Despite stronger than expected showings by Democrats in November’s midterm elections, the Republican Party has won control of the United States House of Representatives with a narrow majority.1 The Democrats did pick up one seat in the Senate but then suffered a defection, meaning the Senate remains closely divided, still relying on the vote of vice-president Kamala Harris vote to resolve any ties.2
Traditionally, the party of the president loses seats in the midterms. The Democrats lost 63 House seats in Barack Obama’s first midterm, and 54 in Bill Clinton’s; similarly, the Republicans lost 41 seats in Donald Trump’s 2018 midterms. With Democratic president Joe Biden’s approval rating hovering around 41 percent, inflation eating into living standards, and two-thirds of the population saying the country was moving in the wrong direction, Republicans were looking forward to a “red wave” that would hand them back the Senate as well as a substantial majority in the House.3 Many mainstream commentators predicted the same.4
The failure of this red wave to materialise has little to do with support for Biden or popular enthusiasm for the Democratic Party. To understand the real reasons, some background is needed. The US does not have a Labour or socialist electoral party, nor an electoral party of the far right. Instead, US politics has tended to be reflected, in a distorted way, in votes for the traditional mainstream parties, the Democrats and Republicans. Although these two are twin parties of capital, they are not identical twins. Since the 1930s, people with socially liberal views, African Americans and most unions have tended to support the Democrats, even if their hopes have been repeatedly dashed. Moreover, since Trump’s election in 2016, there has been a growing connection between a previously hidden and marginalised far right and important sections of the Republican Party.5
The Republicans were banking on economic problems overwhelming other issues. In particular, they hoped to get a boost from the effects of high inflation, which Biden had earlier dismissed as “transitory” but remained almost 8 percent in the run-up to the election.6 However, the Republicans had no plan to counter inflation either, much less the growing inequality that creates the impression of two entirely separate economies: one for the rich, and one for the poor and most workers.7 The Democrats, in response, stressed the threat to liberal democracy posed by the Republicans’ right wing. Ongoing hearings into the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington DC on 6 January 2021 have highlighted Trump’s involvement with the far right and his apparent sympathy for their actions. Press accounts stressed that a red wave could result in Republican-led redistricting and voter suppression measures to lock in the party’s majority.8 Others warned that right-wing “election deniers”, who believe Trump’s claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, could be swept into state attorney general positions, enabling another 6 January-type operation to succeed.9 The election was framed as a battle of the economy versus democracy.
However, more than these issues, opposition to the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Roe vs Wade decision guaranteeing a national right to abortion may have been the main reason people, especially young women, came out to vote Democrat.10 After Roe was rescinded, there was a surge of new voter registrations, especially among younger and female voters.11 When an NBC exit poll asked voters their most important issue, inflation came first with 31 percent, but abortion was second with 27 percent. In addition, 61 percent disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and 38 percent said they were “angry” about it.12 One post-election analysis of polling data concluded that overturning Roe “disproportionately motivated Democratic voters, first-time and younger voters, and women under age 50”, even prompting some Republicans to vote Democrat. All this “likely contributed to the Democratic Party’s stronger-than-expected performance”.13
Ballot initiatives in Vermont, California and Michigan that sought to enshrine the right to abortion in state law all passed, and an anti-abortion ballot initiative in Kentucky was voted down. The ballot initiative in Michigan may have increased the turnout, allowing Democrats to win the “trifecta” of governor, state senate and state house of representatives for the first time in 38 years.14 Democrats and their allies, such as the non-profit abortion provider Planned Parenthood, spent half a billion dollars on political adverts that mentioned abortion.15 This bought in the votes, but it also raises questions about why popular anger was not mobilised into a militant movement to defend abortion before the Supreme Court ruling. There is still a noticeable lack of large-scale abortion rights mobilisation in the US. Planned Parenthood did help build two large demonstrations in New York and Washington DC, but they ended with no further call to action other than voting.
With the narrow and unreliable Democratic majority in the Senate now facing a Republican majority in the House, where the far-right Republican “Freedom Caucus” will have increased sway, official politics looks to be even more gridlocked and ineffectual than it has been for the past two years. Democrats will use this as an excuse for compromise. For instance, Biden’s promise to write abortion rights into national law is dead in the water unless a massive movement is built that will scare Republicans (and a few “pro-life” Democrats such as Texas congressman Henry Cuellar) into changing their minds.
