The U.S. Elections 2017: The Unexpected Democratic Sweep

Commentary No. 461, November 15, 2017

Elections in the United States have one feature that almost no other country shares. They largely occur on mandatory fixed dates. Presidential elections are every four years. Senatorial elections are staggered. One-third of them occur every two years. Both of these elections occur in years ending in an even numeral. Gubernatorial elections tend to occur in the same even years. Local elections are more varied but very many also occur in the even years.

As a result, the so-called off-year elections (that is, years ending in an odd numeral) tend to be considered less important by the national parties. And voters participate at a far lower rate than in the even-year elections

The year 2017 was unusual in two respects. Because of the extremely strong feelings, pro and con, about President Donald Trump, even very local elections seemed to be, at least in part, a referendum on him and what he has achieved in his first year in office. And, secondly, probably because of this, the rate of voter participation was exceptionally high.

The results are straightforward. The Democrats swept the elections. The word sweep is not an exaggeration. They won the two gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and by very large margins. They won special elections for vacant seats in the House of Representatives in what had been considered “safe” seats for the Republicans. They considerably strengthened their position in state-level legislatures and mayoralty elections. If the 2018 elections were held today, the Democrats would have a good chance of getting a majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

So, what does this mean? Everyone seems to be writing about this. And the explanations offered vary widely. But most pundits and politicians are arguing that prospects look very good for the Democrats in the congressional elections of 2018 and even the presidential election of 2020. It is clear that Republican leaders are very worried and Democratic leaders very encouraged. Should they be?

The first caution is that the 2018 elections are not being held today but a year from now. In the very volatile situation in the United States and worldwide, a lot can happen in a year. There are a number of obvious uncertainties. The most important: Will the U.S. Congress pass a tax reform bill? Will there be any deaths (or far less likely, any resignations) in the U.S. Supreme Court? Will there be a regional war in Afghanistan between Saudi Arabia (or its proxies) and Iran (or its proxies)? Will Trump sabotage the agreement with Iran? Will one side or the other trigger the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula.

These uncertainties certainly don’t seem minor, at least for me. Given this caution, how should we interpret what happened in the U.S. 2017 elections? I agree with the majority of analysts that the elections showed an anti-Trumpist mood, such that candidates seen as supporting Trump were at a distinct disadvantage.

Trump was doubtless the big loser of the 2017 elections. I think even Trump realizes that. He just thinks he can reverse this mood by the time of the 2018 elections. He thinks he can do this by passing some tax reform bill, almost any reform bill, by the end of this calendar year. Doing this would demonstrate that he accomplished something promised and important. In addition, he thinks he can improve radically the geopolitical position of the United States by a combination of bluster about actions and inaction in reality.

I doubt myself that a tax reform bill will in fact be passed because of the deep divisions among three (not two) groups of Republican congressional legislators: the business-oriented faction, the small government and reduced debt faction, and the nationalist protectionist xenophobes. Of course, whatever the outcome of these divisions, should they manage to pass a compromise bill, that bill will be terrible. But I am only discussing here the likelihood of their passing any kind of bill.

The geopolitical issues are more worrisome. Trump is fundamentally unable to accept the reality of the decline of U.S. power and the harsh limits this puts on his personal attempts to control the situation. Therefore, so-called accidents are a real possibility, a terrifying one.

The tactics of both mainstream U.S. parties facing this situation are at the moment unsure. In 2016, the Republicans had the wind behind their sails and the Democrats were simply inept. Now it’s the other way around. The Democrats have the wind behind them and the Republicans don’t seem to know what to do about it.

The big question, I think, is whether the Democrats can remain as united as they are at the moment. They have been moving leftward for several months now. But there are limits to how far the centrist faction, long dominant, is ready to go. And members of the “leftward” faction (that Bernie Sanders incarnated in 2016) are organizing to seize their chance and press further their control of the party.

The biggest hope for the Democrats is that the Republicans will fail to pass a tax reform bill. This will not only shatter further the spirits of all factions of the Republican Party but at the same time maintain the unity of the Democrats. Voters will see the Democrats as having stopped the very destructive path of the Republicans. They will have “minimized the pain” (as I like to say), responding to the needs of all the many factions of the Democrats that made the 2017 elections such a success.

Doing this will allow the left forces in the United States to organize for the real battle, the middle-run struggle about the nature of our future post-capitalist world-system. What then shall we conclude about the meaning of the 2017 elections? It is in fact too early to tell. We’ll see this more clearly in two to three months from now.