A big proportion of the country’s anti-MAGA majority turned out November 8 and prevented the GOP from getting the “Red Wave” their leaders (and all too many liberals and progressives) expected.
Republicans may yet emerge with majorities in the House (likely) and Senate. But the overall results of races for Congress, governorships, secretaries of state, and ballot initiatives mark a setback for the GOP’s drive to capture complete control of the federal government. It is a political and morale boost for everyone left of center. The atmosphere has been changed.
An assessment of the landscape and the key tasks facing the social justice wing of the anti-MAGA front in the wake of this result yields the following key points.
- This defeat for MAGA is not decisive enough to stop the backlash against the gains of the 1960s and the 1930s that has reached its fever pitch under Trump. Despite not meeting its midterm targets, MAGA has maintained its firm grip on its 40% of the electorate. It won more than enough elections to continue its drive toward authoritarian rule via a “legal coup” in 2024.
- The midterm results showed that almost half the electorate, largely young and largely people of color, understands and rejects MAGA appeals. But only continuing high turnout by the majority can stop the Republican juggernaut next time around. Progressives played a key role in galvanizing the record turnouts that led to major victories in 2018 and 2020 and fought MAGA to a stalemate this year. We will need to play an even bigger role in 2024 if we are to turn the corner on this long backlash phase of U.S. political history.
- A leap forward in reach, strategic alignment, and practical coordination among different components of the progressive movement will be required not just to qualitatively expand our electoral capacity. It will be essential to effectively carry out the long-term deep organizing —electoral and non-electoral—that can push back authoritarianism and start a new progressive cycle in U.S. politics.
Backlash politics hits a peak—and then is stalemated
Today’s MAGA movement is simply the latest political incarnation of the backlash against the gains of the 1960s whose driving force was the Black-led Civil Rights Movement.
Nixon courted the white South, Reagan inaugurated neoliberalism, conservative operatives started planning their takeover the federal judiciary, and the Tea Party and birtherism made white nationalism the GOP’s center of gravity. Trump’s success at tapping that legacy and winning the 2016 election raised the prospect of an even more intense assault on the rights and living standards of peoples of color, women, workers, and all marginalized groups. The result was an upsurge of resistance in the streets and at the ballot box. The 2018 and 2020 elections saw unprecedented turnout with the House and Senate being retaken by Democrats and, in 2020, Trump losing his re-election bid.
Majoritarian forces had fought MAGA to a stalemate. But both because Left and progressive forces had too little clout in the anti-MAGA coalition, and because the coalition itself did not win sufficient power, it wasn’t possible to start a political cycle moving in a whole different direction. Biden’s low approval ratings reflect the combination of that fact with MAGA’s sophisticated and well-organized campaign to blame every real, imagined or invented problem of the country on his administration.
Midterms continue the stalemate
The midterm results mean that stalemate continues.
Within that stalemate, MAGA has some dangerous advantages. It has nearly unlimited funding from a cohort of right-wing billionaires whose fortunes were made in the free-from-restraint neoliberal era and in the fossil fuel industry and other “traditional” centers of ruling class power. The Federalist Society’s plans and years of painstaking work bore fruit and MAGA now controls much of the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Nothing in the anti-MAGA world compares with the reach and message discipline of Fox News.
In the midterms, more than 210 GOP election deniers or “skeptics” won elections as members of Congress, secretaries of state, or state attorneys general. The number of state GOP trifectas (where the party controls both the governorship and legislature) is not yet decided, but it will remain near the 23 it held going into 2022, far more than the Democrats 14. The Republicans are also tightening their grip on election machinery, gerrymandering districts, and restricting access to the ballot.
The advantages held by the anti-MAGA front lie more in the fact that on most specific issues, public sentiment is in their favor. On reproductive rights, for example, majority opposition to abortion bans has registered not just in public polling but at the ballot box. Following Kansas earlier this year, all five states (California, Vermont, Michigan, Kentucky, Montana) where abortion-related measures were on the ballot voted in support of reproductive rights.
Turnout and the key role of the progressive wing
Like 2020, this was a “turn-out-the-base” election. The country is sharply divided and both sides are increasingly consolidated in their opposition to the other. Fractures exist within each side. But those are not likely to turn into significant sectors switching electoral sides until the current rough stalemate is broken and new dynamics shape the political landscape. “Swing voters,” while still the difference between victory and defeat in some close races, are a shrinking percentage of the electorate.
Democrats did as well as they did because, contrary to all the pre-election chatter about their constituency’s passivity, “the Democratic base showed up.” It will take some more time and research to get a clear picture of all the reasons why. But it’s safe to say the motivators included anger over the repeal of Roe, worry about further attacks on women’s rights, and growing realization—informed by the January 6 Committee hearings—of how dangerous MAGA is.
But one thing about the high turnout is certain: progressives played crucial roles in motivating voters long neglected by both major parties and bringing it about. State-based organizations that were crucial to the 2020 victories in numerous battleground states made a huge difference: Pennsylvania Stands Up, LUCHA in Arizona, New Georgia Project Action Fund and others too numerous to name. So did grassroots-focused groups in communities of color like Black Voters Matter; UNITE HERE’s leadership role in canvassing, Nurses for Democracy initiated by National Nurses United; Showing Up for Racial Justice hitting the doors in poor white areas in Georgia, Seed the Vote deploying volunteers from blue to battleground states, all the national community organizing networks; and hardly least the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and Progressive Democrats of America.
The work of these organizations is a big part of the reason we now have “The Squad” in Congress, and in 2022 their ranks grew to 12 with the election of four more progressive champions. Still these grassroots efforts are mostly below the radar screen of media pundits and pollsters’ calculations. That’s another reason those so-called “experts” missed the boat on what was actually happening in the crucial “ground game” component of this election season.
And let’s not forget Bernie Sanders making a home-stretch eight-state blitz to “expand the Democratic majority in Congress.” Sanders is admired by almost the entire social justice world, but too often lessons from the strategy he employs so effectively are ignored. His approach of setting a firm anti-corporate, working class pole within the broad front in defense of democracy, both where he positions himself and his messaging to the broad public, has a lot to offer a broad progressive movement still learning the ropes of nationwide electoral efforts.
A leap is needed
It’s a complicated balance sheet. MAGA remains an over-arching threat. But the midterm turnout shows there is a popular majority that over time could be coalesced into a powerful united front. Preventing a “Red Wave” has lifted progressive spirits and bought us more time and space to organize toward that end. The upsurge in worker militancy, the surge of post-Roe feminist activism, the youth-led movements to fight climate change, and the persistent power-building efforts in low-income communities and communities of color open doors to building the durable and combative mass-based organizations necessary to anchor a lasting radical movement. Only a synergy of deep non-electoral organizing with electoral engagement can enable us to push back white authoritarianism and gain a serious share of governing power.
The potential exists. But it cannot be realized by a Left/progressive movement as fragmented as we are today. We need a leap not only in skill and scale of each of our parts, but deeper strategic alignment and consistent cooperation. Some kind of umbrella form—something like a 21st century united front form that has the strengths of the 1980s Rainbow Coalition and avoids its weaknesses—is needed to make our collective whole more than the sum of its parts.
Discussion of this has been bubbling up in numerous movement circles over the last two or three years. As a theoretical proposition, few activists disagree. But the hard part is to find concrete steps to get from here to there. Expect that to be a major theme of Convergence’s postings in the coming months.
Featured image: Canvassers from progressive groups all over the country knocked millions of doors—and stopped the “Red Wave.” Clockwise from top: UNITE HERE, Faith In Minnesota, Pennsylvania Stands Up. Images via Facebook.