NEW YORK – At least it wasn’t a disaster. If the Democrats had failed to secure a majority in the US House of Representatives, President Donald Trump would have felt almighty, with all the dire consequences that would entail. But the Republicans still control the Senate, and that means that the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, will be pushed further to the right. And the election of Republican governors in major states like Ohio and Florida means that electoral districts can be finessed to boost Trump’s reelection chances in 2020.
One of the most common political clichés ahead of these midterm elections was that they were a “battle for America’s soul.” It is easy to imagine Republicans and Democrats standing for two different versions of the country: one is overwhelmingly white, modestly educated, not very young, strong in rural areas, often male, and proud to own guns; the other is better educated, younger, urban, racially diverse, more female, and keen to control guns. These are caricatures, but they express a very recognizable reality.
Though both sides believe they are patriotic Americans, their idea of patriotism could not be more different. The writer James Baldwin put the case for “progressive” patriotism well: he loved America more than any country in the world, and for that reason insisted on the right to criticize her perpetually. Trumpian patriots would have denounced Baldwin as a traitor.
The big temptation for the Democrats, now that they have won control of the House, is to make the most of what they see as their greatest strengths: racial and gender diversity, and a shared loathing of Trump. This would be a logical position. Trump is indeed dreadful, and the Democrats could legitimately claim that older, rural white men are less representative of America today than the young, the urban, the nonwhite, and newly empowered women.
And yet, to focus the Democratic agenda on Trump and diversity would be a mistake. There will be pressure, especially from younger Democrats, fired up by their success, to impeach the president. But as long as the Senate, which would have to convict him, is in Republican hands, an indictment by the House would be practically meaningless. Even if impeached, he would still be president, and Republicans would be inclined to defend him even more fiercely.
It is certainly a good thing to have more women and nonwhite, non-Christian representatives in the legislature. This provides a refreshing and necessary contrast to the Republican Party, which has remade itself in the image of its leader: angry, white, and often openly racist. But to fight Trump’s identity politics with an equally aggressive form of identity politics would make political tribalism worse, and could make it harder for the Democrats to win national elections.
There is always a danger that the Democrats will be divided, with younger radicals pitting themselves against the mostly white establishment. But the Republicans, who seem utterly united behind their leader, have a problem, too. The socially liberal, highly educated Republicans who used to be the backbone of the party have been pushed so far to the margins that they are almost invisible. John McCain was perhaps the last of those Mohicans.
The Democrats should capitalize on that. And the way to do it would be to put less stress on sexual, racial, or gender identity, and more on the economy. This might seem a naive strategy during an economic boom, when Republicans can boast of record-low unemployment. But even many traditional laissez-faire conservatives should recognize that a yawning divide between rich and poor is not good for business. Henry Ford, who was not a fount of wisdom on many matters, recognized that if you want to sell cars, you have to put enough money into people’s pockets so that they can buy them.
This, too, is an issue close to America’s conflicted soul. For some, American identity is based on red-blooded capitalist enterprise and rugged individualism, unhindered by excessive government regulation in the pursuit of material happiness. But for others, America stands on an ideal of greater social justice and economic equality – which nowadays should include a commitment to address climate change (a barely-discussed issue in the midterms), given that global warming will harm the poor more than the rich.
There have been boom times for the very wealthy, such as the Gilded Age in the late nineteenth century, when 2% of American households owned more than a third of the country’s wealth, or indeed our own time, when the top 1% owns almost half the wealth. And there have been periods of reform, when governments tried to redress the balance. The most famous example is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Concentrating on egalitarianism would appeal to liberals, of course, but it should not alienate moderate voters either, because more equality would be good for the economy. And it might even persuade some angry, poor Trump supporters to recognize that his pseudo-populism is not about helping the left-behind folks in Rust Belt cities and rural hinterlands. It is about giving even more money to the very few. The Democrats’ core message for the next two years should be that in a plutocracy, everyone else loses.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.