Law and order
Seeing the boost that Democrats were getting from the overturn of Roe, Republicans also turned to social issues, ramping up their rhetoric and advertising over law and order. They forked out tens of millions a month to stoke fear through exaggerating crime rates and painting the Democrats as anti-police. Yet, this strategy failed to bring the results they expected. Despite the right-wing backlash since the 2020 Black Lives Matter street protests died down, many Republican district attorney candidates running on law and order platforms were defeated by advocates of criminal justice reform.16 In Los Angeles, voters approved a measure allowing sheriffs to be fired, and “anti-woke” Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva (a right-wing Democrat) was voted out, albeit to be replaced by a retired police chief.
These electoral results offer meagre consolation for the demobilisation of Black Lives Matter and the movement to defund the police. The radical energies of the 2020 mass protests were to a large extent diverted into electoral politics. The Democratic majority, many of whom had cynically tried to link themselves to a defanged version of the Black Lives Matter slogan when it was at the height of its popularity, dropped it during the elections. Instead, they competed to show their support for the police.
One place where the law and order strategy did deliver for Republicans is New York State. The slender Republican majority in the House of Representatives can be attributed to the four congressional seats they flipped in the state. In part, this is due to Republican gerrymandering (after a court threw out even more extensive Democratic gerrymandering).17 However, Democratic governor Kathy Hochul also caved in to attacks on bail reform, defensively stressing her support for enlargement of the police force. These attacks came not just from her Republican rival, but also New York City’s Democrat mayor, ex-cop Eric Adams, who blamed bail reform for an (exaggerated) rise in crime, ordered the dismantling of homeless encampments, and demanded accelerated prosecution and longer prison sentences. Republican candidates reaped the benefit, triumphing in a race otherwise marked by low voter enthusiasm.
The growth of the right in the Republican Party has taken place in tandem with a less discussed shift to the right among sections of the Democrats. Pennsylvania Democratic senator John Fetterman moved from supporting the “Green New Deal” to defending fracking, as well as advocating support for Israel and seeking to build union support through nationalistic anti-China rhetoric. Next door, in Ohio, House representative Tim Ryan went from comparing the criminal justice system with the Jim Crow laws to campaigning to “refund the police” in his unsuccessful race against the Republican venture capitalist and author J D Vance, a recent Trump convert.18
During the primaries, Democratic campaign funds also paid for ads to help several of the most rabid Trumpists win the Republican nomination, based on the dangerous hypothesis that they would be easier to beat.19 In Pennsylvania, Democrats spent over a million dollars promoting the Christian nationalist gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who rejects the 2020 election results and Covid vaccines, funded buses to the 6 January rally, and rails against trans people and abortion. His Democratic opponent won, but the far-right milieu that coalesced around Mastriano will remain.
The electoral far right
To a large extent, the failure of the red wave meant the failure of a far-right wave. However, although there is discomfort among traditional Republicans about the presence of the far right, there are few willing to risk their primary election by explicitly challenging it.20 Far-right elements continue to have major impact on politics in the Republican Party and beyond—and combatting this is not a matter that can be left to the Democrats.
The electoral success of the far right can be distinguished from the overall success of the Republicans in different ways.21 The Washington Post found 291 Republican candidates for Congress and key state offices who can be classified as “election deniers”, a majority of Republican nominees in the midterms. Well over half these 291 won.22 Trump’s endorsements can also be counted. Trump-backed candidates met with mixed success, but a majority of his congressional picks lost.23 USA Today tracked candidates who were affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus, which is a successor of the old Tea Party Caucus. Its members tend to share Trump’s politics and want to push the Republican leadership rightwards.24 Several associated with the Freedom Caucus were defeated in primaries or the midterms, but most of its incumbents were re-elected.
