious forces at work that seek to turn back the clock. One is represented by conservative corporate elites, such as the Koch Brothers, and political organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They are actively attempting to reverse various laws, court decisions, and regulations that have benefited poor and working people. They are using immigrants, Muslims, and black people as a way of distracting white people from what is really going on. After witnessing a blatantly racist act in Tennessee, President Lyndon Johnson told a young Bill Moyers exactly why many politicians nurtured and fed racist discrimination. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you,” he said, speaking from his own experience as a former member of the Southern bloc.
Think about it. We have been subjected to a GOP tax bill that is nothing short of a bribe for some, that directly benefits the elite. And everyone knows it! Yet, when Trump and his allies, including the corporate right, focus on immigrants, Muslims, etc., it is as if we are dealing with a magician who dazzles us with one hand while the real action is in the other. He’s playing upon inherited prejudices while robbing us blind.
In addition to the corporate right, there is a movement called “right-wing populism.” This is a mass movement. It is racist, sexist, xenophobic, militaristic, and highly authoritarian. It seeks to re-establish the idea that the US is a so-called white republic and that anyone not white is nothing more than a guest – an uninvited one at that. The corporate right has long sought with varying degrees of success to build a grassroots base out of right-wing populists. In fact, what is so dangerous about Trump, can be best understood as a unique ability to fuse these two right-wing elements. However, even before Trump, both of these elements had political strategies that relied on midterm elections – in other words, relied on low turnout from progressives.
So, what’s immediately at stake in the midterms?
There are many things that are at stake. First, control of Congress. As we have seen in these two years, Republican domination of Congress means that they get to pick the Supreme Court. They can cut regulations. They can fail to hold Trump accountable. They can keep their hands in our pockets. If even one house of Congress flips, that will give working-class people some breathing room. It prevents against another attempted repeal of Obamacare. It offers some ability to prevent Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, from being sworn in. It may make or break whether the Mueller investigation can actually lead to an impeachment.
Low turnout and structural barriers to voting
There is something strange that happens during the midterm elections. More often than not, a different “America” shows up at the polls. Rather than the diverse country in which we live, full of growing numbers of young voters who elected Obama or supported Bernie Sanders, we see older, white conservatives at the polls.
Worth noting is that the U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout. But of particular importance to us is the discrepancy in numbers from presidential election years to off years. There’s some fluctuation, but generally speaking, about 60 percent of the voter eligible population votes in presidential elections, while only 40 percent votes in the midterms. The impact of midterm elections can be dramatic, as we saw in 2010 and 2014. It can flip the country. The facts are demonstrable but, nevertheless, many people continue to stay home.
There is a vicious cycle of us not turning out, followed by those who end up in power as result pushing agendas and enacting laws that make it harder for us to turn out and win in the future.
Trump’s win and the victory of the new Trumpism coalition it represents comes in the first presidential election after the Supreme Court stripped out the protections of the Voting Rights Act, and in only the second presidential election after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.
On June 25, 2013, the conservative Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, overturned the protections of the Voting Rights Act. The significance of this cannot be overstated. The law had offered increase oversight and scrutiny to the voter practices of nine states, with a history of suppressing the black vote, including Virginia. Many of these states rushed in the days and months that followed to pass more restrictive voting laws.
After Obama carried Virginia in 2012, the Republican-controlled state legislature moved to enact tougher restrictions on a previously passed Voter ID law. While it would previously have accepted a large range of non-photo ID at the polls – things like utility bills, now it would only accept a driver’s license, voter ID cards, student IDs, and concealed handgun permits. It was a tactic designed to suppress Democratic Party voters and African Americans in particular. Under the Voting Rights Act, the shift would have required approval by the U.S Department of Justice. With the Voting Rights Act gutted, it no longer needed to.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission happened during President Obama’s first term, on January 21, 2010. It ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t just apply to human beings, but to corporations as well, and thus struck down any laws that limited the ability of corporate leaders to spend money advocating for or against candidates. The principle of one person one vote continues to exist in theory. But in practice, politicians campaigning for office know that those with wealth have disproportionate influence on election outcomes, and so they spend more time courting the wealthy and are wary of advocating any policy the wealthy might disapprove of, even commonsense ones like progressive taxation.
The result of Citizens United is a political class under extreme pressure to spend most of its time fundraising, which in turn means spending most of their time with moneyed interests and not working-class people. The amount of money in elections has increased, and with it the disproportionate giving and power of the super wealthy.
These two Supreme Court rulings are not isolated occurrences. They are representative of a policy regime at every level of our government that attempt to push progressive voters and particularly African American voters out of the political process while inviting wealthy special interests into disproportionate power over the political process. If it has been confusing as to why our city and state’s elected leadership won’t remove Confederate monuments, this might offer a clue.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Is there a future that focuses on justice, equal rights, preservation of the environment, well-funded public education, the rights of workers to organize and bargain, and an end to the fear that many have lived under since Jan. 20, 2017? The answer is yes. Here’s the understanding it requires: progressives and the majority of the country have been subjugated to a political cycle low turnout resulting in policies that hurt us, coupled with laws that make it harder for us to vote and represent our interests in the future.
Our task is to displace this reactionary cycle with a new progressive cycle. In our cycle, we turn out big for all elections, we register new voters, work with people to get their rights restored, and win elections. Then we build strategies at the grassroots level that involve the elected officials we put into office, to advance policies that benefit everybody and couple that with laws that undo the racist and undemocratic barriers to voting, replacing them with laws that secure the right to vote and policies that promote voting such as early voting and making election day a holiday
Midterms matter. Turnout matters. Let’s go make the future ours.