The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

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DEC 18-JAN 19 Issue
Field Notes

“The Most Crucial Election of Our Lifetime?”—The 2018 US Midterm Elections

On October 22, 2018, Barack Obama declared the 2018 midterm elections to be “more important than any I can remember in my lifetime, and that includes when I was on the ballot.” Democratic politicians across the US attempted to rally their electoral base to retake Congress as an act of “resistance” against Trump and his Republican hordes. Trump and the Republicans were equally adamant in appealing to their base to defend an administration that promised to “Make America Great Again.” They warned that the Democrats would implement an eclectic mixture of policies—1universal health care, open borders, neo-liberal free trade deals, and “job killing” tax increases.2

A significant portion of U.S. citizens went to the polls in a popular rebuke of Trump’s regime. Slightly over 49% of eligible voters turned out on November 6—the highest voter turnout in a midterm election in over a century.3 The Democrats’ support increased sharply over 2016, when Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than Trump, before he was installed in the Presidency through the thoroughly undemocratic Electoral College. Clinton won 48.5% compared with Trump’s 46.4% in 2016, while the Democrats swept the Republicans in 2018 by a margin of 52.7% to 45.5%.4 In the end, the Republicans were able to retain control of the Senate, another undemocratic state institution that gives one voter in Wyoming the same representation as nearly seventy in California, but lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats. Democrats so far have gained thirty-three seats from the Republicans, and may win up to another seven seats depending on the outcome of several very close races.5 The Democrats also regained Governorships in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin; and secured majorities in those state legislatures in along with those of New Hampshire and Connecticut.6

The “flipping” of the House from “red” to “blue” has raised the hopes of mainstream liberals and reformists (such as labor officials and the more conservative elements of the Democratic Socialists of America-DSA). Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees Union (SEIU) declared that her and other unions’ mobilization of working-class voters, especially people of color, was crucial to the victory of the Democrats in Rust Belt states like Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—states Trump had won by microscopic margins in 2016.7 Nina Turner, president of the Sanders-inspired “Our Revolution,” boasted of the nearly 200 candidates they had endorsed—without mentioning the numbers actually elected. Bill Fletcher, Jr., a major figure on the reformist left, attributed the Democratic victories to “the poor, women and suburban voters” that could be the basis for a new “broad front” against Trump and right-wing populism.8

A closer look at the election results, who voted, and the role of the capitalist class in the 2018 elections supports a more sober assessment.9 The corporate, neo-liberal “center” of the Democratic Party is in firm control of its new House majority. Of the nearly fifty freshmen Democrats in Congress, nearly two dozen were endorsed by the New Democratic Coalition, which describes its membership as “committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies.”10 Only two self-proclaimed socialists—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—were elected to the House. DSA members did increase their presence in state legislatures from four to eleven—out of some 7,383 offices. Corporate Democrats were able to quash one of the more serious challenges from democratic socialists in the Bay Area, as Buffy Wicks (known as “Buffy the Bernie Slayer” for her role in dirty tricks against the Vermont Senator in 2016) defeated Jovanka Beckles for the California State Assembly. The Congressional Progressive Caucus,11 known for its willingness to sacrifice its agenda on the mantle of “party unity,” grew from 75 to 87 members, remaining only 40% of the Democratic caucus.

Not surprisingly, Nancy Pelosi, the next Speaker of the House12, has made it clear that the new Democratic majority will not support Medicare for All, the abolition of ICE, or free college tuition. Instead, they will stick to the “carefully honed, poll-tested agenda” they ran on in 2018—defense of the Affordable Care Act and its massive tax subsidies for private health insurance, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies; and the “restoration of checks and balances” on the more erratic and outrageous actions of Trump. The Democratic leadership will pursue investigations into “Russia gate” and the Trump administration’s executive actions weakening environmental regulation, undermining Obamacare, and separating immigrant families at the US border. However, it is unlikely that they will even attempt to overturn Trump’s massive tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, or raise the issue of impeachment. More ominously, they are appealing for “bi-partisanship” on issues on which they believe they can cooperate with Trump and the Republicans, in particular an infrastructure plan and a reform of federal drug sentencing guide-lines.13