Overall, far-right candidates did well in predominantly Republican areas, especially if they were incumbents. These include House Freedom Caucus members such as Arizona’s Paul Gosar and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, a believer in weird QAnon conspiracy theories who was stripped of her committee assignments last year for endorsing violent statements.25 Also re-elected was Florida’s Matt Gaetz. Gaetz has become less prominent since allegations of him having sex with a minor emerged, but he is still capable of inflammatory rhetoric. He promised to “kill Muslim terrorists and build the wall” earlier in his campaign and advocated “hunting down” members of militant anti-fascist group Antifa “like we do with terrorists in the Middle East” at the time of the Black Lives Matter protests. He also offered support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the right-wing teenager who shot and killed two men at a Black Lives Matter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on 25 August 2020.26 Gaetz later suggested Antifa were behind the attack on the Capitol.27
Newcomers, though, met with a lot less success than incumbents, especially in swing states and swing districts. Commentators concluded that “Republican voters in more moderate areas just aren’t going along with extremism, indicating a limit on the popularity of far-right extremism”.28 That may be true, but these limits are not set in stone. Indeed, boundaries of “acceptable” politics have already moved to include much that would have been condemned just five years ago.
Elections for state attorneys general and secretaries of state, who have key responsibilities in election regulation, were also targeted by election-denying candidates angry that Biden’s 2020 victory were not annulled at state level. Concerns for democracy appear to have driven the electoral defeat of every candidate Trump endorsed for a secretary of state position. However, other election deniers were elected in Indiana, Wyoming and Alabama, and they also managed scattered victories for the positions of attorney general and state elections chief. Democratic Party officials were relieved that the majority of these candidates lost, and none of these officials, who have responsibility for voting procedures, were elected in a swing state, where they could do the most damage. Nevertheless, this is another barrier broken.
There are also exceptions to the general pattern of the midterms. For instance, in Florida the right has swept through the state. Republicans picked up nine seats in the House, including Miami-Dade County, where the fascist Proud Boys had worked their way into the Republican machine.29 Ron DeSantis, another right-wing figure likely to compete with Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination, was first elected governor in 2018 with a very slim 0.4 percent margin. Yet, in November, he was easily re-elected, winning by over a million and a half votes. During his first term, Florida outlawed abortion at 15 weeks, implemented limits on voting rights and exiled immigrants to Democratic states. DeSantis also pushed to keep schools open during the pandemic and implement the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” act, severely limiting sex education and instruction on sexual identity. He has also launched further attacks on progressive school curriculums. State-wide, nearly two-thirds of registered Republicans showed up to the polls, compared to just half of registered Democrats.30
The US midterm elections also play out on a local level. This year, various right-wing organisations spent unprecedented amounts of money on school board races, traditionally sleepy and non-partisan events, to advance their homophobic and racist policies, including banning books. Often, privatisation of schools and attacks on teachers’ unions were an additional, hidden agenda.31
The right did not achieve a red wave in education either, but they did establish a dangerous foothold. The reactionary 1776 Project’s political action committee spent almost $2.8 million, although it only got 16 of nearly 50 candidates elected. By comparison, there was 71 percent success rate among the thousands of candidates endorsed by the National Education Association, a major teachers’ union. However, the right-wing Moms For Liberty group, created by conservative dark money but disguised as the work of concerned local parents, endorsed about 270 candidates nationally, of whom about half won. In Florida, Moms for Liberty spent $37,000, and 80 percent of its endorsed candidates won, with many also backed by DeSantis. In Michigan, where the right’s attacks on education were challenged, progressives won almost all their seats.32 Where the right has won, their offensive can be beaten back by the majority who oppose bullying and indoctrination. So far, however, Democrats and union leaders have largely kept quiet in the face of this threat.
What can be done?
As I have argued, despite the failure of the red wave, there remain attacks on all fronts, and the far right continues to be a menacing presence in US politics.
The working class have repeatedly been told by those who currently hold power that voting is the means to bring about change. Even in earlier times this rang hollow. Now even the right to vote is under threat. More than 400 anti-voter bills have been introduced in 48 states, ranging from imposing strict voter ID laws and cuts to early voting to mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement.33 Yet, even without these obstacles, the corrupt two-party corporate system would offer little change in the lives of ordinary people, no matter who is at the helm.
