AFRICANGLOBE – Democratic party operatives like the Rev Al Sharpton offered an old-time remedy to angry young Black people protesting at the police shooting of Michael Brown in the town of Ferguson earlier this year: “The only way you can take your destiny into your own hands is to register and vote.”
But as of two weeks ago, a paltry 128 of them had heeded that call. It’s getting a lot harder to convince young African-Americans that voting changes things in the US, six years after the country elected its first Black president – for the simple reason that not very much has changed for the better for Black America since Barack Obama’s election.
The grim reality facing the Democrats ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections is that Mr Obama’s failure to deliver on the promise he seemed to embody in 2008 could result in important setbacks on Capitol Hill.
The message that the economy is doing better is simply not being felt in many poorer communities. Police violence against young Black males is rarely out of the headlines. A president who promised Latino communities that he would reform immigration laws has expelled more illegal immigrants than any previous president. Mr Obama came to office promising to tackle the excesses of Wall Street following the financial crisis. Instead, there’s been no serious effort to hold the bankers to account. If anything, inequality has become even more pronounced.
It’s hardly surprising that the Democrats are struggling to mobilise their base, except through attacking the Republican agenda on race, class and gender.
Midterm elections typically see the sitting president’s party lose ground, more so in a second term. Tuesday’s vote is likely to see the Republicans strengthen their grip on the House of Representatives, and possibly even win control of the Senate – and the Democrats are struggling to mobilise their core constituencies to hold back the tide.
President Obama’s approval ratings are low, but those for the Republican-controlled Congress are even lower.
The reason most pollsters are predicting GOP gains on Tuesday is not that the Republicans are suddenly attracting millions of new voters. On the contrary, long-term demographic trends in the US point to a shrinking of the sectors that currently comprise the party’s core base, and an expansion of some sectors that have traditionally voted for the Democrats. But turnout is typically low in midterm elections, and the lower the turnout, the more the result favours the Republicans.
Demobilising the Democrats’ base, of course, has become a key Republican strategy – many poor, mostly Black and Latino voters will not be able to cast ballots this time because of new voter ID laws passed by largely Republican state authorities in response to the marginal threat of voter fraud.
And then there’s the $4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, that will be spent by wealthy donors on media messages calculated to shape the election’s outcome.
That Republican effort to discourage their adversary’s core voters from going to the polls is helped by the Democrats’ recent track record in power, and their failure to put forward a clear message to rally their own base.
To the outsider, it’s often remarkable how little substantial debate over policy is involved in US elections.
The most common themes occurring in electioneering in the weeks leading up to the vote are ISIL and Ebola, from the Republican side, and the accusations that the GOP are waging a “war on women” and are trying to stop Black people from voting on the Democrats’ side.
In both cases, the underlying assumption is that Americans will vote the sum of their fears rather than voting for some clear alternative policy programme. Policy is not the coin of the realm in this election. Sometimes the campaign has been more reminiscent of Halloween.
One thing this election won’t do, is break the gridlock in Washington.
The stalemate between the White House and Congress that makes the United States increasingly ungovernable looks like a long-term phenomenon.
Whether or not the Republicans win the Senate, they’ll continue to run the House of Representatives. So don’t bet on the deadlock being broken in 2016, either, because the electoral maths for presidential elections is quite different from that of congressional elections.
Republicans’ local control has enabled them to redraw the boundaries of electoral districts to ensure long-term future control of the House despite the demographic trends against them.
But in presidential elections, those demographics – Anglo Whites are becoming a minority, and the Republican base is predominantly Anglo White – make winning back the White House an ever greater challenge for the GOP.
While much of the corporate money pouring into politics now is driven by a need to secure immediate favours from those in power, taken collectively it may actually reinforce the deadlock – and make the policy consensus within which America is governed more responsive to corporate interests than to the needs of the majority of voters.
That may not be good for the country, but it’s not the worst outcome for the short-term interests of the wealthy donors.
By: Tony Karon