Alan Zendell, November 5, 2018
Tomorrow, the nation will participate in the fifth midterm election since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 – at least some of it will. There are two very significant things everyone should know about mid-term elections.
First, they usually serve as a significant check on the actions and power of the current president. Presidents Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama all suffered devastating setbacks to their political agendas in their midterms, and the polls (I can’t write that word without cringing) suggest that might happen tomorrow.
Perhaps more important, and certainly more surprising, despite the sharp turnaround in national political attitudes that usually result from the midterms, turnout is always disappointing. In the first midterms held for each of the previous three presidents, the turnouts in percentage of eligible voters were: (1994) 38.8%, (2002) 37.0%, and (2010) 37.8%. That’s absolutely shocking.
After twelve years of Republican governments, Clinton’s first two years in the White House saw an abortive attempt to reform health care and the beginning of extreme right-wing radio led by Rush Limbaugh. The latter continually unleashed scathing and not always factual attacks against the Clintons, including thirteen-year-old Chelsea. The result was the “Gingrich revolution,” in which the Republicans gained fifty-four seats in the House of Representatives and eight seats in the Senate.
Bush’s first two years included nine-eleven and the initial, successful stages of our war against the Taliban. It was also the last time there was any general sense of unity in the United States, and the Republicans, the party in power, actually gained eight House seats and two Senate seats in the 2002 midterms. But with anger over our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan mushrooming, the Democrats gained thirty-one House seats and six in the Senate in the 2006 midterms.
In Obama’s first term, anger over the passage of Obamacare despite unified Republican opposition caused the 2010 midterms to be devastating for Democrats. Republicans gained sixty-three House seats and six Senate seats, the largest swing in Congress since 1948.
The stakes in all those elections were very high, but none higher than they are now. We’ve always had bitterly disputed elections, but there hasn’t been a time when the party in power attempted such a radical change in the face of America since Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in the early years of the Great Depression. And there hasn’t been a time since the Civil War when the party in power relied so heavily on gender- or race- based pandering to divide and polarize the country.
No president in recent memory has instigated hate and turmoil the way Donald Trump has. No president in anyone’s memory has flaunted a vulgar immoral character the way Trump has, and none has been a party to attempting to take away desperately needed health care benefits from over twenty million working class Americans. Trump’s singular achievement was a massive tax cut which primarily benefited large corporations and wealthy Americans. No matter how anyone tries to sugar-coat it, his entire administration has been about class and gender warfare and keeping non-whites out of the country.
The pollsters say this election will be decided by women, since most of the contested House seats will be decided in affluent suburbs. I wondered in 2016 how so many women could bring themselves to vote for Trump. His treatment of women, personally, and his disdain for their rights in general couldn’t have been clearer. We’re told now by those same pollsters that many women who voted for Trump in 2016 regret doing so, and several million angry women are a powerful force to reckon with.
But we also know low voter turnout among minorities, especially African Americans in urban areas, are probably what won the election for Trump in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. Will history repeat itself? Will only three of every eight eligible voters turn out tomorrow? That would be a disaster for our democracy.
It’s up to all of us. Early voting numbers suggest that we may do better this time. Already, the number of people who have voted this year is a third of the total who voted in 2016. Both sides claim that heavy turnouts will benefit them, but this isn’t about sides.
I believe this is the most important election of my lifetime, and I’ve been voting since 1961. If Americans do not turn out in huge numbers, it could be a catastrophic blow to our two-party system. And if Democrats and Independents stay home they will dangerously increase the power of a megalomaniacal president who seems intent on undermining the safeguards in our Constitution.