The Democratic leadership’s rejection of even the mildest social-democratic reforms flows both from their targeted electoral base and their support among the capitalist class. The electorate in the United States remains disproportionately higher-income than the population as a whole. In 2016, households earning less than $50,000 a year made up 43% of the population, but made up only 38% of the electorate in 2018, up from 36% in 2016. While there was a small increase in the weight of poor and working-class voters, the “better-off” continue to dominate the electorate. Households earning in excess of $100,000 annually made up 28% of the population in 2016, but 33% of the electorate this year. The Democrats’ share of voters from households earning less than $50,000 increased from 57% in 2016 to 59% in 2018; while their share of voters from households earning in excess of $100,000 remained steady at 47%. Put simply, the Democrats benefited from a small increase in support among the working class and poor over 2016, but primarily from an increase in the proportion of middle-class voters earning in excess of $100,000.14

Analysis of exit poll data further confirms the disproportionately middle-class vote for the Democrats. The share of African-American and Latinx/a voters grew from 21% to 24% between 2016 and 2018, with Democrats increasing their share from 74% to 76%. The youth vote (18-29) dropped from 14% to 8% of the electorate, but the Democrats increased their vote among the young from 55% to 67% between 2016 and 2018. The biggest shift toward the Democrats was in the educational composition and geographic location of the electorate. The share of college-educated voters jumped 3% between 2014 and 2018, while the proportion of non-college graduates decreased by the same amount. While Democrats won 52% of college graduates and 44% of non-college graduates in 2016, their share of college graduate jumped to 59% and among non-college graduate to 49%. The sharpest increases came in the suburbs, which jumped from 49% to 51% of the voting public; with the Democrats increasing their share of suburban voters from 45% to 49%.15 As is reflected in their ability to flip many traditionally Republican suburban districts to win the majority of the House, the Democrats’ margin of victory came primarily from college-educated, middle-class professionals and managers in the suburbs.

To win in these traditionally Republican districts, the Democrats tacked to the right. A clear example was the one district the Democrats took from the Republicans in New York City, the 11th District in South Brooklyn and Staten Island. The Democratic candidate, Max Rose, is a model neo-liberal centrist.16 Rose worked as an intern for Cory Booker’s administration in Newark, NJ, as Booker attempted to hand over the public schools to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and bust the Newark Teachers Union. He went on to study with Anthony Giddens, the prime ideologist of the British Labour Party’s “third way” and advisor to Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government that slashed social services and collaborated with Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He ran on a quite mainstream Democratic platform, emphasizing the defense of the Affordable Care Act, greater gun control, infrastructure, and policies “to ensure that we stay the superpower our parents and grandparents worked so hard to build.” In New York’s whitest borough, Rose emphasized the “opioid crisis” (rather than general drug legalization and treatment) and ran a TV ad attacking fellow Democrat Bill de Blasio for “ignoring Staten Island.” Krysten Sinema, the Democrat who won Jeff Flake’s Senate seat from Arizona, openly denounced her past as a Green and a socialist and ran on a platform of bi-partisan cooperation. She remained silent on Trump’s pardon of Maricopa County’s openly xenophobic sheriff, Joe Arpaio, while supporting tougher screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, weakening the milquetoast Dodd-Frank banking regulations, and defending Trump’s tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations.17

The Democrats’ reliance on funding from major sectors of the capitalist class will also help ensure they “toe the line” of neo-liberal centrism. The 2018 midterms were the most expensive elections in the past twenty years.18 As of Election Day, nearly $5.2 billion was spent on Congressional campaigns in 2018, almost $1 billion more (adjusted for inflation) than was spent in the next highest year, 2010. As the Democrats have transformed themselves from an electoral party run by local political machines into a fund-raising cartel dominated by various unelected and unaccountable campaign committees,19 the role of labor officials has declined sharply. The portion of Democratic campaign donations from labor has fallen by one-third in the last three Congressional elections, from 5.8% in 2014, to 4.3% in 2016 to a mere 3.7% in 2018. At the same time, the Democrats share of total “business” contributions has increased by nearly one-fifth, from a mere 43% in 2014 to 50% in 2016 to 52% in 2018. The Democrats’ gains in 2018 are even more remarkable given the persistence of incumbents’ historical advantages in fundraising. In the Republican majority House, incumbents still raised nearly eight times that of challengers, and slightly over five times that raised on open seats in 2018.

