Midterm elections are primarily about which political party will control the houses of Congress. This year’s elections are mainly a referendum on Republican control of the whole federal government, since Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, in addition to having won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.
Given the unpopularity of Congress (currently only 21% approval), as well as President Trump (the first modern president with approval consistently under 50%), one would think that the electorate would be ready for a change. Certainly most Democrats and Independents would like to see Democrats win at least one house of Congress to provide a check on a president they view as dangerously unfit for office. On the other hand, Republican enthusiasm for the Trump presidency remains high, and Republicans have a better record of turning out the vote in midterm elections.
Although the outcome is uncertain, the choice seems clearer than any that voters have had in my lifetime. It is a choice between one-party rule by what has become the party of Trump, or better representation for the majority of Americans and the aspirations they have for their government.
Here I will describe some of the differences between our two major parties in the age of Trump. I make no claim to be neutral, since I think that continued domination of government by our less popular party will take the country in the wrong direction.
Some party differences
Neither political party is uniform in its beliefs or policies, but political polarization has made each party more uniform and predictable. President Trump and Congressional Republicans are usually on the same page, despite the protestations of a few “flaky” Senators who make a show of bipartisanship before voting with Trump most of the time. Although Democrats disagree in some respects on what they would do if they could actually pass legislation, they are pretty united in their opposition to most Republican policies.
Democrats respect the scientific consensus on climate change and want to take measures to reduce carbon emissions. President Trump remains in denial about the science, and his EPA has been dismantling Obama’s Clean Energy Initiative, loosening regulations to allow more emissions. While Trump is preoccupied with protecting fossil-fuel industries, Democrats are more interested in creating jobs in the cleaner industries of the future. We already have far more jobs in solar energy than in coal.
Republicans want to grow the economy mainly from the top down, by cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, while claiming that the benefits will be widely shared. Mostly they haven’t been, although unemployment has continued its long decline since the 2008 recession. Democrats want to grow the middle class through direct spending to create middle class jobs, raising the minimum wage, and making college more affordable.
Democrats support the Affordable Care Act, which made health insurance affordable for millions and would have done even more if red-state Republicans hadn’t blocked the expansion of Medicaid. Republicans failed by one vote to repeal the ACA, and they have vowed to try again if they retain control of Congress. They quickly moved to repeal it without developing the better alternative that Trump promised during his campaign.
After having failed to perform their constitutional duty to even consider many of President Obama’s mainstream judicial appointees, including the very moderate Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, Republicans have rushed to approve extremely conservative justices who could push the judiciary far to the right for a generation. While hot-button issues like abortion and guns get most of the attention, the conservative majority has quietly been strengthening the rights of corporations and weakening the rights of workers, consumers and voters.
Democrats support comprehensive immigration reform that would balance the need for border security with the benefits of a path to citizenship for hard-working, law-abiding “dreamers” and humane treatment of refugees. While net immigration has actually been modest in the last decade, Trump’s fear-mongering has aroused nativist hostility to immigration in general, and his policy of punishing asylum seekers by taking away their children has become a national embarrassment.
Democrats are cautiously supportive of free trade, although they want trade agreements to include protections against unfair trade practices, low-wage sweatshops and environmental pollution. Trump’s more general hostility to foreign products threatens to hurt the global economy generally, with ill effects at home as well as abroad. Few economists think that his tariffs will produce much job growth in the United States. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will probably just help China dominate the region.
Democrats respect our longstanding alliances with other democratic nations. President Trump admires dictators and oligarchs, and is willing to overlook their gross humanitarian violations as long as he sees the relationships as financially profitable.
As for our own democracy, it cannot function well without an informed electorate and leaders who accept the responsibility to tell them the truth. Donald Trump is the most relentless liar we have ever seen in the presidency, and far too many Republicans–along with their favorite TV network–repeat his falsehoods. They must, of course, also discredit any fact-checking by the mainstream media by calling honest reporters “enemies of the people.” Democratic politicians are not always paragons of truth either, but they have less reason to lie about what they are trying to do, since their policies are actually intended to help ordinary people. In just the past week, Trump has claimed that the Republicans are about to pass a middle-class tax cut, while the Democrats are planning to cut Medicare and veterans benefits. No one besides Trump seems to have heard of such initiatives, but only Democrats and reporters seem interested in fact-checking his statements.
What was once the party of Lincoln has now become the party that caters to white people. Now that the Republicans on the Supreme Court have weakened the Voting Rights Act, many red states have moved to enact voting restrictions that impact disproportionately on black voters, passing them off as responses to mostly fictional voter fraud. The Democratic Party is the party of diversity, the party that stands up for the rights of racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. The last thing the country needs as we continue to make slow progress toward social justice is a president and party who seek white votes by playing on fears of white victimization, all the while accusing Democrats of playing “identity politics.” What is at stake here is national identity. Americans need to understand themselves as a pluralistic people leading the way in a pluralistic world, not a bastion of white male privilege hostile to women and people of color.
The Trump administration has also been the most scandal-plagued administration since Richard Nixon’s. While Watergate was a domestic scandal, in this case the allegations include cooperating with foreign powers to undermine our democratic process. Democrats support our intelligence community and investigatory agencies as they try to determine what actually happened, while Congressional Republicans have worked to impede and discredit the investigation. President Trump has filled his administration with people who have suspicious ties to foreign oligarchs, as well as with administrators who seem to care more about profiting from their positions than carrying out the responsibilities of the agencies they head. If anyone is really going to “drain the swamp,” it will have to be Democrats.
At some times in our history, the Republican Party has been a forward-looking, even reform-minded party, as it was under Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today’s spirit of reform is alive and well, but mainly in the Democratic Party. That’s where we find the greatest interest in campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, government accountability, infrastructure improvements, equal opportunity, energy transformation, and human capital development for a twenty-first century economy. Democrats have a lot of work to do to translate their ideas into effective policies and mobilize popular support for them, but at least they are trying to rise to the challenges of the new age. Republicans have not only become a backward-looking party, but they are increasingly resorting to deception and political trickery to hold onto power. Trump may have shown that lying and fear-mongering can win elections, but he has also shown that it takes more than that to govern. Take away his tough, angry and deceptive rants, and there isn’t much there that the majority of Americans really want.
It’s time for Americans to become better informed citizens. Time to vote on the basis of facts, not fears!