The U.S. mid-term elections on Tuesday, November 6 sparked unusually high voter participation for such non-presidential contests. Almost 48 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots (admittedly, still embarrassingly lower than most countries), up from 39 per cent in 2014. The relatively high interest stemmed from the stakes at play, which in turn enabled both President Donald Trump’s Republicans and the opposition Democrats to mobilise supporters to cast their ballots. Here are some of the big winners from this recent Election Day.
The Democratic Party
The Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress–the Senate and the House of Representatives (aka “the House”)–in 2010 and had been out of power in both since then. They won back the House in a solid manner last Tuesday, with their largest net gain of seats since 1974, securing an approximately 35-to-40 seat majority in a body with 435 members. (Several close House contests are yet to be settled as mail-in and other delayed ballots take time to be tabulated.) This will not translate into new laws since most bills the House will pass will not make it through the still-Republican-controlled Senate or be signed by President Trump. But it still grants the Democrats considerable power when they assume control of the House come January. Which brings us to the next big winner…
Much more than usual was riding on these mid-terms. If the Republicans had retained a majority in the House, it would have emboldened and empowered Trump to accelerate his assault on democratic (with a small “d”) norms and practices. The Democrats’ House victory instead returns that half of Congress to its historical role of providing checks and balances on the presidency. Under the Republicans, Congress has failed to investigate dozens of instances of corruption and abuses of power by Trump, his family and his administration’s leading officials. Nor has it protested his frequent, fervent attacks on the press, the judiciary, the Department of Justice, the FBI, minorities, immigrants and other leading institutions and elements in U.S. society. The House Intelligence Committee in particular had sought to protect him against the Mueller probe into his 2016 presidential campaign’s manifold, somewhat mysterious links to Russia rather than carrying out an aggressive investigation itself.
With the Democrats now in charge of the Intelligence, Financial Services and other committees, they can issue subpoenas to gather evidence (his heretofore hidden tax returns, for instance) and compel testimony regarding possible wrongdoing. As a result, Trump is subject to serious congressional scrutiny for the first time in his presidency, with all of the harsh legal, political and public relations ramifications that could ensue.
The Russia Investigation
Let’s attach a “tentative” to this winner, for the post-election resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his replacement on an acting basis by a diehard Trump loyalist could well spell trouble for the Mueller investigation. Still, with the House set to launch its own probe into Trump’s tangled ties to Russia, it is likely (but certainly not a certainty) that much of what Mueller finds will come to light, one way or another.
While Congress remains dominated by white men, November 6 brought a diverse, expanded array of female faces and voices into the institution. About 100 women or more will serve in the House and 24 in the Senate, a record for both bodies. Hispanic, Native American, Muslim and LGBQ women won important and in certain cases groundbreaking victories. The gender tide rippled through some state elections as well, with Michigan leading the way: Women won all four of its statewide posts—governor, senator, attorney general and secretary of state. The tide is largely though not completely flowing into the Democratic side of the congressional aisle, thanks in part to the Democrats putting up more women for congressional office and winning the female vote by 59 to 40 per cent over the Republicans. Notwithstanding this laudably diverse development, however, the campaign brought a dark force increasingly to the fore…
Though Republicans lost the House, Trump prevented even greater losses there and slightly increased his party’s majority in the Senate by rallying many of his core supporters around an ugly nativist flag. His speeches and statements down the stretch of the campaign stoked fear of violent criminals illegally crossing into America from the south. One Trump-endorsed television commercial, ultimately rejected as racist by some networks, featured a Mexican who had repeatedly snuck into the United States and ultimately committed murder here. It linked him to a caravan of refugees and economic migrants—many of them women and children—slowly making their way on foot from Central America to the United States. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Mexican and other immigrants are law-abiding (in fact more law-abiding than most Americans), the focus was on one ugly, criminal exception to the rule.
In yet another norm-breaching move, which featured misuse of the armed forces on domestic soil, Trump dispatched thousands of U.S. troops to the Mexican border to supposedly deter the alleged invasion by that caravan, which was still many weeks and hundreds of miles from reaching the United States. In addition, the White House hosted a white nationalist leader the day after the election. And notably for many Indian-Americans and other children of immigrants who have gained (or will gain) automatic U.S. citizenship by virtue of being born here, Trump claimed that he could revoke this constitutionally prescribed “birthright citizenship” by virtue of an executive order. In political terms, the legally invalid nature of his announcement is less significant than its barely implicit message that he will do all he can to keep America as white as possible.
Hostility and Instability
Though an unstable period marred by hostility might not be considered a “winner” from this election, it certainly represents the dominant shape of things to come over the next two years. With both the current Mueller and coming House probes pressuring Trump, with his political survival and re-election strategies focused on mobilising his base and with his attacking any institutions or investigations that stand in his way, the U.S. political scene will only get even more vitriolic and virulent leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
(Stephen Golub is an international development scholar and consultant. Views are personal)