A Mid-Term To Be Thankful For

The Mid-Term election gave us some things to be thankful for. Perhaps more, indeed, than the dominant story line — democratic wavelet, nation more divided rural/urban, enhanced gridlock, Democrats must resist and investigate, or, perhaps, seek compromise with Republicans — would suggest.

A broader reading of the results suggests something healthier. By flipping the House, seven Governors, and a healthy slug of state legislatures, voters rescued democracy. Madison’s architecture of checks and balances was re-activated. The unchallenged, caudillo phase of Trump’s Presidency is winding down.

But the peril is not past. Franklin was right. We still have a Republic — but only if we can keep it.

Trumpism, if diminished, survived. Trump did not invent, but turbocharged, an old conservative playbook:

a) In the name of competition and market freedom, maximize economic insecurity.

b) Leverage the fears unleashed by that insecurity to erode trust and solidarity through ethnic and cultural scapegoating.

These two wings of conservatism — economic and social conservatism — only seem to conflict; in operation, they are the hammer and anvil of reaction.

But Americans, red and blue, signaled they are eager for a new approach. First, Trump’s coalition withered, and not only in swing districts; Republicans trailed their 2016 performance even in rural areas where they remained in the majority; the biggest single swing, 35%, was in a West Virginia district Republicans retained.

Second, Republicans lost badly where they could least afford to: in the Midwest industrial belt. Democrats captured every Governorship up except Ohio, for a gain of three. Trump’s disapproval rating in the rust-belt states that gave him the White House — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, now tops 50%. Add New Mexico and Colorado, and this new geography gives progressive the ability to expand the laboratories of 21st century innovation and reform from two coasts to the heartland.

More important, voting on ballot measures and down-ballot in blue and red states revealed strong, bipartisan support for progressive, not compromise, steps forward, towards democracy, fairness, and economic security.

Republican politicians may oppose this progress; their voters do not.

All four states voting on redistricting reforms approved them — Utah, Missouri, Colorado and Michigan — half red, half purple-blue. Deeply purple Florida enfranchised a million and a half felons, including 1/5 of the state’s African-Americans. In Maryland, Michigan and Nevada voter registration was liberalized. North Carolina’s seven biggest countries unanimously elected African-American sheriffs. Louisiana voted to repeal left-over Jim Crow era jury rules.

Republican orthodoxy may hate expanded health care guarantees, but House Republicans pretended to defend coverage for those with pre-existing conditions in virtually every contested race. The right loathes Medicaid as morally corrosive welfare. Even so this year voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah embraced Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, against the objection of their conservative state leadership. Only three states empowered with the initiative process — Wyoming, South Dakota and Oklahoma — still cling to the conservative orthodoxy of rejecting Medicaid expansion. Everywhere else that voters decide, Medicaid expansion has been embraced regardless of how rural or Republican the electorate may be.

Progressive measures didn’t automatically sail through. Where a proposal generated massive business spending against it — like a Montana tobacco tax to fund Medicaid — voters were pummeled into voting no. The biggest environmental initiatives — — Washington’s carbon tax and the fracking moratorium in Colorado — both went down, as did the Arizona Renewable Energy Initiative, all three overwhelmed by a tidal wave of spending in opposition. (A renewable energy initiative passed in Nevada, and Florida put its state waters off limits to oil drilling, but neither of those attracted the kind of corporate cash that prevailed too often on environmental measures.)

What this suggests is that Democrats can move forward proposals to counter economic insecurity — with confidence that these can muster bipartisan voter coalitions, wherever Republican politicians and ideologues stand. Yes, Trump and the Senate will seek to block — but the massive flip-flopping on health care suggests that this can postpone, but not prevent, progress. Control of the House, and Governorships in 10 of the 15 most populous states give Democrats a powerful set of reform levers on economic and budget issues. They control the money.

Democrats second task is to rebuild the institutional framework of democracy. Here the Supreme Court is the biggest barrier — and on campaign spending it is a formidable one indeed. But democracy turns out to be the strongest connector between the Tea Party and the Resistance — it is indeed the number one issue for the activists of Indivisible, but very appealing to the Tea Party as well. But a winning strategy must focus on systemic change — not just demanding Trump’s tax returns, or investigating a specific cabinet secretary, but requiring all Presidential candidates to disclose their income, and clarifying the rules to prevent public servants from extracting private advantage — exactly as the pending Democratic ethics proposals envisage.

Democrats (and all of us) must resist Trump or the Republicans when they resort to religious, racial or cultural scapegoating. There may well be more of this as Trump is thrown more on the defensive. But understanding that economic insecurity (as well as fear mongering from the White House) have hyper-charged these fissures and that most Americans still aspire to, and often vote to be, fair, makes this task seem far less daunting, particularly if bigotry and unfairness are confronted.

Trump governs through fear. He admits it, saying “real power is fear.” Franklin Roosevelt understood this piece of his challenge, when he responded, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And the antidote to fear is neither anger nor retribution — although there is plenty to be angry about, and accountability is essential. The true antidote to fear is hope.

Happy Thanksgiving.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg

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