Democrats were able to win the majority of contributions from the financial and real estate sector, along with health care, business services (advertising and public relations companies, management consultants, market researchers, etc.) and electronics manufacturing and equipment producers. By contrast, the Republicans were able to maintain or increase their support among key manufacturing, resource extraction, transport, and agricultural sectors. The Republicans received 77% of contributions from the steel industry and the automobile industry in the manufacturing sector. Mining corporations gave 91% and the chemical industry 70% of their contributions to the GOP, while the Republicans received nearly 88% of the largesse of oil and gas companies. The trucking industry donated 84% to the Republicans, and sea transport companies over 92%. In the agricultural sector poultry and egg producers provided 86% of their funding to Republicans, dairy and tobacco farmers gave nearly 75%, and livestock ranches nearly 70%.

Given the Republicans’ unwillingness to challenge Trump’s nationalist-populist trade agenda, in particular his imposition of tariffs on China, Mexico, Canada, and the EU, it is not surprising that capital has shifted toward the Democrats. Both of the major organizations of U.S. capitalists, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, want the U.S. state to stop the Chinese ruling class’ “discriminatory trade practices”—from using uncompetitive state industries to dump steel and aluminum on the world market to attempts to appropriate US intellectual property. However, both have condemned Trump’s retaliatory tariffs as harmful to US capital. According to the Chamber:

New tariffs on steel, aluminum, and Chinese imports, as well as the potential for additional tariffs on autos and auto parts, threaten to spark a global trade war. Simply put, tariffs are a tax on American consumers and businesses. Tariffs are the wrong approach to address unfair trade practices.20

The Chamber is particularly incensed with the tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum, which have continued even after the administration’s renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Not only are the prices of metal inputs rising for a wide variety of US manufacturers, but Canadian and Mexican retaliatory tariffs on US manufactured and agricultural goods has resulted in the loss of $500 million in US exports each week.21 The Business Roundtable echoes these points:

The Administration has correctly identified the real problem of China’s discriminatory trade practices. But unilaterally imposing tariffs is the wrong way to achieve real reforms, with this latest escalation threatening further harm to U.S. businesses and workers. 22

What is surprising is the continued financial support for the Republicans from key manufacturing capitalists and agribusiness.23 Both sectors oppose the tariffs and have been materially harmed by rising costs of materials and/or loss of markets. Yet the auto industry, a major consumer of steel and aluminum, gave 77% of their contributions to the Republicans. Agribusiness favored the GOP with nearly 70% of their campaign contributions. Perhaps it is the near universal capitalist approval for the Trump tax cuts that explains these sectors’ continued willingness to finance the Republicans. Combined with a strong cyclical economic upturn, probably extended by the reduction of taxes on profits, the tariffs’ negative impact has been muted. Capital remains concerned with Trump’s economic nationalism, and his tendency to treat the US capitalist state as a personal plaything rather than the “Executive Committee of the ruling class as a whole” (which is usually expressed in concerns about “the rule of law”).24 However, as long as accumulation proceeds apace, they will continue to look to the Republicans for at least some of their political representation. Unfortunately for Trump, there are clear “leading indicators”—especially stock market volatility—that the upturn may be reaching its end.25

Despite their commitment to neo-liberal economic and trade policy, some on the liberal and reformist left have argued that the Democrats’ victory will put an end to the worst excesses of the Trump administration and open more space for progressives in the Democratic Party. We should remember, first, that Trump’s most outrageous assaults on civil liberties (the Muslim ban, etc.) have been effected through Executive Orders rather than legislative action. Crucially, many of his policies are a continuation of Obama-era policies. Trump has not only deported fewer undocumented immigrants than Obama midway through his first administration, but family detention and separation began under Obama.26 Pelosi and the Democratic leadership’s embrace of “bi-partisanship” will block any substantial reforms (Medicare for All, free college, abolition of ICE) in the next two years.

