EDITORIAL: US poll results pose a challenge to identity politics
All the indications point to a country largely uncomfortable with its polarising president
So was there a blue wave or wasn’t there? Democrats, and possibly the majority of the developed world, were looking to the US midterm elections to demonstrate that President Donald Trump’s victory was an anomaly caused by an aberrational election. The results generally supported the proposition, but seemingly with less emphasis than supporters of the notion would have liked.
The Democrats did, of course, take over the House of Representatives, which was expected, yet actually lost ground in the Senate, which was not.
But look a little closer, and the blue wave becomes more evident. First, if you simply tally the votes, about 60% of Americans voted for Democrats in the House and 55% voted for Democrats in the Senate. The constituency system and some gerrymandering give the Republicans an advantage in rural, low-population states and constituencies. To win power, Democrats have to win a greater percentage of the total vote, which they did in this case.
Second, although upstart Democrats failed to win some tightly fought contests, they came extremely close. One of the most interesting races was between a Beto O’Rourke, a backbencher in the Texas council, who came within 2.3% of ousting sitting senator Ted Cruz. The races in three other “red states” — Ohio, Georgia, and Florida — were also very close.
The third reason to suggest a subdued blue wave was apparent is that the Republicans went into the election with a strong economy at their back. According to an Associated Press survey before the election, 65% of voters said the economy was excellent or good. To make such substantial gains in this context suggest the result was probably better than it seems.
The Democrat’s victory was powered by a large gender gap and a huge youth gap. Women voted 56%-38% in favour of Democrats, who also won about 61% of voters aged 18 to 29. Republicans, on the other hand, won 56% of rural votes, which helps explain the party’s victories in the Senate which were fought in mainly rural states.
There is one caveat here: the parties of sitting US presidents typically lose a good number of seats in their first midterm elections. This time, Trump has presided over a loss of 27 seats, but it’s worth remembering that at this point in their terms of office former president Barack Obama presided over the loss of 63 seats and the previous Democratic president Bill Clinton presided over the loss of 54 seats. The reason is obvious. An incoming president rides a national wave on entering office, but that wave retreats during his term.
Taken together, all these indications point to a country largely uncomfortable with their polarising president and looking for credible alternatives. Large numbers of women stood in this election and won; the first married, gay senator was elected; and, hard to believe but for the first time a member of a native American tribe was elected. The president’s distaste for people of races and nationalities other than his own has had its natural backlash.
This element of the election, the continuing argument about identity politics, is what makes the election a sign of our times both in the US and abroad. The world has yet to make up its mind about how important the various aspects of our identity are: humanity, gender, race, nation, sexuality. They are all issues of legitimate national and international debate.
But the prominence of identity politics is a blessing and a curse for both sides. This is because defining politics in terms of, say, gender makes winning your gender easier, but at the same time, it makes winning the other gender harder, if not impossible.
This tendency towards identity politics is visible to a greater or lesser extent all over the world at the moment, and it is worrying. Identity politics tends to make political choices a zero-sum game. It’s a relief to see it challenged somewhat in these elections in the world’s largest economy.