US midterm elections are always a vote of confidence in incumbents, and this year’s midterms are expected to inflict severe damage on Joe Biden’s leadership. With his Democratic Party’s loss of the house and perhaps the Senate, the President’s authority will be sorely diminished. A new era of paralysis beckons in Washington.
How did it come to this? Why has this presidency imploded with the force it has, just two years after Biden’s triumph over Donald Trump?
Conventional wisdom says Democrats will pay heavily for their failure to ease cost-of-living pressures amid fears of a crime wave. A 40-year-high inflation rate has eroded real wages, raised consumer prices, forced up interest rates and reduced living standards. In response to calls to de-fund the police, fewer cops now contend with more crime in cities and suburbs.
Add to this that the Democrats have lurched to the left on policy – from extravagant government spending and forgiveness of student loans to failure to control borders and illegal immigration, and hostility to fossil fuels that has led to soaring energy prices. Not exactly what Americans voted for in 2020.
But there is another, more deep-seated, explanation for the likely drubbing of the Democrats: Biden’s post-partisan America has disappeared, replaced by the politics of rancour and resentment. Americans will cast their votes in a widespread mood of anger and alienation. According to RealClearPolitics’ polling average, only 25.6 per cent think their country is heading in the right direction.
Blame goes beyond any one party or president. By trafficking in conspiracy theories and election lies, Trump’s presidency deepened the polarisation of US politics. But that is precisely why so many friends of the US, including those Americans who voted Democrat for the first time, hoped Biden would live up to the moderate, ‘normal’ presidency on which he campaigned in 2020 and end what prominent journalist Kimberley Strassel calls “the political era of existential-crisis mongering”.
Back then Biden said it was time to “stop treating our opponents as our enemy”. However, far from reaching across the aisle, he has pitted group against group for short-term political gain that is exacerbating the divisions in the US. At the same time, he has launched a massive expansion of the state designed to transform the nation radically.
Biden has warned about democracy in danger, but he focuses on the threat from only Republicans. (Has he forgotten that left-wing fanatics have tried to kill a Republican congressman and a conservative Supreme Court justice?) This divisive tactic appeals to his party’s left-wing base but it is an attempt to distract from the failures of his administration. And it may just embolden his supporters and critics to take more extreme actions, worsening the spiral.
Hostile towards progressive elites who teach critical race theory, and sex education to young children, and who run woke corporations, the right is matched in its hatred of the Biden administration by the left’s loathing of the Trumpified Republican Party and contempt for the gun lobby and evangelical Christians. Partisan politics no longer converges on the centre ground, even though today’s hyper-partisan culture has pushed more voters towards the political centre.
Although Democrats appear set to suffer at the midterms, the vote will not be an endorsement of their opponents. True, Republicans have rightly railed against cancel culture and identity politics, but they have offered no broad policy solution to America’s problems. They have campaigned exclusively to take advantage of the negative environment. According to The Washington Post, most Republicans on the ballot for Senate, House of Representatives and key statewide races have denied or questioned the 2020 presidential election.
Robert Gates, defence secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has observed: “The greatest threat to American national security is encompassed within the two square miles that involve the Capitol and the White House.” He’s right; a nation consumed by rage and rancour and wallowing in pessimism and polarisation could become a danger to itself. Yet the world depends on strong and stable US leadership on critical issues, most notably the containment of an increasingly dangerous China – one of the few bipartisan issues in Washington these days.
Some pundits may call this a wave election, meaning one of those historic transformations when a tidal wave of popular passion changes the political make-up of the country. The reality is that voters in 2022 will do the same thing they have done throughout the past three decades: they will vote against the party in power.
In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president and his Democrats had control of congress. Before he left office eight years later, his party had lost control of Washington. In 2000, Bush came to power and his Republicans won both chambers of congress. But, like Clinton before him, Bush saw his party lose control.
In 2008, Barack Obama won power, and his party controlled congress. But Democrats lost the legislature in 2010 as well as the executive branch in 2016 when Trump won office and Republicans controlled congress. But by 2020 Democrats won all three prizes: the White House, the house and Senate. That never happened in consecutive administrations before 1992.
The Biden administration is poised to make the loss five in a row. This reflects a rejection of not just both major political parties but a bipartisan elite that has lost touch with voters across the ideological spectrum. After the midterms, and with the 2024 presidential election campaign approaching, expect more hyper-polarised politics in Washington.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.
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