The mainstream of the party has been joined by the so-called Progressive in the party. The “progressives” have already declared that they will not press for legislation to abolish ICE in the next two years.27 More importantly, they have pledged their support to Pelosi for Speaker of the House against a fleeting right-wing challenge28, in return for more seats on important House committees. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who is expected to chair the CPC in 2019, has already publically committed to Pelosi, as have major progressive Democratic organizations such as and Indivisible. Pelosi has already indicated a willingness to place members of the CPC on the House Committee on Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Intelligence Committees in exchange for their support against any challenge to her leadership. 29

What can we expect from the “rock star”30 of the incoming Democrats in the House, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? In retrospect, her primary victory over her long-serving centrist opponent, Joe Crowley, was not the tidal wave that many claimed. Voter turnout in 2004, the last contested Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, was 12.4% of registered Democrats. In 2018, voter turnout dropped to 11.8%, as Crowley essentially ignored his youthful, female, and Latina opponent. Ocasio-Cortez won the primary with approximately 28,000 votes in a district with nearly 236,000 registered Democrats.31 While she backed Cynthia Nixon’s “progressive” challenge to incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo, she quickly endorsed him and the entire establishment Democratic slate in the general election—to the protests of her comrades in New York DSA. 32 Since her victory in the general elections, Ocasio-Cortez’s actions have been, at best, inconsistent. On the one hand, she participated in a sit-in at Pelosi’s office demanding action for a “Green New Deal” to promote job creation and an end to reliance on fossil fuels.33 On the other hand, Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Pelosi for Speaker of the House, calling her “the most progressive candidate running” in the face of an even more centrist challenge.34 Given Pelosi’s and the mainstream Democrats’ control of committee assignments, Congressional budgets, and campaign financing, it is highly unlikely that Ocasio-Cortez or her DSA comrade Rashida Tlaib of Michigan will form an independent “Democratic Socialist” Congressional Caucus.35

The pressures that DSA members in elected office experience and the inability of their comrades to hold them accountable to their radical social-democratic program bode poorly for those on the left of DSA who hope that using the “Democratic ballot line” can prepare for a future “dirty” split and the emergence of an independent labor or socialist party in the US.36 Any attempt to run socialists in Democratic primaries in the hope of preparing for a future split between the neo-liberal and progressive wings of the party would require that advocates of this strategy openly proclaim their intention not support any mainstream Democratic candidates. Such a stance will bring massive opposition not only from mainstream Democrats, but “progressives” and “Berniecrats” and even from the majority of DSA members—all of whom believe that the Democrats can be moved to the left. The hostility of these forces will be even greater after the modest Democratic gains in 2018, which will fuel hopes of displacing Trump and his minions from the White House.

The pressures to support “anybody but Trump” in 2020 will be enormous. If the socialist left, inside and outside DSA, capitulates once again to “lesser-evilism,” the results will, again, be disastrous. Eighty years of left support to “lesser-evil” Democrats have always resulted in the left abandoning independent organizing and struggle in the interests of not embarrassing the Democrats. As we fold our tents, the Democrats are free to drift further and further to the right, as they have since the late 1970s. More importantly, a left that tails the Democrats continually recreates space for the populist, far-right. As the neo-liberal center of the Democratic Party implements policies that target working people, people of color, immigrants, women, and queer folks, the only alternative will be those who rail against both the “globalist” elites and “other” working people. Put simply, supporting the Democrats will produce forces that will make Trump appear to be a mainstream, ‘multi-cultural’ liberal. Only clear independence from the Democrats and a commitment to build and extend disruptive struggles from below—especially the embryonic strike wave of teachers, hotel workers, and others—will build a real socialist and working class alternative to Trumpism. 


