The US mid-terms: a victory for Trump?
Many on the right felt relief at the outcome of the US mid-terms, where the message was that the incumbent President predictably loses support. The House loss was said to be modest and the Democrats actually lost ground in the Senate.
The inevitability of lost congressional mid-term support is overstated – one need go back only to 2002 to find the Republicans under President Bush gaining ground. Here are the mid-term results since 1950.
Comparable or worse results to those of Trump (8/9) were Truman 1950; Eisenhower 1958; Johnson 1968; Ford 1974; Reagan 1982; Clinton 1994; Bush 2006; Obama 2010 and arguably Obama 2014.
Better results (8) were recorded by Eisenhower 1954; Kennedy 1962; Nixon 1970; Carter 1978; Reagan 1986; Bush 1990; Clinton 1998; and Bush 2002.
More to the point, few of those recording better outcomes had the enormous energy of the Trump campaign, nor did they have a comparable track record of economic rescue.
The US election as a pointer to the future
Kevin Drum at the left wing Mother Jones offered this appraisal
“Unemployment is at 3.7 percent, a level so low we’ve reached it only once before in my entire lifetime. GDP is growing 3 percent per year. Wages are rising nicely. Inflation is tooling along at a very modest 2 percent. Manufacturers’ shipments are healthy. Consumer spending is strong and household debt is low. Aside from the dotcom boom, consumer confidence is at a 40-year high.
“And yet, Republicans are going to lose three dozen seats in the House and cede control to the Democrats. Has any party ever done so badly in the middle of such strong economic performance?”
Compared to earlier mid-terms Trump had other advantages. Not least of these were the positive international projection of US influence (NATO, N. Korea, Iran, Jerusalem), the populist trade policies and restoring the social fabric against PCers.
Added to these factors is the radical leftwards shift of the Democratic Party. In earlier eras though the Democrats always favoured more welfare spending than the Republicans, this was normally restrained. Indeed, Roosevelt in 1932, foreshadowing our very own Kevin Rudd’s 2007 campaign on the policy “this reckless spending must end”, attacked his opponent (President Hoover), for heading “the greatest spending administration in peacetime in our history”.
Most Democrat leaders prior to Obama also needed to placate a solid core of the fiscal conservatives, the Blue Dogs. However, this faction has now virtually disappeared. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was arguably its last member and she has shifted to the left, possibly to position herself as a 2020 presidential candidate. The left wing leadership is joined by other future leaders who are usually even more extreme, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “Beto” O’Rourke.
Traditionally, ceding the middle ground as the Democrats have, would be considered electoral suicide. And yet the Democrats won the mid-terms in terms of seats and the popular vote 52-48. It would seem that Trump not only brought out his own base but also that of his opponents – 30 million more people voted – a 25 per cent increase compared to the previous mid-terms.
The Left may be right in seeing the Trump 2016 victory as an aberration. Trump found a narrow path to victory with a strategic approach that saw him elected by a minority of voters and facing what turned out to be a weak opponent. The ground was highly infertile – Gallup reports that 51 per cent of young people are positive about socialism and only 45 per cent have positive views about capitalism.
Many of the Trump Democrats may stay with the Republicans but the electoral dynamics are not favourable. The past century has seen a remarkable rise in redistribution of income by governments through taxation and expenditure and 45 per cent of households pay no income tax (though many of these would be retirees). Although confirmatory data is not without its detractors, since the left side of politics is more responsive to demands for income support, they would obtain electoral support in return. One obvious constituency is the near 40 million families receiving food stamps, which has however declined by 3.6 million under the prosperity of the first two Trump years.
Trump’s approval is largely skewed to the declining voter segments, whites and non-graduates. It is under 20 per cent for non-whites. Asians are less skewed towards the Democrats but still, like Hispanics overwhelmingly Democrat in voting behaviour.
The only major category that is both growing and is a supporter of Trump is that comprising older people but that favourability may not hold as those under 50 enter the cohort.
Added to the traditional constituency of the left has been the embrace of interventionist policies by young professionals. The horror of Google executives and staff to the 2016 Trump election was recorded and was evident in other elites in the IT industry. Young white women university graduates seem to be at the heart of the “resistance” and the voting pattern of women is distinctly more inclined to the Democrats compared to white male graduates. That may in part be explained by the different areas of study that males and females, at least traditionally, choose.
The radicalisation of college graduates is a trend that has been in place for decades now. It means that the Democrats have combined two wings where the demographics are favourable: the relatively less well-off and the highly educated.
Joel Kotkin sees some promising signs that this coalition may collapse as the more traditional hard left starts to attack the “Google liberals”, who financed the “resistance”, as high-income parasites. The same tensions could become evident in Australia as the cultural left’s exposition of climate change and relaxed immigration restraints collides with the energy costs this brings and the strains on infrastructure. But substantiation of this is fragile – in California which Kotkin examines, the Democrats still made gains in 2018 and the Senate race was between two Democrats each talking up their leftist credentials.
The genius and energy Trump exhibits are likely to see his re-election in 2020 but the forces remain ranged against a return to a period when politics was background noise.