Women did come out and vote in numbers to stop Republicans from gaining control of both chambers of Congress, but Democrats, including Biden, have had decades to codify Roe vs Wade and strengthen women’s rights and access to healthcare. Biden himself voted against abortion rights in the past.34 More generally, the Democrats consistently sell short workers and the oppressed, whose activism has been repeatedly channelled into electoral avenues. Real change will not happen in the voting booth. Elections might serve as a bellwether of the mood of the working class, but they can also often deplete movements’ energy and momentum.
During the Trump administration, we saw huge numbers of protesters on the streets from the first day of his inauguration: women’s marches; marches against the Muslim travel ban; young people mobilising massive demonstrations for anti-gun laws; and, of course, the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement during the magnificent summer of 2020. These spectacular displays can transform the political terrain and scare the ruling class. Yet, as these movements subside, the message becomes singular and monotonous: “Vote!”. Insomuch as people heed this call, they face a choice between the lesser of two evils, and increasingly this is a choice between a right-wing candidate and a far-right one.
At present, the greatest hope lies in the burgeoning labour movement and union organising efforts. Amazon and Starbucks workers, and those in other grocery retailers, are forming new unions to organise their workplaces. Teachers, nurses and graduate students have taken strike action in California, Ohio and Seattle, Washington. This growing movement poses a test for even the most well-intentioned Democrats. This was seen in autumn 2020 when rail workers threatened a national strike, offering the opportunity for a national focus in the fight over the cost of living. When rank and file workers rejected a new contract that had been brokered by the White House in talks between the unions and rail firms, Democrat leaders, relying on the 1926 Railway Labor Act, pushed through a vote in Congress to impose the deal anyway. Members of the “squad” of progressive congresswomen of colour, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, voted for imposition of the deal, securing only the minor concession, which then fell in the Senate, of a resolution offering seven paid sick days a year to railworkers.35
Workers deserve better than a party so caught up in the machinations of Congress that even its most progressive figures end up on the wrong side of the picket line. The scope for a possible alternative to develop is increased by the growing disenchantment with capitalism among a significant minority. Among those aged 18-24, only 42 percent report that they have a positive view of capitalism, and 54 percent report a negative view.36 If the growing antipathy towards the system can connect with the struggles of workers, it will begin to open up a space for genuine revolutionary socialist organisation to develop and grow in the US.
Virginia Rodino is the executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, AFL-CIO and a member of Marx21, a revolutionary socialist organisation in the United States.
1 Thanks to Eric Fretz and Marie Edwards for their important contributions to the writing of this article.
2 Democrats also picked up three state governorships and four state legislatures, but Republicans remain in charge of most. Although Republicans rule in the majority of US states, these are disproportionately rural, thus representing a minority of the national population.
3 Red represents, somewhat counter-intuitively, the Republican Party in the US.
4 See, for example, Palmer, 2022; Collinson, 2022.
5 On the lack of a labour party in the US, see Davis, 1986. For a socialist history of the Democrats, see Selfa, 2012. On the Biden presidency’s record, see Fretz, 2021.
6 Fabian and Leonard, 2021. Inflation was 7.7 percent in October—Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022.
7 For more on the underlying economics, see Choonara, 2018 and 2021.
8 Nichols, 2022.
9 Gardner 2022.
10 Frey, 2022.
11 Piper, 2022.
12 See NBC News’s exit polls page at www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-elections/exit-polls
13 Kirzinger, Kearney and others, 2022.
14 Kirzinger, Kearney and others, 2022.
15 Lerer, 2022.
16 Nedungadi, 2022.
17 Piper and Mutnick, 2022.
19 Linskey, 2022.
20 Wolf, 2022.
21 Wiskirchen, Owen and Mansfield, 2022.
22 Gardner, 2022.
23 Politico, 2022.
24 Wiskirchen, Owen and Mansfield, 2022.
25 Draper, 2022.
26 Contorno, 2020.
27 Gais, 2021.
28 Erin Mansfield, quoted in Wiskirchen, Owen and Mansfield, 2022.
29 Mazzei and Feuer, 2022.
30 Prazan, 2022.
31 Stanford, 2022.
32 Wong, 2022.
33 American Civil Liberties Union, 2021.
34 Przybyla, 2019.
35 Seitz, 2022; Fretz, 2022.
36 Figures available at www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/axios-capitalism-update