  1. Linda Qiu, “A Guide to Trump’s Stump Speeches for the Midterm Campaigns” New York Times (October 12, 2018) []
  2. Ed Kilgore, “2018 Turnout Was the Highest of Any Midterm in More than a Century” New York Magazine (November 13, 2018) []
  3. Data for 2016 from David Leip, “2016 President Elections Results” US Election Atlas (2016) [}]. Data for 2018 from “2018 House Popular Vote Tracker” []
  4. Alexander Burns, “A Week After the Election, Democratic Gains Grow Stronger” New York Times (November 13, 2018) []
  5. Adam Nagourney and Sydney Embler, “Red Statehouse, Blue Statehouse” New York Times (November 7, 2018) []
  6. Mary Kay Henry, “ Working People Won the Midwest for the Democrats” The Nation (November 8, 2018) []
  7. “8 Thinkers on the Left Explain What the Midterm Results Mean for Progressives” In These Times (November 7, 2018) []
  8. Neal Meyer, “The Blue Trickle” The Call (November 8, 2018) []; Alan Maass, “Six Socialist Takeaways from Election 2018” Socialist Worker (November 7, 2018) []; and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Thinking Bigger About Election 2018” Socialist Worker (November 8, 2018) []
  9. Quote from Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Meet the New House Democrats: They May Not Toe the Party Line” New York Times (Novemver 12, 2018) []
  10. Waleed Shahid, “Congress Needs Radicals Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” The Nation (October 11, 2018) []
  11. Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Pelosi’s One Potential Rival Cuts Deal and Drops Speaker Challenge” New York Times (November 20, 2018) []
  12. “Pelosi Urges Bipartainship as Democrats Win US House” Reuters (November 6, 2018) []; Julie Hirschfield Davis, “In The Campaign, Democrats Didn’t Let Trump Distract Them. That Will Be Harder Now.” New York Times (November 11, 2018) []; Nicholas Fandos and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Embraces a Path to Revise US Sentencing and Prison Laws” New York Times (November 14, 2018) []
  13. Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar, Income and Poverty in the United States, 21016: Current Population Reports (Washington DC: Department of Commerce/Census Bureau, 2017) []; CNN, Exit Polls 2018/National House Elections [] and Exit Polls 2018/National Presidential Election []
  14. See footnote 12 and Yair Ghitza, “What Happened Last Tuesday: Part 1—Who Actually Voted?” Catalist (November 9, 2018) []
  15. See his website
  16. Kevin Robillard, “Krysten Sinema Wants You To Know She’s Not A Progressive” Huffington Post (November 5, 2018) []
  17. All of the statistics on campaign financing and spending is from The Center for Responsive Politics website,
  18. See K. Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), Chapters 8-9.
  19. US Chamber of Commerce, “International Trade and Investment” []
  20. Sean Hackbarth, “Why We Should Lift the Steel and Aluminum Tariffs on Canada and Mexico” Above the Fold (November 16, 2018) []
  21. Business Roundtable, “Statement on Administration’s Decision to Impose Tariffs on Additional $200 Billion Worth of Chinese Products” (September 18, 2018) []
  22. Again, data on campaign contributions from
  23. Adam Liptak, “Conservative Lawyers Say Trump Has Undermined the Rule of Law” New York Times (November 14, 2018) []
  24. Matt Phillips, “Amazon, Apple and Facebook Once Led the Market. Now They Are Driving it Down” New York Times (November 20, 2018) []; “Stock Market’s Slide Is Flashing a Warning About the Economy,” New York Times (November 21, 2018) []
  25. Dana Lind, “What Obama Did With Migrant Families vs. What Trump is Doing” Vox (June 21, 2018) [}’ Linsday Huth, “Immigration Under Trump: By the Numbers” US News and World Report (March 13, 2018 []
  26. Ben Erickson and Sarah Horbacewicz, “Progressive Dems Back Off ‘Abolish ICE” at First Post-Election Meeting” CBS News (November 12, 2018 []
  27. Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “‘Message of Change’: 16 Rebel Democrats Vow to Oppose Pelosi” New York Times (November 20, 2018) []
  28. Rachael Bade, “Progressives Back Pelosi for Speaker—In Return for More Power” Politico (November 16, 2018) []
  29. Stolberg, “Meet the New House Democrats” New York Times (November 12, 2018) []
  30. Ben Brachfeld, “A Closer Look at Voter Turnout in 2018 New York Congressional Primaries” Gotham Gazette (June 28, 2018) []
  31. NYC-DSA Statement on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Endorsement of Andrew Cuomo and “All Democratic Nominees” []
  32. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Emily Cochrane, “A Left-Flan Protest on Day 1 Signals a Democratic House Divided” New York Times (November 13, 2018 []
  33. Kate Riga, “Ocasio-Cortez Currently Back Pelosi, ‘Most Progressive Candidate,’ For Speaker” Talking Points Memorandum (November 19, 2018) []
  34. Bhaskar Sunkara, “The Case for a Democratic Socialist Caucus in the US Congress” In These Times (November 6, 2018) []
  35. Neal Meyer and Ben B. “The Case for Bernie 2020” The Call (August 16, 2018) []. For a more detailed critique of this position, see C. Post, “Debating ‘The Case for Bernie 2020’” SocialistWorker.Org (October 16, 2018) []


Charlie Post

Charles Post teaches sociology at the City University of New York, is an editor of Spectre: A Marxist Journal, and is a member of the Tempest collective, and the NYC DSA Labor Branch.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

All Issues