A little summary of the US midterms for clueless Brits

In assuredly the first (and probably last) time, former US President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump quoted each other nearly verbatim in speeches weeks before the midterms, calling this election “the most important in our lifetimes” (although Trump was quick to add “besides ‘16”). Of course, a lot of people in politics claim this when it’s their moment in the sun, but is it really true this time? What should we be expecting for the future from the results? But first, what exactly are the US midterm elections and how do they work?

Congressional elections occur every two years with the entire House of Representatives and about a third of the Senate seats open. When the election falls halfway between a president’s four-year term its dubbed a midterm election. Often media and political scientists refer to midterms as a “progress report,” because they’re a way to measure voter’s current perceptions of the tidings of the country, specifically feelings about the president. It’s rare for the President’s party to do well in the midterm elections, but exactly how poorly his party does (and it’s always been a his in the USA) is a marker of his national popularity.

This is one reason why people were so interested in this year’s race particularly. For starters, political scientists (and people in general) wanted to see how the country really felt about Trump (as 2016 showed us, polls are not always to be trusted) and some projected that we would see a ‘blue wave.’ What we ended up seeing was actually relatively moderate. Trump wasn’t absolutely rebuked – Republicans still hold the Senate, while Democrats now hold the House.

So from the look of it, this ‘blue wave’ was limited. However, a few things should be noted. The way that the US House of Representatives is elected is roughly similar to how MPs are elected in the UK’s House of Commons. For example, US House candidates run in single-seat elections in small districts all over the country. Whoever gets the most votes in that district wins the seat, just like the UK. But there are differences as well, one of the most important being that the term length of all House legislators is only two years. After those two years, all 435 members of the House lose their seat and are up for election.  

But the Senate is different. Every state gets two Senators, and each Senator is up for reelection every 6 years on an alternating cycle. (this is why in 2018 only 33 senate seats were up for grabs instead of all 100). But the US is really heavily geographically segregated by party: people who tend to vote left typically live in coastal cities in highly populated states and people who vote right tend to live more rurally, largely in the central USA, in states with low populations. This means that even though 45,757,196 people voted Democrat (56.9 per cent) and only 33,340,757 voted Republican, the Republicans hold Senate majority because of these vast population differences by state. This is a huge deal, because the Senate has a lot of power, as the world saw in October when the Senate exercised their right to swear in Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.  

So, because of this 18th century, post-Revolutionary War system we have in place, having a full ‘blue wave’ is always going to be pretty challenging. But, the blue wave did happen regionally. A lot of governorships flipped Democrat and lower state representatives and ballot referenda generally went left.

So now that Democrats have the House, what can we expect to see happen?

People keep talking about Russia, especially now that Jeff Sessions, previous Attorney General was forced to resign and replaced by Matthew Whitaker who has been openly against the investigation of Trump’s collusion with Russia (this is important because the Attorney General oversees all Justice Department matters, including the investigation of Trump’s relationship with Russia – called the Mueller investigation). Now that the Democrats have the House, they can approve subpoenas, meaning that they can demand documents and testimony, like Mueller investigation documents that probably would not have been brought to light otherwise.

However, with only the House in their control, Democrats are going to have a nearly impossible time actually passing any leftist legislation, because the president and Senate have to pass the bill too. However, this works both ways: the Republicans are going to have a much harder time passing any kind of legislation because the House will stop their bills as well. This is a recipe for serious gridlock, reminiscent of the position that Obama was in during his last six years as president.

This leaves Trump with two real options. The first is he could do what he’s done in the past: fight opposition with the opposition. This ‘us versus them’ mentality is what his base has responded to. On the other hand, if he were actually able to make some real changes this might help reelection in 2020. This might lead him to strike some deals with Democrats and try to reach compromises. In a press conference directly after the midterms, Trump mentioned infrastructure and healthcare specifically as places that he wanted to come to agreements on with Democrats in the future. That being said, he also called a journalist “rude” and revoked his White House press credentials, and threatened a “warlike posture” if Democrats in the House of Representatives begin an investigation of him, all in the same day. So it looks like President Trump is unlikely to take the conciliatory path.

I spoke to Dr. Melody E. Valdini, Associate Professor of Political Science at Portland State University and Chair of the Representation and Electoral Systems section of the American Political Science Association,  and for her, these election results were (more or less) positive.

American politics in the last two years have been in turmoil – President Trump has disregarded some long-standing norms of behaviour and said some incredibly divisive things. So there was a question of whether this election would be yet another shocking, unprecedented result, but it wasn’t. This result suggests that at least some things are still operating as they have been. Political scientists were glad to see that this election wasn’t yet another unprecedented event, but rather a relatively standard midterm election in the US.”

But when I asked her about women and minority representation in Congress she was less positive. “We’re still far from parity,” she said, and with only around 20 per cent of the House made up of women, she’s right. Importantly, of the 96 women now in the House only 12 of them are Republicans.

“More and more the Republican party is becoming the party of white men. And right now, because of the institutions, norms,  and history of the US, that is working for them. But I don’t know how much longer they can maintain that strategy and stay in office. At some point, they will need to acknowledge the reality of the modern and diverse America.”

Really, it’s tough to predict exactly what will happen in the future, because, unlike the UK where party leaders have the primary authority to decide who can run for parliament for their party, anyone in the US can run for legislative office under any party label. This means that US Congresspeople are more likely to ‘go rogue’ so to speak or vote outside of normal party bounds, meaning there could be some surprises ahead.

Surely we’re looking at a climate of divisiveness and a divided legislature, basically a huge red arrow toward gridlock. Hopefully, Trump will take the route of compromise and the next two years of his presidency will be positive and productive… but perhaps not.

Image: Architect of the Capitol via aoc.gov via Wikimedia Commons 

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