The Centre Will Hold

The trick in analyzing elections and the campaigns leading up to them is to distinguish between noise and signal. The latest US midterms, which conclude on Tuesday after some weeks of early voting, have been toxically noisy and have featured some unusually noisome candidates on the Republican side. But whatever the outcome when the votes are finally tallied, it would be premature to see them signaling the demise of American democracy, a hardy beast.

Yes, 300 top-tier Republican candidates, give or take, either denied or refused to affirm that President Biden was legitimately elected in 2020, preferring out of cowardice or cynicism, or in a fever dream, to go along with his predecessor’s Big Lie. Some played word games when asked whether they would accept their own defeat. And, yes, some were running for, and winning, state house offices with powers to decide whose votes they will count next time. 

But none of these clowns is likely to overthrow the Constitution, packed though the Supreme Court may be with Donald Trump’s selections. Over time, the courts and old-fashioned politics, once the Democratic party relearns how to do them properly, will right the ship.

Why then did Biden see fit to deliver a national address on Thursday decrying the threat to democracy posed by conspiracy-spinning “MAGA Republicans”, their gunned-up bully boys, and the derangement they seem to trigger in the likes of hammer-wielding David DePape, would be torturer of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? This was the president’s second big speech on the subject in two months, and possibly one too many. However sincerely meant, it smacked of desperate electioneering, a last-minute move to scare up votes.

Americans, the polls say, are concerned about the health of their republic in the wake of the January 6th, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill, but the congressional hearings on that episode and how Trump instigated it seem to have squibbed. Right now, the spiraling cost of living, petrol in particular, worries voters a lot more.  That does not mean they are done with democracy. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and others on the NatCon — national conservative — right, may salivate over Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Most of their fellow citizens do not. 

If, when the votes are counted – it could take a while – the Democrats no longer control the House of Representatives (which is almost certain) and the Senate (which is more than conceivable), they can console themselves that this is what nearly always happens to a president’s party halfway through his first term, especially when his favorability ratings are underwater, as Biden’s are, and fewer than one in five voters think the country is “on the right track”.

There was a moment in the (northern hemisphere) summer when the odds looked beatable. Biden had scored some notable legislative wins with measures to control drug prices, invest in green infrastructure, reshore the manufacture of computer chips, ease restrictions on domestic energy production and ramp up tax collection from the wealthy. These should have scored well with swing voters and the various factions of the Democratic base, if not with all equally.

The Supreme Court’s Republican supermajority helped by stripping America’s women of control over their own bodies, freeing the more medieval states to reimpose draconian abortion bans which had been unconstitutional since the court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. That looked like a gamechanger for the Democrats, especially after voters in heavily Republican Kansas decisively blocked their legislature from going full Handmaid’s Tale.

In recent weeks, however, generic polls – as opposed to those tracking individual races — showed momentum building for the Republicans who had done themselves some good by dialing back their abortion jihadism and 2020 election denial. Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who advised the ANC in 1994, credited a barrage of Republican messaging, reinforced by Fox, the party’s propaganda arm, that painted Democrats as “pro-crime”.

Crime is an issue on which Democratic elites have left themselves flat-footed as the party of “defund the police”, an idea deeply unpopular with working class voters of all backgrounds for whom rising rates of murder and robbery post-pandemic are part of their lived experience. For Republicans looking to pick up swing votes in ethnic constituencies that Democrats have tended to take for granted, crime is a winner. It also works with bigots for whom crime is code for persons of colour.

Absent a black swan event, Biden will be governing by executive order and veto pen for the next two years while the lunatics take over the asylum on Capitol Hill. If his Democrats hang onto the Senate, he will at least be able to appoint federal judges and fill a Supreme Court vacancy should one fall open.

Assuming Kevin McCarthy replaces Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, it will be interesting to see whether he grows a spine. Hitherto, he has been Basil Fawlty to Trump’s Sybil. Will he let himself be shoved around by Georgia representative and Trumpette Marjorie Taylor Greene who attributed California’s wildfires to a space laser part owned by the Rothschilds? Will he rein in those like her who want to make impeachment of Biden job one for the new Congress?

Impeachment or no, there will be a slew of oversight hearings – show trials, really – designed to destroy the reputations of Anthony Fauci, now Biden’s chief medical adviser, for failing to toe the Trump party line, whatever it was, on Covid;  Attorney General Merrick Garland, for pursuing Trump’s document thefts and other crimes; Secretary of Homeland  Security Alejandro Mayorkas, for failing to seal the borders; and, of course, Hunter Biden, the tortured soul they will hound, quite literally one fears, to death, in order to get at his father. This is the party, remember, that pushed Hillary and Bill Clinton’s lawyer and friend Vince Foster to suicide in the early years of Bill’s presidency. They are a savage lot.

Other than inquisition, the Republican majority in the House has the power to undermine the full faith and credit of the United States by refusing to raise the federal debt limit unless its demands are satisfied. Perhaps, McCarthy and co. will use that power judiciously. Perhaps they will use it to kill any measure that offends the interests – fossil fuel and pharmaceutical, for example – that fills their campaign coffers. They will certainly use it with a view to winning back the White House for Trump or whoever in 2024.

Vladimir Putin will obviously be watching closely. He must be enjoying the noise. We are in scoundrel time, to borrow Lillian Hellman’s phrase. But the center ultimately will hold. That, hard as it is to discern, is the signal.

Published in Business Day November 7, 2022

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